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While DC reboots their entire universe to bring in new readers, and Marvel continually announces their “Next Big Thing”, it seems that superhero comic books have remained relatively stagnant for years. Marvel will kill off a character, or have a new character inherit a hero’s mantle, but everyone knows it’s a matter of time before the status quo is returned. DC is owned by Warner Brothers, Marvel by Disney, both large corporations with a bottom line to meet. Superhero comics, at least from the big two publishers, have to by definition “play it safe”.
This is why it is so refreshing to see independent and alternative takes on the superhero genre that play with the tropes in a way that isn’t safe–the grandaddy of them all being Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
I couldn’t help but think of Watchmen as I read Discord, the graphic novel from writer Paul J. Salamoff (Logan’s Run: Last Day) and artist Giuseppe D’Elia (Lazarus Ledd).
Discord introduces us to a world immediately familiar to fans of superhero comics. The first pages introduce the superheroes of Team War Hammer fighting their old enemy Sinew. Salamoff’s writing immediately let me know that, though these are all original characters, I knew this team. They are the Justice League of America, they are the Avengers. In seven, action-packed pages the characters were introduced and I was comfortable in this world. And once it is established that this is a reality that easily parallels that of the DC or Marvel universes, Salamoff shakes it up by killing all the heroes in a ship crash.
Strange aliens reconstruct the dismembered body parts into a single being. This revived hero has the mind of Chromatic, Team War Hammer’s second-in-command, but the body is a mish-mash of parts. Each of Chromatic’s limbs are from a different person killed in the crash, including one of Sinew’s tendril-like arms.
Upon returning to earth, Chromatic must try to come to terms with his new body parts, his new powers, and even his new half-feminine face. Matters are complicated when Chromatic’s girlfriend, Team War Hammer leader Moiré, has trouble coping. In addition to Chromatic’s new body, according to all medical scans he is still deceased–the flying dead. Further, some superheroes aren’t exactly happy to see the involuntary organ donations made by deceased War Hammer members.
While the graphic novel has the exciting fight scenes that are the hallmark of superhero comics, the focus of the story is emotional and character-driven. That is why Watchmen came to mind–I haven’t seen such a maudlin depiction of superheroes since Alan Moore’s deconstruction of their mental issues and sexual hang-ups. This makes Discord an engaging and entertaining read.
Salamoff’s story is aided greatly by D’Elia’s visuals. His art maintains a consistent feel throughout, but changes tones and hues based on the emotional state of our main character. Every panel helps to sell the emotional state of Chromatic. D’Elia is equally able to draw tender, quiet scenes as well as large, detailed battles. From alien worlds to city streets, his art was always beautiful in service of the story.
Additionally, Chromatic’s make-shift body could easily have been done as a knock-off of Marvel villain Super-Skrull–with each limb representing a different person, a different power. It is a real risk the story took, and it’s on D’Elia to drive that silly comparative from our minds. He does so superbly. Instead of Super-Skrull, the art of remade Chromatic reminded me of John Carpenter’s The Thing–an organic creature shifting itself in ways nature never intended. Instead of comical, D’Elia sells it as grotesque and tragic, which is a true achievement.
Unfortunately the plot’s resolution is not as satisfying as its build-up. Salamoff takes on an ambitious tale, but this story required more room to breathe. The graphic novel is broken into four chapters. The first three chapters are each the length of a comic book, and the fourth is “super-sized” with 10 extra pages. With this little space in which to play, Salamoff introduces a few characters too many. Major developments to Chromatic’s mental state hinge on minor characters that were not clearly set-up or introduced. It seems like too much is taken on for a single graphic novel. I understand and completely respect Salamoff’s desire to tell the full story, not holding back for a sequel which may never come. But it seems like too much is taken on–some of the subplots would have been better saved for a future tale of our hero.
I also feel the story has one villain too many. Opening baddie Sinew becomes a part of Chromatic, but then a new threat emerges late in the book. This new threat never felt organic to the story. While it made sense for this new enemy to be part of the universe Salamoff has created, he seems to forget that this universe is familiar to us but we really don’t know these characters. More, Chromatic never seemed to have any specific problems that part of his body was made up of an old enemy. This could have been changed to make the story tighter and work in the space allotted.
But these pacing problems never detracted from the story’s heart, and that is the concept of what defines a person. In addition to tweaking the superhero genre, the story provokes the real-world analogue of the new face-transplant surgery doctors have successfully tested, and the psychological effects on the patients who don’t recognize the face in the mirror. These concepts are some that linger on, long after I’ve put down the graphic novel.
For anyone who, like me, was raised on a diet of comic book superheroes, I recommend Discord — a new look at the superhero genre.
Discord will be in stores Wednesday, Sept 14th.
Paul J. Salamoff will be holding signings of Discord in the Los Angeles area. Check his website for specific dates and locations.