Three Fully Formed Concepts in First Issues

'The Maximortal', 'Deep Sleeper' and 'Rebel Blood'

by Matthew Derman

18 May 2015

The first time I read The Maximortal #1, I honestly believed it was a self-contained one-shot. Was I ever wrong.
From the cover of Rebel Blood by
Riley Rossmo and Alex Link (2012) 
cover art

Maximortal #1

Rick Veitch

(King Hell Press)
US:

The first time I read The Maximortal #1, I honestly believed it was a self-contained one-shot, and not the beginning of a mini-series. Looking back now, having read all seven issues, it’s clear that the debut brings up ideas that it does not resolve, and that it’s only the first meager step in the grand journey of the book, a simplified introduction to a complex world that creates important context for all that follows.

Even knowing this, that first issue remains impressively complete, if not narratively, then at least thematically. The tone, momentum, and goals of the series as a whole are all beautifully established in the opening chapter, so even if it’s not the full story, it’s still an exemplary beginning, able to build in its entirety the foundation upon which the rest of the title is constructed.

This seems like a no-brainer, like it should be what every first issue of every comic does, especially mini-series with their limited space. But it is sadly, strangely rare; many times a debut will simply set up the protagonist(s) and then end on the cliffhanger of the proper plot beginning, so that issue #2 can be where the narrative core is really revealed/explored. Sometimes it takes even longer than that, the beginnings of stories stretched into five-issue arcs that are dramatically decompressed and padded out with fluff.

With that in mind, I want to hold The Maximortal up next to two other books with first issues that stick in my memory because of their ability to deliver a fully-formed concept in only one issue: Deep Sleeper and Rebel Blood. Each of these accomplishes different things, and each title has its own focus and endgame, but all three stand out as comics that came into the world fully-formed, their key points established up top so the action of their respective stories have ample room to breathe.

There’s actually a lot in The Maximortal that’s not present in issue #1, particularly when it comes to the cast. The series is a deconstruction/ examination of the history and mythology of Superman, viewed through a Superman pastiche called True-Man. In True-Man’s world, he exists both as an actual living being, and as the star of a fictional superhero franchise that begins with two earnest young comicbook creators and ends with a greedy corporation that takes advantage of and rips off those creators to make True-Man into a multi-media phenomenon.

While all of this is happening, at the same time there is a real-world True-Man, an alien child who comes to Earth, has incredible powers, and uses them to fight evil while wearing brightly-colored, tight-fitting clothes. In the end, there’s a bit of time travel paradox magic wherein the real True-Man is inspired by the fictional True-Man to become a hero, but the fictional True-Man is also inspired by the existence of the real one, so that True-Man creates True-Man creates True-Man. It’s a commentary on the power of stories, the awful state of the mainstream comicbook industry, and the lasting importance of Superman as a character, all delivered with a twisted sense of humor and often intentionally discomforting visuals.

From Maximortal #1

From Maximortal #1

The Maximortal #1, however, is only the smallest first taste of what’s to come, and doesn’t feature the creators of the True-Man comic, the greedy corporation who screws them over, or even the name “True-Man” at all. Instead, the series begins with a semi-horrific reimagination of Superman’s origin story, a.k.a. True-Man’s actual origin story, and in doing so establishes the heart of the book without needing to dive into its more complicated plot mechanics yet. In this version, the couple who discovers the baby boy from space are a delusional religious woman named Meryl and her grumpy, failed prospector husband, George. They see what they think is a meteor crash to Earth, and when they go to investigate, the object cracks open and a child emerges. They name him Wesley and try to raise him as their son, but it soon becomes clear that Wesley is no ordinary kid. For one thing, he walks and talks right away, and more importantly and terrifyingly, he has superhuman strength and heat vision.

Things go south quickly for Meryl and George, who soon see their house completely destroyed, and then when George tries to contain Wesley, the child has a superpowered temper tantrum, jumping on George’s shoulders and forcing him through violence to do his bidding. This is where the first issue ends, with George carrying Wesley on his back into the unknown of the night, while Meryl is left behind praying for guidance. It’s bleak and darkly comedic, and it’s also an obvious retelling of the Superman’s own well-known origin, with young Clark transformed into an unstoppable menace and the Kents into his unfortunate, simple-minded victims.

Even with many of the major players missing, this issue serves as the perfect first beat for The Maximortal because it lets you know right away what, in a broad sense, the comic is all about. It’s going to pick apart each and every aspect of Superman and shine a new light on it in order to expose heretofore-unseen ugliness, and it opens, naturally enough, with the origin story. Everything that comes after stems from this, not just in a one-event-leads-to-another way, but also at the macro level where everything in The Maximortal is working together to present a comprehensive new view of Superman’s place in our hearts and our cultural history. The debut accomplishes this all on its own at a small scale, a completely realized mission statement contained in a single issue.

Deep Sleeper #1 is more mysterious about its ultimate aims than The Maximortal, but it still gives the readers everything necessary to plant themselves in the story and be carried through to the end. The series stars Cole Burns, a writer who is struggling to make ends meet and feeling the pressure of it because he’s got a wife and two children to help support. However, Cole soon learns that he has a tremendous amount of raw power within him, the ability to do incredible things while he’s in his dreams. It’s something akin to astral projection, where Cole can send his spirit from his body and exist in the world of dreams, a plane of reality in which a war is raging between other powerful figures that, expectedly enough, Cole gets pulled into.

From Deep Sleeper #1

From Deep Sleeper #1

Most of the book, then, is about Cole discovering his powers, mastering them, and then using them to defeat the various villains he meets along the way. In the debut, though, we get only teases of this, as its main objective is to introduce us to Cole himself and, most of all, to fill us with the same intense confusion and fear he feels. Throughout Deep Sleeper, the reader and Cole are experiencing and uncovering things together, so the first issue needs to make that possible by first placing us in Cole’s emotional position. From that shared starting point, we are ready to move forward with Cole, hesitant and horrified though he (and we) may be.

So in Deep Sleeper #1, we begin in the middle of a recurring nightmare of Cole’s, and then follow him through a typical morning, worrying with his wife about money and then trying to get some writing done. We even get to read (and see) the short story he writes that day, the tale of an overzealous general who tries to force a group of monks to join his army, only to have the monks turn the tables on him and literally take over his life.

Cole then heads into the city to deliver the story and get paid for it, only to discover the magazine he writes for has been shut down. Furious, scared, and unsure what to do next, he gets drawn into what looks like a hokey self-help seminar, but ends up being a ruse designed by the story’s villains to test the level of Cole’s power, luring him into the dream world and throwing some challenges his way. It’s an event which severely shakes Cole up and which he does not fully understand. The reader doesn’t entirely know what’s going on either, but we are given a bit more insight than our hero.

After Cole leaves, there is a scene of the bad guys talking amongst themselves, where we get a glimpse of their might and their cruelty, just enough to scare us without giving too much away. Then at the end of the issue, we return home with Cole, where he’s sitting on his roof, worn out by the day he’s had, crying and confessing to his wife that he’s afraid to sleep because he feels like he might go somewhere while sleeping and never make it back. After everything we’ve seen him go through up to that moment, his fear, crazy as it sounds, doesn’t seem impossible or even unreasonable. We are just as afraid for his safety while dreaming as he is, and that’s the point.

The issue makes us empathize strongly with Cole and want the same answers he’s after, so for the rest of the series, we can take his journey with him, going through it all as he does, always on the same page as he is. We may not know at the end of Deep Sleeper #1 where we are headed or why, but we have everything we need to make the trip and get the full experience.

Finally, there’s Rebel Blood #1, perhaps my favorite of these three first issues, and definitely my favorite of these three series. Rebel Blood is a comic that’s built around its twist ending (an ending I plan to spoil heavily below, so consider yourself warned). As such, the debut is most impressive once you’ve read the finalé and can see just how much the surprise resolution was set up initially without being ruined or exposed too early.

Plot-wise, Rebel Blood is crazy simple, basically just another zombie invasion story, but from the POV of one man, Chuck, as he tries to fight his way from an outpost in the woods to his home in the city, hoping to save the lives of his family and himself. For four issues, he battles tirelessly against the countless undead monsters he encounters, human and animal alike, until he ultimately does make it home, only to discover that nothing is wrong there.

In fact, there is no zombie invasion at all—the entire thing is a delusion Chuck is suffering from, the product of his already broken psyche coupled with a job that has him in near-total isolation all day. The “zombies” Chuck thought he was killing were alive and innocent, but because he refuses to see this truth even at the end, he dies, finally killed to prevent him from killing anyone else.

From Rebel Blood #1

From Rebel Blood #1

This reveal that the zombie threat is a figment of Chuck’s imagination doesn’t come until the final issue (#4), but Rebel Blood #1 firmly and unambiguously shows us Chuck’s general mental/emotional shakiness, as well as the undercurrent of rage he always carries within him. Chuck is a former firefighter who lost his job after a suicide attempt that he only barely (and unconvincingly) tried to make look like an accident. He then proceeded to silently, stoically sulk on his couch for what was probably months, until his wife left him and he decided he should maybe find some employment.

When we meet Chuck, he’s working as a forest fire lookout, spending his days alone in a tower in the woods waiting to see smoke and call in a warning. It’s fertile ground for Chuck’s depression, anger, and madness to spread, since he is all by himself in a remote location with nothing to do but pass his days thinking about the mistakes of his past and the apparent emptiness of his future.

When the fake zombie invasion begins (and the readers still assume it’s real) in Rebel Blood #1, Chuck immediately becomes a classic horror-action star, shotgun in one hand and axe in the other, blazing and slashing his way through zombiefied wolves and other creatures to try and get home. As he does this, we get cut scenes of his imagination, Chuck mentally running through a variety of possible scenarios: he makes it home, saves his family, and they live happily ever after; he gets home too late, his wife dies but his son survives, and he lives happily ever after with another woman; he gets home, fails to save anyone, and then uses the tragedy to become a successful singer-songwriter; and so on.

It’s a natural impulse in a moment of crises to try and run through all the possible outcomes, but Chuck isn’t grounding his future-tripping in any kind of reality. He’s casting himself in the role of hero, trying to figure out how to turn a zombie invasion into a better life for himself, seeing it as an opportunity more than the dangerous situation it is. This speaks to his craziness, and it lays the groundwork at what is to come without Rebel Blood needing to tip its hand.

We learn that Chuck is capable of tremendous leaps of imagination, and that he is ambivalent at best about whether or not he even wants his old life back, all in the context of his struggle against the zombies. When we then discover in the last issue that the zombies aren’t real, it makes for a powerful a-ha! moment where the reader can look back at the first issue and realize that we could (and maybe should) have known it all along. The hints are there from the start, but presented intelligently enough that they don’t spoil what’s on the horizon, they simply help justify it after the fact, making the conclusion feel inevitable but never predictable.

None of these three issues do exactly the same things as one another, because each series is its own entity, and there’s no one right way to do a good first issue. What they have in common is that they know what they want to be, where they want to go, and how they want to get there right away, and they are all therefore able to give the readers full, rich, perfect introductions to the narratives that are about to unfold.


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