Batman. Superman. Wonder Woman. Spider-Man. The Incredible Hulk. These are some of the most popular characters of the comic book. Over the last 60-plus years, these and others have become cultural icons, symbols of social and personal ideals, values, and conflicts. They have vast mythologies, studied by the most hardcore, but familiar to almost anyone.
Along the way to taking their places in the modern collective unconscious, these characters became something else. They became products. No longer just abstract, fictional people in a story, comic book characters are licenses to be bought, sold, marketed, and exploited. As the recent boom in comic book-based films has demonstrated, these characters are part of a vast, money-making industry.
When characters are maintained as brand names, they lose a certain value as players in a narrative. The elements of drama, tension, and surprise disappear from the story, because the character’s image and marketability is more important than telling a compelling tale. Spider-Man will always end up triumphing, no matter how tough the odds. Superman died, but he just ended up coming back, and things are arguably just the same now as before. Brian Michael Bendis’ work on Daredevil is the best writing that title has seen in a decade, but because Marvel own’s the character, and not Bendis, there’s always the lurking feeling that when he is gone, Marvel will just reset everything back to the status quo.
So it is refreshing that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have decided to buck the system with their new series 21 Down. It is the story of Preston Kills, a young man with the power to “read” people’s deaths. Granted this power as a child by the mysterious “Herod”, the unfortunate side-effect is that Preston has forseen his own death on the day of his rapidly approaching 21st birthday. Hooking up with a beautiful and enigmatic FBI agent named Mickey Rinaldi, Preston reluctantly sets out to find out just why he, and others like him, have been granted powers, only to be doomed with a short lifespan.
With this built-in obsolescence, Palmiotti and Gray can take liberties that other books rarely like to take. They can make every issue really matter. There really isn’t any such thing as “filler” in this story, as every event, whether small or large, is in service of the greater story, a story which has a definite end. They can kill off characters. The characters serve the story, not the other way around. No one is safe, which brings an element of tension missing from so many other titles.
Ironically, while Palmiotti and Gray subvert the standard of the comic book serial, they adopt the standard of another serial format: the television show. Each issue plays out more like an episode of X-Files or 24 than Spider-Man. Unlike the current trend to have comics divided into multi-issue story arcs, 21 Down works like 22 page mini-dramas, monthly episodes that are all part of some greater story, a mystery in need of solving.
Of course, 21 Down has its problems, like its companions in both the worlds of television and comics. At times the logic of the story seems to lapse. Why is Preston only at the age of 20 deciding to look up information on his condition on the internet? Why is Mickey so oversexed? Sometimes things just seem to wrap up too quickly, but it feels more like a limitation due to space than any problem with the writing.
Despite any problems, Palmiotti and Gray write an interesting and entertaining series. It’s a story about superheroes without many of the usual trappings, like spandex and dastardly villains out for world domination, that turn-off the non-comics mainstream. Instead, it taps into a common emotion of teenage angst and frustration, and does so in a reader-friendly format, one that should, and hopefully will, attract both the core comics readership and new readers as well.
Note: 21 Down: The Conduit collects seven of the 12 issues in 21 Down first volume. Volume Two will be released as part of DC’s mature readers “Eye of the Storm” imprint in 2004.