[30 January 2014]
The first arc of Matt Kindt and Doug Braithwaite’s Unity is founded on two classic superhero comicbook occurrences: the team-up and the hero-vs-hero battle. It also includes several instances of characters describing how their powers function, a major event that changes the status quo of the fictional universe, and villains who believe they are doing the right thing when in fact they’re just megalomaniacally abusing their power—all of which are well-worn tropes of the genre. So why doesn’t the series feel tired, familiar, or predictable? Its opening narrative may not have boiled my brain with its innovation, but it sure never lost my interest, either. With a layer of political tension on top of everything, and the overall feel of a war story rather than a typical superhero adventure, Unity manages to spruce up some old standards quite nicely.
Right away, the threat of this comic is a little more real-world than usual for superhero stories. Yes, the problem originates with Aric, a.k.a. X-O Manowar, invading Romania in his suit of superpowered alien armor and establishing it as a new home/kingdom for his people. But the true danger isn’t necessarily Aric himself as much as it is Russia’s planned nuclear attack on Aric, and his inevitably destructive reaction to that attack. Yes, he’s an unwelcome and highly dangerous force that needs to be dealt with, but for the rest of the cast, the urgency of dealing with him has more to do with avoiding an atomic disaster than defeating another bad guy.
The super-people who band together to take Aric down are all characters from other Valiant Comics titles, ostensibly making Unity something of a Justice League or Avengers type book for the publisher, except that the stars of Unity aren’t exactly heroes. Toyo Harada is, in fact, the primary villain of Harbinger, and though Eternal Warrior star Gilad is a good guy now, he began as an antagonist in the pages of Archer & Armstrong. Ninjak is somewhat morally ambiguous, a spy and assassin for the British government. Finally, there’s Livewire, who has a good heart, but her head is all turned around thanks to years of loyal subservience to Harada, which she is only now beginning to shake off. There isn’t a truly spotless record in the bunch, so as far as superhero teams go, I’m not sure how heroic this group really is. They’ve got a great deal of power between them, though, and the moves to back all of it up.
There’s a lot of smart tactical dialogue in the book, both before and during the big fight with Aric. It’s one of the things that makes Unity read like a war story, and it’s also how Kindt manages to have his characters explain their abilities without it seeming like forced exposition. When they detail how their powers work, it’s because they are trying to figure out for themselves how to survive or win the conflict. They aren’t bragging about what they can do for no reason, or talking through every single move they make just to fill the air with speech bubbles and hold the reader’s hand. When their actions are able to speak for themselves, they do, and the only time anything is explained out loud is when it’s genuinely necessary. This is true even in cases like when Ninjak is internally narrating about how all of his high-tech equipment works, allowing him to infiltrate the spaceship that is Aric’s home base and, later, stay alive when fighting Aric one-on-one. In the moment, Ninjak would necessarily be thinking through how his gear operates and what he needs to do with it next, so letting the reader in on that thought process makes sense, on top of helping us understand what we’re seeing. Kindt chooses his spots wisely for these moments of character exposition, using them for more than just dryly delivering information.
Mixed in with the discussions of what everyone is capable of are several more general strategic conversations. Harada and Gilad are both incredibly gifted and experienced warriors and, by extension, talented tacticians, so their individual assessments of the current and future situation with Aric are something they talk about/debate quite often. Harada is a little more arrogant and therefore less cautious than Gilad, but neither of them are as full of themselves as Aric, which is how they win in the end. Aric is a man with an immensely powerful weapon (his armor) that he does not fully understand or even control. So despite fighting on his home turf and, arguably, being the mightiest single person on the battlefield, Aric is so in over his head on a strategic level that he loses pretty quickly and completely. As it’s happening, Gilad and Ninjak try to explain to Aric why he’s going to lose, not because he’s been overpowered but, instead, because he’s been outsmarted and outdone. With enemies coming at him from all sides, all of whom fight with more planning and precision than he could probably ever pull off, Aric never really stands a chance. He gets his licks in, sure, but the writing is on the wall for him as soon as Harada, Ninjak, Gilad, and (most importantly) Livewire agree to work together.
That’s actually another way in which Unity does something outside the norm. More often than not, it is the superheroes who seem as though they have no hope of victory, fighting a villain who is either so powerful, so well-prepared, or both that nobody can conceive of a way to beat them. This dynamic will typically last until the story’s final moments when, miraculously, the good guys figure out some sort of last-second move to come out on top. In Unity, the first arc took only three issues, so there wasn’t that much time for the protagonists to be on the ropes. The first issue, logically enough, was all about introducing the cast and putting together the main team. Aric is then basically beaten by the end of the second issue, and the third deals with the fallout of his defeat. That’s an unusual structure, and it’s built around a super-team who’re fighting a threat that they’re more than qualified to handle, which is counter to what’s expected.
Even after Aric is defeated, the resolution of the storyline throws a few curveballs. The traditional conclusion to a story where a group of heroes is hurriedly assembled to battle a specific threat is that they decide to stick together as an official team once that threat is neutralized, having learned respect for and trust in one another through their shared struggles. But like I said before, the heroes in this book aren’t that heroic, and no sooner is Aric put down then Harada rises up as a new villain for the rest of the characters to tackle. The most important aspect of the group’s victory over Aric is that Livewire is able to take control of his armor through her technology-based powers. By removing his only real weapon, Livewire renders Aric largely impotent, but that doesn’t solve the core problem of the armor’s existence. No matter who its owner is at any moment, it’s an advanced and dangerous an item that nobody fully understands. On this point, everyone can pretty much agree, but trouble brews when Harada decides, on behalf of the rest of humanity, that he is the person who should be trusted to guard Aric’s armor. His teammates are just as uncomfortable with that as they were when Aric had it, because Harada’s a selfish narcissist who can’t be trusted or even reasoned with. Rather than openly defy Harada and jump right into another major conflict, though, Livewire hands over the armor at first and lets Harada lock it away as he wants. But she also immediately begins to secretly organize the rest of the team to go after Harada like the out-of-control force of evil he is. That’s where we’re left at the end of Unity #3, with Livewire, Gilad, and Ninjak gearing up to take on Harada, a team at odds with itself almost as soon as it’s formed. It’s not the route most such comics take, and it adds a dash of irony to the title of this particular series. Though there’s still a sense of unity amongst some of the characters, there is at the same time a splintering between them, making the future of the book unclear, since it’s not even obvious yet who’s staying in the cast for how long.
While the story obviously bucks trends in many ways, Doug Braithwaite’s art is also doing some standout, atypical stuff. He finds a lovely spot of common ground between pop superhero cartoonism and heavily-detailed realism. His characters are physically perfect, unnaturally fit and/or healthy and/or strong, but without their features being inflated or exaggerated to the point of becoming unbelievable. They are superhuman but in very human ways, not coming across as larger than life but, instead, looking more like life amplified. When flying through the air or firing brilliant beams of light and energy, they seem totally at-ease, but long and emotionally tense conversation scenes are no less interesting or natural. Livewire looks fine in her spandex costume next to Gilad in his tattered cloak next to Ninjak in his ninja outfit next to Harada in a business suit next to Aric in futuristic full-body armor. It all works in this world, and somehow everyone looks just as comfortable in a conference room as they do in the heat of battle on an alien spaceship. The superhero, sci-fi, and political thriller elements coalesce beautifully in Braithwaite’s hands, producing a unique, unified reality that has room for them all. Flipping through any issue, Unity is instantly recognizable as a superhero comic, full of high-powered action and incredible powers and all the usual trappings. Yet at the same time, it looks unlike any other superhero book on the stands right now, because Braithwaite has a much more grounded, grizzled, rough-around-the-edges style that distinguishes his work from that of his contemporaries, and makes it even easier for this series swerve expectations in its story.
Unity is still a relatively new title, so it’s too soon to tell whether or not it’ll always be the team book that doesn’t act like a team book. That may or may not have been an intentional choice for the opening arc, and even if it was, there’s no reason to expect the series to behave that way in perpetuity. It’d be great if that was the plan, but if not, that’s fine and perfectly understandable, since incessantly pushing back against the norms of the genre could potentially grow tiresome for creators and readers alike. No matter what the future holds, this initial arc is always going to be what it is now, a fun and fresh approach to many old school superhero storytelling tricks.
Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.