Not Mighty Yet: “New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes #1”

Unless you’re something of a comics historian, you probably can’t recall much about the Archie Comics imprint Red Circle Comics. It was briefly used in the ‘70s and ‘80s to launch (or relaunch) superhero titles like The Mighty Crusaders. The imprint was presumably created to distance the thunderous adventure stories from the publisher’s popular tales about a red-headed teenager and his pals. Plus, it gave the publisher a better chance at reestablishing several Golden Age characters that were introduced when the company was still called MLJ; costumed heroes like the Shield, the Fox, the Firefly, and Captain Flag. And, while you can’t blame Archie Comics for trying, the imprint didn’t really pan out.

Many Red Circle characters were licensed to DC in the early 1990s and again in 2009, but characters like the Black Hood, the Web and the Comet never became household names for comics readers. The titles didn’t even really achieve “cult classic” status.

However, readers are now getting another chance to experience a blast from the past since Archie’s attempting to give the Red Circle Comics imprint another go around. After debuting as a “digital first” series, the imprint’s new flagship title, New Crusaders is finally appearing in print. Sadly, the first issue of New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes doesn’t seem exciting or innovative enough to be the cornerstone of a successful line of Archie-owned superhero titles.

Written by the always-underrated Ian Flynn, with pencils by Ben Bates, the first issue is a grand experiment in continuity for a universe with such a rocky past. However, even for a reboot, it seems especially derivative and dull. Yes, it shows potential but, no, it doesn’t deliver.

There’s a phenomenal explosion on page one, but the action never ramps up to that point in the pages that follow. The Crusaders, quite literally, don’t seem so mighty anymore. Instead, the issue is full of doorbell ringing and friends making toasts. There are a lot of feigned introductions via small talk and touch football, all of which is about as exciting as it sounds. This is not the riveting material that you’d hope for after such a dramatic preliminary kablooey.

Flynn and company seem to be using the title as direct continuation of the Mighty Crusaders storyline that’s been going on, to some degree, since World War II. He certainly seems to respect the legacy of the superhero team that he’s been handed. What the average reader is left with though is the comicbook equivalent of watching Lost for the first time, say, in the middle of its fourth season. There’s a lot going on and you understand that you should probably care about the characters, but it’s too complicated and meaningless to be an effective entry point.

There are so many descriptors in word balloons to identify the 15 characters that appear on the first six pages. It’s overwhelming for exactly the wrong reasons. You’ll spend a lot of time reading things like “Ted Tyler. Retired police chief” and “Wyatt Raymond. John and Rose’s son.” Until the villain shows up, the dialogue frequently suffers with tedious lines like “Hey somebody laughed at one of my jokes! I don’t think I’ve seen you at one of our annual get-togethers before.”

These slow-moving scenarios in the issue do set up the “ordinary world” segment of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s famed hero’s journey quite well. Only they do it too well; it’s so ordinary it’s uninteresting. By the time the call to adventure is thrust on the swarm of good guys, those new to Red Circle might be left still feeling completely uninvolved in the tragic fate that seems to befall many of these characters.

The issue’s lead personality is a patriotically-dressed Golden Age superhero called the Shield. The Shield, or Shield as he’s referred to in the issue, easily predates the iconic Captain America by more than a year. Yet while he dates back to 1940’s Pep Comics #1, the same title that eventually introduced Archie Andrews, the Shield certainly hasn’t had Cap’s staying power or relevance. Perhaps that’s why Ben Bates’ design is strangely permitted to allow the hero’s look to vary quite a bit from his typical appearance; he’s much stockier here and with a pointedly different mask.

Issue #1 finds The Mighty Crusaders, a now-retired group of superheroes, gathering for a reunion to celebrate years of being completely successful in their battle against vanquishing evil. The storyline makes it clear that the heroes have settled down in a small town and raised children. After years of tranquility, and halfway through the book, the town is ravaged by the return of the evil (yet silly-looking) Brain Emperor. In no time, the antagonist seemingly destroys almost all of the middle-aged team members, leaving a husky, gray-haired version of the Shield behind to look after the teenage offspring of the original Mighty Crusaders. When combined with a cover that’s jam-packed with the youth demonstrating their powers and wearing flashy costumes, it’s painfully obvious what’s going to happen next. It’s an unmistakable setup for a series putting the teen heroes in the spotlight as the center of the Red Circle universe.

We’ve seen variations of this setup before with everything from the X-Men to the Young Avengers to the Young Justice TV series. So, it works, but it doesn’t give you a reason to gravitate toward the less familiar Shield and company and away from a similar titles.

Ben Bates’ art is adequate, but it looks juvenile which takes the weightiness out of some of the difficult circumstances that occur in the issue. The best action-oriented panels are, admirably, not unlike the design of the DC animated universe. However, more often that not, there’s nothing uniquely captivating or emotive about his penciled portrayals.

Ultimately, I’m a big enough believer in Flynn to know that worthwhile material is coming out of this New Crusaders series. I do find myself pondering who exactly the real primary audience is for a visually modest, adolescent-centered storyline that is, at the same time, a continuation of a multifaceted storyline that older generations of readers have been invested in since the Golden Age of Comics.

Even so, Flynn’s two great successes are, after all, Archie’s Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog, so the man knows how to build a complex, rewarding universe out of what could easily be mindless drivel. With Flynn at the helm, I think the title will pay off in the long run and bring young readers to the fold.

Still, when it comes to the relaunch of the Red Circle imprint, this crusade certainly got started off on the wrong foot. The unexceptional first impression of issue #1 may be enough to keep readers from sticking with the series long enough to see New Crusaders become mighty.

RATING 4 / 10