Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

04 February 2011

X-Men / SWORD: No Time to Breathe

Collects: SWORD #1-5 (2010)

Released: June 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 128 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785140764

What is this?: Abigail Brand runs SWORD, an organization on a station floating high above the Earth to keep the planet safe from aliens (and aliens safe from Earth).

The culprits: Writer Kieron Gillen and penciler Steve Sanders

X-Men / SWORD: No Time to Breathe was a last minute fill in for this week’s review. After my local library / librarian left me in the lurch, I looked through my reading list and selected SWORD to fill in the gap.

I had no recollection of ever reading any of writer Kieron Gillen’s other work, but after consulting my records, I remembered having previously enjoyed his work in the smashup TPB Dark Avengers: Ares. Gillen wrote the three-issue Dark Avengers: Ares miniseries, and I had been impressed by both the book’s violence and mythological feel and the characters’ depth and psychopathy.

X-Men / SWORD: No Time to Breathe coverSWORD is also a violent book, but not in the same way as Ares. Whereas Ares was the violence of war and the men who can’t keep themselves from fighting, SWORD’s violence is expressed as an action-filled space opera. There are coups, a bounty hunter, counterrevolutions, abductions, a fire-breathing space dragon, attempted genocides, battles for a space station, eye trauma, prison breaks, and several cases of explosive decompression, along with a few standard superhero type fights. Add that to a thief, romance, hard drinking (the dragon again), a ne’er-do-well brother, and a sense of humor that manages to fill the little space not devoted to the plot, and it becomes obvious No Time to Breathe is not just a subtitle but a warning to readers: this plot moves at a near-relativistic pace, and you better be ready for it.

Yes, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but there really are four different plot threads unspooling through SWORD, and there’s not enough time slow the pace. It becomes a little offputting when read all at once, although I can imagine that in monthly form it was a treat. This is certainly no decompression-fest,53 and the humor gives Gillen a chance to put some distractions into the story, if not giving readers a break from the pace.

Gillen’s characters are fun, and he has the advantage of being having mostly a blank slate. Beast, of course, has almost a half century behind him, but if you remember he’s light hearted, smart, athletic, and a decent scientist (by Marvel standards), you’ll be OK. (There was a reason he was one of Scott Lobdell’s favorites when he wrote X-Men.) Agent Brand hadn’t been established as much more than a half-alien hardass, and Lockheed … well, this isn’t quite the Lockheed we’ve read about before, with the alien dragon suffering from depression at the loss of Kitty Pryde. Death’s Head has a history in the Marvel Universe, but since he appeared mostly in Transformers and Marvel UK, most readers don’t know it. And Henry Peter Gyrich is a bureaucratic butthead. …

… OK, most of the lead cast is established to some degree. Most of the rest are one-note aliens or SWORD staffers. However, there is one standout character: Unit, a robot that SWORD keeps locked up as if he were a cybernetic version of Hannibal Lecter. He seems to have those sort of deep insights that Lecter had into his jailers, even the ones he hasn’t met. Unit is kept locked up under the most stringent conditions SWORD has; he’s the product of a civilization that wanted to make the universe perfect and were willing to do awful things to achieve the goal. Unit’s creators have been destroyed, but Unit is still playing a long game to finish his creators’ plan. And that’s what’s creepy about Unit; his insights are annoying, but his ability to look dozens of steps ahead to wait for and create the perfect chance to accomplish what his creators could not is chilling.

I haven’t read anything by penciler Steven Sanders, but I enjoyed his work in SWORD. It took me a while to get used to his Agent Brand — the sunglasses were not quite what I was used to, and she was a bit top heavy — and the new post-Grant Morrison design of the Beast always strikes me as wrong (as it does cover artist John Cassaday — the shape of the Beast’s skull on the cover looks nothing like it does in the interior artwork, where it more closely resembles the many long-faced aliens). But I got used it, and by the end, I had to admit it was a neat trick for Sanders to match the plot’s extremely brisk pace and Gillen’s sense of humor.

It’s a shame that SWORD didn’t last longer, although it’s not a surprise. The TPB tries to weld “X-Men” onto the title, but it’s not an X-book — yes, Beast is a lead / supporting character in the book, as is Kitty Pryde’s dragon Lockheed, and Cyclops, Emma Frost, Warlock, and what I believe is Doug Ramsey make cameos, but that’s not enough. It’s a book with a sense of humor and a largely unknown cast of characters set outside New York / major team books’ circle, written by a man best known for an indy / non-superhero book (Phonogram) and penciled by an artist without much name recognition. Yes, Gillen has become a major writer for Marvel — his Thor run was roughly concurrent with SWORD’s run, and now he’s writing Generation Hope and Uncanny X-Men — but at the time, this was a recipe for low sales and early cancellation. And that’s exactly what happened.

Rating: X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol Half X-Men symbol (4.5 of 5)

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