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

29 July 2011

Will Supervillains Be on the Final?

Collects: OGN

Released: April 2011 (Del Rey)

Format: 192 pages / black and white / $10.99 / ISBN: 9780345516565

What is this?: Teenage girl goes to high school for superheroes, feeling outclassed, while machinations go on in the background.

The culprits: Writer Naomi Novik and artist Yishan Li

I usually don’t review original graphic novels — not out of any prejudice but because so few of them are released by Marvel and DC. I don’t generally review books published by companies other than Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, or Image. And I almost never read manga, whether translated from the Japanese or originally in the English language.

So Will Supervillains Be on the Final? is an unusual choice for me. If I hadn't received a free copy from Suvudu,59 I wouldn’t have read the book. Oh, I’d heard of it, and I was slightly intrigued at the concept — new student in a superhero school — but my stylistic preferences (read: no manga, please) and being a bit of a Marvel zombie meant I wasn’t going to make the effort to read it. But then again, free book. So here we are.

Will Supervillains Be on the Final? coverThis original English language manga is written by Naomi Novik, the author behind the popular Temeraire books. I haven’t read any of that series, so I had no prejudices toward Novik coming into this — except for the usual fear of prose writers being unable to adapt to the graphic format. But that’s not a problem here. Novik has no trouble with the pacing for this book, the first in the Liberty Vocational series, and the dialogue and action feel as natural as if Novik had been in comics for a while. (Well, most of the dialogue; there are times when a lack of contractions makes the dialogue seem like it has been translated.)

Supervillains follows Leah Taymore, a girl who has just enrolled at a very young age in Liberty Vocational, a school for superheroes-in-training. Although quite powerful, she doesn’t have fine control of her matter transmutation powers, nor does she have the judgment to use them properly. Of course, this gets her into trouble, and it doesn’t help that someone is actively trying to get her to use her powers rashly. This being a book set in a high school, there are the requisite crushes, pining, and embarrassing emotional moments. Standard stuff, really; some of the humiliation Leah undergoes is imaginative, although the first incident hinges on circumstances that could easily have been unwittingly avoided.

There are other characters — the best friend, the crush, the strict teacher / principle / headmaster, etc. — that you’re going to find in any high school story, graphic or not, American or English or Japanese or, for all I know, Samoan or Malagasy. But the characters that stand out are Alexander Bane, a supervillain who is teaching at Liberty under the name Alexander Locke,60 and his secret son, Jeremy. In his backstory, Bane wasn’t very successful as a typical confrontational supervillain, but at Liberty, he’s excellent. With the help of his son, he engineers catastrophes, and on his own, he masterfully manipulates the emotions of his former archenemy (now Liberty councilor), Calvin Washington, and asks the headmaster on a date. He’s smooth, cheerful, and clearly up to something “for the greater good” — and he’s not averse to putting hundreds or thousands of people in harm’s way while doing it. Jeremy, as a typical teenager, is of course less than enthusiastic about some of the things he’s doing, but he’s effective at it.

(Paul, Leah’s romantic interest, has an interesting power, which seems to be producing completely mundane objects that are exactly what is needed for a certain situation: a ladder to get a cat out of a tree, plumber’s compound to stop a leak, a rowboat in a flood, etc. I’m not sure I’ve seen this power before, so I’m impressed by its inclusion. It’s a power I would want to have in real life, and how useful it is in superheroics would be interesting to see.)

Yuzana, Leah’s best friend, is an empath, and that power gives Novik (or the characters) all sort of problems. An empath reads the emotions of others but isn’t a telepath, which Yuzana helpfully exposits; however, Yuzana is accused of eavesdropping when she uses her powers casually (like a telepath is), and there are times when it seems she’s picking up on thoughts rather than emotions. Either Yuzana is extremely good at linking emotions to specific thoughts, or Novik isn’t quite getting across what empathy does in the world of Liberty Vocational.

The art is by Yishan Li. I really don’t have much to say about her art style, other than it is obviously in a manga style, complete with the frequent exaggerated, cartoony emotional moments that go with the style. Her line is a bit heavier than most manga I have seen, and I appreciate that; however, I don’t really like manga art, especially since my brain seems inadequate in picking up details that its occasionally minimal style is supposed to convey. For instance, the only difference I could see between Paul and Jeremy was their hair color, which isn’t always evident. On the other hand, I really liked the few scenes with Calvin Washington, whose dreadlock style somehow worked well.

But that’s just my preference; de gustibus non est disputandum, after all, and it does tell the story. More worrying, however, is the copyright to the art. The indicia attributes the art to Li but assigns the copyright for the art to “Temeraire LLC.” If you were paying attention, you remember that that was the name of Novik’s best-known series, and it’s improbable that Li has any ownership stake in Temeraire LLC. This makes Li’s work, most likely, work for hire. I don’t really blink about Marvel or DC owning almost all of what they publish because, well, it’s always been that way, and in a gigantic shared universe spanning more than half a century, it’s the easiest way to sort things out legally. But one creative type shafting another out of ownership … that doesn’t sit right with me.

There’s nothing offensive or egregiously wrong with Will Supervillains Be on the Final? Unfortunately, the compelling bits are a little thin as well. Alexander Bane is the one reason I would keep reading this series, and I don’t think that’s enough to get me to come back.

Unless someone wants to send me another free copy. Suvudu? Del Rey? Anyone?

Rating: Temeraire symbol Temeraire symbol Temeraire symbol (3 of 5)

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