Thursday, July 14, 2011

Trade Grade - Magog: Lethal Force.

Magog: Lethal Force
Written by Keith Giffen
Illustrated by Howard Porter
Original series cover art by Glenn Fabry

Published by DC Comics

So. Magog. Of all the characters to grace TCD with their presence, I imagine the more savvy among you are left scratching your heads. Don't I tend to prefer comics featuring A) Monkeys, B) Jetpacks, or C) See A and B? Or at the very least protagonists who tend to be more traditionally heroic? Why would I, resident flag-waver of all things Silver Age be talking about a character who doesn't fit that mold? Therein hangs a tale. Stick with me and we'll walk and talk about it.

First, a bit of backstory. The character of Magog was originally created by Mark Waid and Alex Ross for their epic mini-series Kingdom Come. If you haven't read it (and shame on you, as it's one of the best DC Comics around, better even than Watchmen in my humblest of opinions), I won't spoil it for you but the essential theme is that of old-school superheroes returning to impart their high ideals to a new generation that has fallen from grace. The old school is exemplified by Superman, returning from a self-imposed exile and the new by heroes like Magog, who tend to embody the 'shoot first, ask questions at some point afterward' school of thought. Kingdom Come was released in the 1990s, agreed by many to be a darker age for the superhero genre, and Magog's design took it's cues from some of the more excessive of the '90s breed of antiheroes. It was a cool design, and the character's arc in Kingdom Come is an intriguing one. But given that this was a self-contained 'Elseworlds' story and not in canon, the character had no real presence in the DC universe proper. Never one to let an idea go to waste, Geoff Johns brought the character back in the pages of the Justice Society of America during his tenure as the book's writer. DC Comics then launched the character into his own ongoing title, the first volume of which we'll be discussing here.

Lance Corporal David Reid is a marine injured in combat who finds himself returned from near-death by a mysterious being calling itself Gog. Gog restores Reid to full health and bestows upon him inhuman strength, resilience, and the ability to fire energy blasts through a near-indestructible trident. Dubbed Magog by his patron, Reid initially works with the entity in its plans to create its vision of a better world, but when this plan turns out to be largely for Gog's own parasitic benefit rather than the world entire, Magog turns on his master and puts Gog down. Taken in by the Justice Society (as much to keep tabs on him as to help him), Reid works with them as their resident wild card. The trade opens with Reid investigating stolen 'Wonder-tech' (super-science devices) in the wilds of Sudan. It will eventually lead him through byzantine corridors of the criminal underworld and into realms he never dreamed existed, as the scope of the power he's been given is slowly revealed to him. When the trail leads to the warden of a superhuman detention center called Haven, Magog finds himself facing down not only a rogue group of super-scientists with the latest in high-tech hardware, but the warden's own trump card, the Justice Society itself. Add to that the arrival of Magog's godlike 'family' from the otherdimensional realm of Albion and you find that sometimes even being the resident badass can't save you from one of those kind of days.

I picked this book up for a number of reasons, first and foremost to step outside my comfort zone. I'm a 'rocketpacks and ray-guns' Silver/Bronze Age kind of reader. I make no bones about my desire that a superhero comic should be a place of escapist fun, not sturm und drang That said, I do enjoy the odd book that steps outside those traditional boundaries (Watchmen, Black Summer, The Authority, etc) and I did remember liking the character of Magog from Kingdom Come. Knowing the book was in the hands of talent like Keith Giffen and Howard Porter did a lot to ease my mind as well. Giffen's been a writer of some seriously fun comics (his recent work on The Doom Patrol alone is something I plan on discussing at a later date) and Howard Porter is an artist whose work I've enjoyed since his definitive run on DC's premier super-team with Grant Morrison in the pages of JLA. I figured if I was going to venture once more into darker territory, I'd be in good hands. The result is a surprisingly enjoyable read.

Giffen and Porter take a character who was essentially a one-shot wonder and make him--if not likable--then understandable at any rate. Magog is a hard man, one that won't hesitate to put a bad guy in the ground if he can get away with it, but listening to him talk about how if only the so-called 'superheroes' would get together and get into things like the Sudan or Afghanistan or Haiti or Colombia they could probably clean them up in five seconds, you can appreciate his point even if you don't agree with it. It's also interesting to explore the dynamic of a character that while a member of a team, is by no means a team player. Reid treats his JSA membership as more a necessary evil than any sort of higher calling, and knows that eventually his ways and theirs will part, so he might as well make the most of it while it lasts. He respects a few of them, but looks upon them as well-meaning but inept.

A problem with making a book about a brooding antihero/loner is that it doesn't allow much room for a supporting cast. Giffen provides Reid with an old friend from the marine corps who provides technical support, like a good ol' boy version of Batman's Oracle. There's a sub-plot featuring Reid training an abused woman self-defense for use on her husband, but that's about it.

Porter's artwork is in fine form, capturing both the power and the horror of Magog in some pieces, depicting action shots and the brutal efficiency of the hero's fighting style in detail that brushes up against the border of taste but never crosses the line. It's a bit of a grittier style than his JLA work, but it's one that fits the title character. The choice of Glenn Fabry for cover artist when the series was out I have to question however. Don't get me wrong, Fabry is great when you want an urban fantasy like Preacher or Hellblazer, but why deny Porter the chance to do covers? I can't help but feel the choice was a misstep, if a well-intentioned one.

Much like The Shield before it, Magog was a book brought low by poor sales, not getting past twelve issues before it was cancelled. Lethal Force collects the first five issues and ends on a cliffhanger, but it's unlikely we'll ever see the second half of the series in a collected edition. I find it odd that the series would fail, given the predilection of darker storylines and characters in contemporary superhero comics. While it's a series cut short, it's nevertheless an entertaining exploration of some of the nastier corners of the DC universe and while Magog as a character isn't a moral paragon by any stretch of the imagination, you do get a feel for his character and come to relate to him. It's fairly self-contained, doesn't require 70+ years of backstory, and stands on it's own as a superhero story shot through a dark prism. If you're up for something off the beaten path, check it out.


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