GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "D" Page 4

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District X: Mr. M 2005 (SC TPB) 148 pgs.

coverWritten by David Hine. Pencils by David Yardin, Lan Medina, Mike Perkins. Inkers various.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Mike Marts

Reprinting: District X #1-6 (2004) - with covers

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

District X reflects the experiments in mainstream (ie: super hero) comics that seems to arise from time-to-time as either an attempt to find a new spin on super heroes...or as an attempt to move away from super heroes, but with just enough super hero trappings to retain the familiar target audience.

In this case, District X spins out of the whole X-Men franchise (hence district...X), yet on the surface is really just a police drama. The premise is that there's a ghetto of New York that is largely inhabited by mutants -- not the cool mutants that become super heroes, but those with odd little abilities, or freakish appearances. And like any ethnic ghetto, there are those eking out honest livings...and there are mobsters and drug dealers and the like. Patrolling this beat falls to non-mutant officer Ismael Ortega who, as the series begins, is paired with a taciturn Fed, the mutant -- and ex-X-Man -- Bishop. Bishop is presumably there to give the series a recognizable "super hero" star -- though dressed in street clothes, with a shaved head, and with a bit of a non-personality, I'm not sure how recognizable he is (I'm not that familiar with Bishop from his X-Men days, so I can't judge).

The strength of such a hybrid series -- where it's sort of an X-Men/fantasy comic, and it's sort of a mean streets police drama -- is that it can be a fresh spin on both genres (or milieus). The weakness...is it basically just slightly tweaks cliched milieus. Even the idea of misfit mutants whose powers are more a hinderance than an attribute has been done before -- in X-Men comics themselves, or the Wild Cards book series. While police dramas are a dime a dozen.

As such, the result is a perfectly decent opening arc -- that doesn't maybe become much more. The core plot involves two rival mobsters, and a new street drug dubbed "Toad Juice". As an example of what I mean about how all these things have been done before is that the street drug is actually a byproduct of a mutant boy -- literally his sweat is a hallucinogen. Yet a similar idea was already used in the Hulk mini-series, Nightmerica. And, you know what? I wouldn't be at all surprised if writer David Hine was unfamiliar with Nightmerica -- it's just inevitable similar ideas will recur if you're working in similar milieus. Which is why it's how and what you do with story ideas is as important as the idea itself -- that's how you keep things fresh.

But though there's nothing especially wrong with the plotting in this story arc...there's nothing that particularly great about it. I know I'm a broken record, but these days there are just too many comic book storylines serialized over multiple issues (to justify the TPB collection) that don't really need or even warrant such a lengthy serialization. There aren't really a lot of plot threads or story twists. The intriguing aspect of this story arc is the title character -- Mr. M. He doesn't even appear until the second chapter, and seems a somewhat peripheral character...which is kind of what makes him intriguing (since the story arc is named after him, know he won't remain peripheral) with an effective character design as a gaunt introvert.

The lead characters of Bishop and Ortega are perfectly serviceable without actually gelling into personalities much. I don't know if that's just a weakness with the writing, or whether it's a problem with the "cinematic" style of modern comic book writing, where we don't get to flesh out heroes with thought balloons and text captions. Maybe if this was a screenplay, and real actors were saying the lines, the characters would have personalities by virtue of the actors' charisma. The series opens with Ortega's partner -- a bigoted, old school street cop -- getting injured in the line of duty, and with some other characters getting shot. Ortega ends up covering up the details of the shootings. But though this is sort of threaded along as a sub-plot...it never really becomes anything, not even as much of a character exploration. Though we can understand, even sympathize, with why Ortega does what he does, the fact is, he -- an officer of the law -- took it upon himself to conceal and misrepresent the circumstances of an incident. It would've been nice to get more exploration of that, and what it says about his character and how he views his position in the community.

The mob war stuff eventually builds to a kind of perfunctory climax, but by this point the Mr. M stuff has moved to the foreground. As well, we get some more delving into Ortega's family life (other than knowing his wife is a mutant, we really hadn't spent much time with his family previously). And we get some fleshing out of the personalities -- like explaining why his daughter wore a Che Guvera T-shirt, something I'd've thought unlikely given that police officers tend, I think, to be right wing. But it turns out his wife is the Castro sympathizer. This attempt to add some real world reality and political debate to fantasy mutants is nice -- Ortega points out oppressive Cuba has the highest per capita prison population in the world, while his wife points out the US has the second highest. The only problem with that is: that it's not technically true. Statistically the US has the highest per capita prison population in the world. The US state department or Amnesty International might argue it's hard to get accurate data on a regime like Cuba -- fair enough. But that still means writer Hine has one character quote a statistic, and the other basically make something up (or, at least, speculate) and present that as a legitimate argument. (Granted, Hine might've felt it would bog down the scene to have Ortega say: "While there's no verifiable documentation, non partisan human rights experts suspect Cuba's prison population is much larger than the government admits! So there!")

Still, there seems to be more stuff happening in the last couple of issues, in terms of plot twists and character development, than in the previous four, and it might have been wiser to have spread it out better.

The art throughout is very good, of a realist, straight forward style. It's effective, and tells the scenes well. I'll admit, it perhaps lacks a certain mood or atmosphere, something that might better evoke the feel of an urban slum. Still, it suits the milieu better than, say, cartoony or manga flavoured visuals would.

There are some cute ideas in District X, and its various mutant powers (like a mob henchman named Mr. Punch who got that name for a rather different reason than you might assume). There are also kind of odd bits, like the mutant street drug having a lethal effect on non-mutants, causing them to sprout root-like growths. Yet the series opens with Ortega and his partner coming upon a mutant with a similar ability -- without any indication there's a connection. So is it just that the artists like to draw roots?

Ultimately, this opening arc of District X is perfectly agreeable effort -- solid dialogue, and clean visuals, with a decent pacing. But at six chapters, writer Hine hasn't really come up with anything more than a generic mob war story, which doesn't really build to any clever or surprising climax, nor with many intriguing twists along the way. The heroes are likeable but fairly non-descript heroes, the villains pretty generic thugs. Mr. M is nicely enigmatic, though even his behaviour toward the end seems a bit like an abrupt plot twist, rather than a logical development of personality or themes.

It's a decent read. Nothing more, nor less.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$14.99 USA


DP7 Classic  2008 (SC TPB) 200 pages

Written by Mark Gruenwald. Pencils by Paul Ryan. Inks by Romeo Tanghal, and others.
Colours: Paul Becton. Letters: Phil Felix. Editor: Ralph Macchio.

Reprinting: D.P.7 #1-9

Rating: N/R (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

I haven't given this an "official" rating -- N/R = no rating -- because I haven't read the whole thing. I picked up a bagged set collecting issues #1-5, though, allowing me to offer some opinion on it.

When Marvel Comics launched its "New Universe" experiment, the notion was to take the heightened "realism" that had kick started the Marvel Age renaissance of the 1960s -- and take it to the next level. So there were no costumes, and there was supposed to be a greater attempt at asking: "what if people with super powers really existed?" The results were mixed, the New Universe line for a long time regarded as an ill-fated experiment -- or an ill-conceived act of hubris. Yet the better series, or the better ideas in the various series, really were ahead of their time and, indeed, still ahead of comics today. And the whole "New Universe" feel was applied lock, stock and barrel to the initially well-regarded Valiant Comics line that started a few years after (both were overseen by Jim Shooter) -- "super hero" comics, but without the costumes, and an emphasis on talky, character-driven scripts.

And clearly Marvel feels the old series had more going for them (and more fans) than you might think, and have released some TPB collections of the old series -- including Star Brand and Psi-Force.

D.P.7 follows a group of characters who begin manifesting unusual paranormal abilities which, though giving them super powers, also carry negative side effects that make them freaks and outcasts. They meet at a clinic established to help such "paranormals", but when they realize the clinic has a secret agenda, they escape, hitting the road together.

D.P.7 is a mix of plus and minuses (the title stands for "Displaced Paranormals"). The basic background can seem a bit vague. The heroes are supposed to be freaks, keeping their abilities secret from the world -- yet enough people have begun manifesting super powers that there's actually a publicly advertised clinic for them! The characters go on the run from the Clinic...but why they don't go to the authorities (or at least a lawyer) is kind of muddy. Even the "origin" of their abilities is mysterious. References are made to a "white event" (a white light in the sky), but since the New Universe comics were all part of the same universe, it's not clear how much you're supposed to know about that from reading other New Universe comics.

Where the series works is simply in the characters, their interaction, and exploring the pros and cons of their abilities. Some are "stock" powers -- like a speedster, but here given the twist that he can rarely slow down, vibrating even when standing still so that he appears as a blur, and needing to eat six or seven meals a day just to maintain his metabolism. Some are more atypical, like a woman who can affect traction. While some seem like established characters, like a guy who can release an anti-body version of himself ala the Doom Patrol's Negative Man.

Cleverly, some of the characters have abilities that can be useful in a group...but wouldn't be that interesting for a solo character, making for a loose "team" where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Scripter Mark Gruenwald throws together the diverse personalities -- most are decent people, but with different ideas and aspirations, none really wanting their new abilities, and their goal more survival than becoming civic minded do gooders. And because the New Universe was maybe supposed to be more realistic -- without actually being labelled "mature readers" -- it touches on ideas a lot of comics probably would've shied away from, such as religion in a sequence where, after feeling science has failed them, some consider trying an exorcism to eliminate their powers. One character even leads a prayer circle...while others are atheists.

Granted, Gruenwald's ear for dialogue can be clunky. This is particularly true in the first issue (a character being shot at thinks: "I'm afraid of guns!") but gets better as it goes, as he rounds out the personalities with a little more nuance. It isn't that I object to the need to spell out someone's motivation in a thought balloon...but even by the standards of the time, some of the dialogue is clumsy. At the same time, there are other, nicely believable exchanges.

The issues are crammed with a lot of small panels, a lot of verbose dialogue balloons. It's an adventure/thriller series, but it's also a character/human drama series, too. And I mean that in a good way.

There was a sense with some of the New Universe comics that the creators were rambling, unsure how to avoid being too "old school" (supervillains and jewel thieves) but not sure what "new school" entailed. So the first few issues just repetitiously deal with them on the run from super powered bounty hunters sent by the clinic (though nicely showing them learning how to use their powers). With the fourth issue, the series starts to break away from that -- with mixed results. One of the group is arrested in a small town on suspicions of being a monster responsible for some cattle mutilations. It provides a different plot...but relates to my earlier point about "realism". Gruenwald intends the townsfolk to be prejudicial and small minded -- but they arrest Dave just 'cause he's big, not because he was found near a dead cow or with anything on him that would connect him to the crime. I mean, what are they going to present to a judge by way of evidence? This isn't a small minded town...this is "Deliverance" country.

The art by Paul Ryan suits the tone of the series, straight forward with realist figures. It tells the story, even as it is undynamic. Like with some of the other New Universe series, and indeed the later Valiant Comics, there's a deliberate artistic choice to try an avoid the sense of superhero exaggeration and dynamism...but you could still go for the "realism" with a little more cinematic panache. Heck, in one scene a character remarks how dark it is -- but in the art and colour, there's little attempt to drape the scene in a nocturnal moodiness. Still, Ryan's realist style suits the scenes more than would a cartoony or exaggerated artist.

Despite some heavy handed exposition and a feeling the plots are struggling to decide what the series should be, D.P.7 works fairly well. The talky, character-driven sequences and interpersonal dynamics are compelling, getting you to turn the pages as easily as any dust up between arch foes. Gruenwald, who earlier wrote the equally revisionist (if more super hero-centric) Squadron Supreme does a nice job of coming up with the quirks to the abilities, to asking "if a real person could really do this...what would be the repercussions?" in a way that a lot of "realist/revisionist" comics in the years since have failed to do convincingly.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $24.95 USA. 



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