MINI-SERIES REVIEWS...

cover #1L.A.W.: Living Asault Weapons

(2000 - six issues, DC Comics)

Written by Bob Layton. Pencils: Dick Giordano. Inks: Bob Layton.

In the 1960s, Charlton Comics briefly published some super hero titles, overseen by Dick Giordano, who would later be a head honcho at DC Comics. Many years later, DC acquired the Charlton characters (much as they earlier had bought the rights to the Fawcett, Quality, etc. characters). But because this was just as DC was unifying its "universe", the Charlton characters were just shuffled in with DC's existing heroes -- some given their own titles, others added to existing groups, etc.

And some years after that, Bob Layton -- who got his start publishing a fanzine about the Charlton Action Heroes -- and Giordano himself united to present this mini-series which unites the Charlton characters in their own adventure as Living Assault Weapons. The premise is that the Justice League is whisked away to another dimension by a super powerful being called the Avatar, who is intent on destroying the militaries of all the nations. With the JLA out of action, it falls to Blue Beetle, The Question, Captain Atom, Sarge Steel, Nightshade, The Judomaster and The Peacemaker and the Peacemaker organization to try to stop the Avatar. (And with the cute format that the covers of the six issues form one picture).

DC used to sometimes create parallel worlds where they could drop off newly acquired batches of characters, but this is the next best thing, allowing them to act basically on their own, rather than mixed up with established DC heroes. And the story starts out reasonably fun and fast paced, introducing the threat and the heroes -- some who were enjoying modest success in their DC incarnations, some who, I think, DC hard barely used before.

There's nothing particularly special about Layton's writing, and Giordano has always struck me as a competent, but slightly stiff, uninspired artist. But they work to create a sense of a fun, unpretentious, Old School sort of tale.

For a while, at least.

But the seams start to show. Although Layton has written stuff on his own before, he's probably best thought of as a co-plotter (with the likes of David Michelinie on Iron Man, for instance). And maybe left to his own devices, there are flaws. There's lots of action -- as in fighting -- and lots of talking -- as in, well, talking. But he has trouble making it all flow together. Blue Beetle and The Question head off to find info about the Avatar, and next thing we know, Blue Beetle returns, claiming he's learned the info...just in time for another big fight. But, um, wouldn't it have been more interesting to have seen how Blue Beetle got his info?

As well, Layton throws in plot twists and surprise revelations -- but instead of foreshadowed throughout earlier issues, often we're handed the necessary info just pages before it'll turn out to relevant. That's another problem with making this a Charlton characters reunion. Whatever nostalgia Layton may feel for them -- these characters just weren't that successful, so it's expecting a lot to play on our knowledge of these characters...when many readers have none! The Judomaster, for instance, is clearly being cast as a Captain America-clone -- a legendary W.W. II paragon of virtue out of sync with modern times (he'd spent the last few years, unaging, in Nanda Parbat -- DC's resident mystical lost Himalayan city). Something in his past is relevant to the current crisis, yet I'm not sure he had seen print in more than thirty years! I'm not saying don't use him, or employ this "twist"...but foreshadow it better.

There's also a conceptual flaw with the premise. In an afterward, Giordano states that he never much cared for "super" heroes, which is why so many of the Charlton characters had no powers (hence "action heroes" as opposed to "super heroes"). Now, personally, I think that's what's wrong with too many comics -- dull characters, with unimaginative abilities. But given that conceit -- do they really seem like characters that should be up against a magical being with armies of demons at his command? I mean, doesn't a character like the Question seem a bit, um, out-of-his-element? One can appreciate that they wanted a global menace, but it seems like an odd fit. Particularly as the most powerful, most "super" of the Charlton characters, Captain Atom, is relegated to the sidelines early (doubly ironic because he probably enjoyed the most commercial success in his DC incarnation). In fact Layton doesn't really structure the story to let all the characters shine as individuals (The Question is always part of a gang of heroes).

There's also some odd...sub-texts. For instance, of all the Charlton characters, the only woman, Nightshade, undergoes a drastic -- and seeming completely arbitrary -- alteration in powers, personality, and appearance right at the beginning. Which kind of undermines the "nostalgia" the series was surely playing too -- or are we to infer that, as the resident "girl", Layton didn't have the same reverence for her as he did the others? There's also an uncomfortable aspect when it kind of seems like all the villains have dark skins -- or, more to the point, anyone with dark skin turns out to be a villain! And the very premise seems odd. Avatar wants to destroy all militaries of all nations. Might some of the characters not see that as, maybe, a good thing? That could've been an interesting basis for debate/conflict, as the heroes have mixed feelings about whether they should even be trying to stop the Avatar -- whether his ruthless means are justified by the end? But that doesn't seem to enter Layton and Giordano's heads.

The result is a story that starts out kind of fun and engaging, but starts to drag after a while. It clips along at a brisk pace, but the action never quite becomes exciting and the drama never quite emotionally involving. Yet then the entire final issue is basically an epilogue, dealing with the emotional/character fall-out from the story. The characters themselves talk about how the events were more profound than just the adventure, how it gave them insight into themselves. But a lot of it seems kind of arbitrary or just hastily jammed in. And there's a kind of feeling Layton is deliberately leaving stuff open...even though I'm not sure if it was ever followed up upon.

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