Friday, October 2, 2009

Review: Firearm #1-18

Yesterday we discussed at some length a writing technique that I learned from reading James Robinson's Firearm. And that, no doubt, was one of the highlights of your week. But as a result I've been inundated with a deluge of urgent emails and postcards, all demanding one answer: how good is the actual comic? Very well, then. Who am I do deny the passions of my reading public? So join me now as we leave behind the realm of the theoretical and enter instead the realm of ultra-violent ass-kicking hyphenated-action as I review Firearm #1-18.

Before we begin, a couple notes. Yes, I am aware that technically this isn't Robinson's complete Firearm oeuvre. Back when the series began. Malibu took the burgeoning "issue zero" fad to spectacular heights with the publication of Firearm #0, which actually included a 30 minute live-action video with a story that continued from the film into the comic. If this sounds like potentially the greatest bit of comic cheese ever produced, you may be right; however, I have yet to lay my hands on a copy of this awesome multi-media package, so sadly I am forced to leave it out of this discussion.

This is especially unfortunate because the film part of Firearm #0 also features a screenplay from Robinson, which is important to understanding the man's career. After the completion of Firearm, of course, he went on to great acclaim for his work on Starman (which also kicked off with a #0). But when Starman finally ended 80 issues later, Robinson, burnt out from the effort, left comics to try his hand at screenwriting in Hollywood. He wanted to see where this new direction would take him.

Unfortunately, the new direction turned out to be straight down, as Robinson was able to get some fairly high profile gigs which resulted in him turning out some of the worst films ever made, specifically League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which would have to be classified as a national embarrassment if it weren't so international in its failure. After a number of years of this, Robinson has recently returned to comics to almost universal (internet) disdain thanks to his work on Cry For Justice.

Back in 1993, though, when Firearm was debuting, Robinson was right at the cusp: Starman was still a year away, but many of the techniques and ideas he would later use to such acclaim were being developed here in Firearm. So how does this lesser known series stack up?

Well, there are a couple similarities that are readily apparent. The biggest of these is thematically: both Starman and Firearm deal with regular joes thrust into a superhero world. In the case of Jack Knight, of course, he actually becomes a reluctant "superhero" of sorts. Alec Swan, on the other hand, remains more of an observer of those with what in Malibu parlance is called "ultra" powers; as a private detective, he takes cases that involve people with superpowers, so he is usually mingling with or fighting against ultras without actually being one himself.

This separation is most clearly seen in the title itself: Firearm. In the first issue, we learn that in his previous job as a government agent, he was codenamed Firearm because he was really proficient at shooting this, uh, special gun. The extent on the gun's power seemed to be the ability to shoot different types of rounds. That's it. Swan hated being called Firearm and was only refered to as such a couple times by former colleagues; and if that wasn't enough, towards the end of the series the special firearm was destroyed, which was a problem for exactly one panel before Swan just grabbed a different gun instead.

In other words, the superhero trappings of the series -- codename, magic gun, etc. -- were almost totally ignored or subverted by Robinson and seem to have only been in place to begin with in order to more fully set the character within the shared Ultraverse that Malibu was developing. It's ironic, then, that when you read the series, the weakest elements are the crossovers with other characters from Ultraverse. Whether it's the Liefeldized Captain Marvel clone Prime or the Batman amalgam Night Man, these crossovers, cameos and guest appearances only served to yank the reader out of the grittier world of P. I. Alec Swan and into the somewhat sillier world of the Ultraverse.

This isn't a matter of superpowers, of course, because the whole conceit of the series is a normal dude with a gun trying to deal with super powered folks. Rather, it's the intrusion of events and other people's storylines that occasionally sidetrack Firearm. When Robinson is left to his own devices to create his own ultras for his own story purposes, the results are far more satisfying. Even the Rafferty epic that ended the series (and at seven issues, comprised nearly half of the whole run) prospered in spite of rather than because of involvement from the Ultraverse. In a precursor to the controversy that would erupt years later in Starman when Robinson showed The Mist apparently murdering the entire Justice League Europe team, the Rafferty storyline deals with a fairly benign villain who happens to be a serial killer that targets only ultras. In this case, though, almost all of the victims are characters Robinson himself created specifically for this storyline; the only time when the story loses some narrative traction -- and invites complaints from fans and critics alike -- is when it crosses over into other Ultraverse stories to show Rafferty killing (or in some cases, not quite killing) established characters. It's not even so much that Robinson is killing other people's characters as it is the fact that he has to deal with other creator's narrative needs, which frequently ends up resulting in a compromise nobody is happy with.

In the end, then, I have to say that as much as I like this series, it would have been even more enjoyable had it not been part of the Ultraverse at all but instead been self-contained in its own world. It does have some peccadilloes that may irritate the modern reader (such as the fact that Swan is one of the now-cliched, tough talking British streetwise heroes that every British writer seems to write into every series, like Constantine or Pete Wisdom), but these are more than offset by unexpected and unexpectedly tender elements such as Swan's surprising relationship with the angel-winged ultra named Ellen.

It's unfortunate that Firearm ended with it did, because as Robinson's career showed, he was just hitting stride when the series closed (the same month as Starman #5 and a scant year before his equally acclaimed series Leave it to Chance debuted). It would have been interesting to see what Robinson could have done with Alec Swan and Ellen; in his closing comments he commented that he ma (or may not) have ended up making them a husband and wife team in the tradition of Nick and Nora Charles. Given the aggressively masculine nature of both the series and the main character, this development (which was hinted at in the last issues of the series) would have been a very interesting and unexpected path for the series to take and would have fit in perfectly with the way Robinson seemed to be disposing of superhero conventions throughout the series with the Firearm codename being dropped before the first issue even started and the gun itself getting dumped soon after.

Of course, with the entire Ultraverse now being owned by Marvel, who seems to be in no hurry at all to bring any of it back, chances are slim that Alec Swan will see the light of day any time soon, either by Robinson or by someone else. But in the meantime, at least fans of fast paced action and mildly subversive writing have these issues to read; and thanks to the Malibu logo on the cover, they can usually be found for pennies on the dollar to boot. So head out to your local store or hit up ebay and see what you can find; it's worth the time.

And if you happen to find a copy of the Firearm #0 movie, let me know. Because that shit sounds crazy.

My Grades: The opening arc, which is #1-4, gets a B+. #5, featuring Ellen's debut, gets an A-. #6 has a Prime crossover, so that's a C+, sorry Mr. Robinson. #7-11 are kind of the meat of the series as it's really the only time Robinson gets to tell stand alone stories, one of which features an Ultra who turns into Macy parade balloons. Those get an A-. And #12-18 feature the Rafferty storyline, which is a little uneven and maybe too long, but is still good enough for a B+. Final grade: A-.

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