The Highwaymen #1, August 2007, WildStorm Productions
writers: Marc Bernardin & Adam Freeman
artist: Lee Garbett
colorist: Jonny Rench
letterer: Rob Leigh
assistant editor: Kristy Quinn
editor: Scott Peterson
How many times have you seen a movie on its opening weekend and had no idea what it was about? Seriously, have you ever taken in a new movie with no information other than your impression of its poster? At ten dollars a ticket, even films with appealing trailers are gambles in entertainment, as we viewers run the risk that the flicks' best snippets of dialogue, most dramatic moments, or most action-packed sequences are the trailer itself, luring us in for an hour and a half of anticipation for scenes we've already seen. At an average price of $2.99, comic books are less of an investment but just as much of a gamble. A comic's cover is its proverbial poster, a visual synopsis of its tone and story, but in a medium that admittedly recycles old ideas and material, readers run a risk of buying something they've essentially already read. (This week's release of Mythos featuring Spider-man begs the question, "Exactly how many times do we need to read Spidey's origin?") For instance, when I saw the cover of WildStorm's new series The Highwaymen, I was intrigued that I hadn't heard of it before but fearful that its "fast cars and hot women" vibe was too close to the disappointing Chuck Dixon series Rush City. Still, since I had similar misgivings about WS's Ex Machina, which I've resorted to collecting in trade form, I decided to gamble and make a cold purchase -- not my first in recent months, but definitely my most cognitive.
So, is The Highwaymen a worthwhile read, or simply a wrong turn . . .?
Just as the first ten minutes of a film make or break an audience's attention, the opening sequence of this inaugural issue, which I read in the comics shop, sold this issue for me. Depicting a shapely female special ops agent breaking into a facility for the contents of a safe, her expertise is impressive, but her attitude is compelling. Finding a piece of paper, the object of her mission, she muses, "Paper. How retro." Now, not to shift any unwarranted emphasis on myself, but I've often wondered how long before paper becomes obsolete and have drafted a story concept or two with similar commentary. The Ghostbusters' Egon Spengler said it best, "Print is dead," and though Captain Picard boasts an impressive collection of ancient books in his twenty-fourth century ready room, he still receives his most significant via PADDs. So, as a story, The Highwaymen made a connection with me. The question is, did it keep its grip?
Yes. I will pick up the next chapter, and since the WildStorm website identifies this issue as one of five, if it maintains this outing's level of intrigue I'll undoubtedly remain aboard until the very end. The parallels with Ex Machina are striking to me, since my regret fueled this purchase in the first place; just as Vaughn's series is about a former hero that ventures into politics, The Highwaymen is about a pair of retired transporters in the year 2021 that reluctantly reunite to complete one more mission for President Clinton, whose pre-taped video is a call from beyond the grave to find a woman, presumably a "deafcon dangerous" test subject from a defunct government project. The sending of this message was triggered by the special agent's theft at the beginning of this issue, and just as her bosses killed her for the security oversight, they seem equally dead set on defeating this book's namesake before they dig too deep. Everyone is still fairly ambiguous in their identity and significance, but the combination of Die Hard-like action and The Manchurian Candidate political conspiracy are enough to pull me in.
With a similar emphasis on dead presidents in Warren Ellis' news-making Black Summer, 2007 is shaping up to be the best election year for comics since the President Luthor arc.
Artistically, the Brian Stelfreeze cover exudes a cinematic potential that inspired my initial comparison to movies, but the interior art by Garbett is a bit more subdued. Even the most explosive sequences in this issue, and there are two, are conveyed through tight shots, with little breathing room to grasp the wider consequences to these actions. Yes, we see our heroes use a city bus to collapse a shopping mall parking garage on their pursuers, but did their risky maneuver elicit any collateral damage? The reputation of the Highwaymen is established as urban myth, apparently asserted through action figures and similar franchising, but will the urgency of their current mission evoke public attention and exposure? Further, with President Clinton playing a stimulating role in this plot (not to mention the allusion to another former President Clinton, which is a toss between prophecy and wishful thinking), will the media become a supporting character in this epic? An eighty-year-old Rush Limbaugh coughing up "I told you so's" regarding a forty-year-old defunct but still dangerous Clinton project would be hilarious. But I digress; Garbett's strength is his character work and the way he illustrates emotion. Best described as Quitely-meets-Keown, his human form has a natural fluidity but his sequential work is missing something that puts the work completely over the top. Hopefully future issues will help him get up to speed.
Which is what this issue is, really: the promise of an action-packed, suspenseful car chase, maybe even across America. The players are in place, and we know their basic motivations; writers Bernardin and Freeman are obviously eager to switch gears toward the meat of their story. Perhaps therein lies the different between movies and comic books; unless the film is billed as the first in a series, a movie is essentially a solitary entity, and even if it disappoints at ten bucks a ticket, it's a one time commitment that can never be revisited again (unless you stumble across Congo on USA late one night). Comic books imply a sense of dedication and customer continuity. Even from a shallow collectors' standpoint, I have the first issue, so why not just buy the subsequent four more, for completists' sake? Unfortunately, when I buy a comic and make such a commitment, I want to be taken for a ride. Only time will tell if the Highwaymen can really take me anywhere.