Last issue’s opening instalment in this limited series set in the 27th century was as perfect a display of writer Steve Orlando’s strengths and weaknesses as one could wish for: intriguing background conveyed through dialogue that is invariably being shouted out during some kind of combat; non-infodump dialogue marinated in a sauce equal parts silliness, melodrama and social justice posturing; judicious plundering of the more obscure corners of the DC Universe; and, dammit, despite all that, some hints that there might be a story here worth reading. Having spent last issue setting up the basic premise of this series, it’s now time for some serious action. Let’s see if Orlando and artist Travel Foreman deliver, eh?
By and large, they do. Not hanging around, the issue plunges us straight into the action. We are shown a little of the acclimatisation to the world of Covenant that our two Earth warriors, Ian “War Cry” Navarro and Kana, the octopus-woman whose warrior name is “Deep Dweller” undergo, but it’s not very much. Instead, the focus is on action and we are quickly shown them both competing in their first matches. The idea here is simple enough. Representatives of alien species that would otherwise be at war with one another fight on Covenant to settle everything ranging from trade disputes to the ownership of moons and planets to who gets to wield powerful weapons like the “Q-knife”. Although the principal focus is on Ian and his match against a three-eyed Saturnian for the stakes of Earth’s Gingold grain stores, Orlando and Foreman give us glimpses of many other fights taking place at the same time and the impression of one is of combat-diplomacy on a grand scale. Representatives from the Dominion, Khundia and a number of other alien races are featured and Orlando and Foreman do a pretty good job of conveying just how big an undertaking these ‘games’ are and just how vast and diverse the galaxy in which the Earth now wishes to take a full part is, too.
As might be expected with a mini-series, the plot is painted with a reasonably broad brush and Orlando’s social justice leanings inform it fairly obviously. Navarro is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bigot – albeit one with some justification for his anti-alien (and anti-animalperson) stance. In having him stand in for his brother, though, Orlando has given him a personal stake in the ‘games’ and the reader a reason to find him something other than an insufferable lout. Octopus-girl Kana, by contrast, is out of her comfort zone, but compassionate enough to cross the racial divide and heal Ian despite the personal physical cost to her. Similarly, most of the other contestants are prepared to work together to ensure that they survive, and it is hinted that there is a darker conspiracy at work on Covenant just waiting to be uncovered in the next few issues. Ian’s journey from isolated angry young man to a more co-operative and cosmopolitan team player seems fairly clear at this point.
If all this sounds just a little cliched, well, it is, but it’s intriguing enough to keep this reviewer interested. The fact that Firestorm seems to be involved in all this is utterly baffling to me and his presence alone is, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, enough to make me want to read the next issue. Then there’s that ending which was inevitable, I suppose, but, in a way, I’m glad that Orlando and Foreman are going to get the Earth on Earth action out of the way sooner rather than later. There’s an engrossing plot developing here and that should, quite rightly, take centre stage. That said, the swiftness with which Kana and Ian are pitted against one another after the ramifications of Ian’s initial loss to the Saturnian are felt seems a little odd to me. Is there no preliminary process of negotiation before matters are referred to Covenant and the games there? What triggers a bout in the arena? How are the stakes for the combat chosen and defined?
But the story is moving with commendable swiftness and Orlando’s disdain for properly explaining or exploring his settings should already be familiar to anyone who’s been reading The Unexpected. In this case, I’m prepared to let it slide for now. Unlike The Unexpected, this story is not (yet) an inchoate mess and Ian is a more rounded, flawed and complex hothead than Firebrand has turned out to be.
And Travel Foreman’s art does help. Along with Hi-Fi’s colours and Travis Lanham’s artful lettering, there’s a somewhat elegant and appropriately futuristic feel to the way this comic book looks, and, although Orlando’s dialogue is still stilted and inauthentic at times, at least the book looks clean, no matter how cluttered its writer’s dialogue makes it sound. As with the first issue, some individual pages are exquisitely presented, most notably the final page whose dark background is veined with ominously crackling lightning in a suitably impressive manner.
All of that said, the issue is not perfect. The world of Covenant is, of course, very distant from Earth and it’s only right that it feels like its own self-contained environment, but we’re only given a very brief glimpse of what’s happening back on Earth and, as a result, despite being told what the consequences of Ian’s performance as an Electric Warrior are, things don’t quite feel as connected as they could be. Then there’s the dialogue which, although nowhere near as gratuitously grandiose as Orlando’s work elsewhere, does occasionally get bogged down in the kind of posturing that is, I think, meant to be wise-cracking and comradely, but ends up feeling awkward and overdone.
In terms of presentation, this is a quality product. Letterer, colourist and artist are all pulling out the stops to make this book’s look distinctive and memorable. Orlando’s plotting provides enough incident to maintain the sense of smooth forward momentum and, although the dialogue is occasionally overblown and some of the supporting cast is not especially fleshed out, the central character and the situation in which he finds himself are interesting enough to keep me invested. This is easily the best of the three Orlando books on the market at the moment.