This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website over a year ago. I thought that, rather than present it here unvarnished and as it originally appeared, I’d try my best to contextualise it at least a little.
The more observant among you will have noticed that, of the many and varied comics reviewed in these pages, a fair few of them are written by Steve Orlando. This is not by accident. When I offered to review regularly for the Weird Science site, I first started out on some indie books before graduating to crossover titles like Green Lantern/Planet of the Apes and Batman/The Shadow. This last was co-written by Scott Snyder and Steve Orlando and was, although flawed, a fairly enjoyable series. It wasn’t long before I was reviewing Orlando-scripted books fairly regularly and thus, The Orlando Zone – a dedicated section of the Weird Science DC Comics podcast – was born with yours truly waffling on at far too great a length about those comics penned by Steve Orlando that no one else wanted to review. (And a fair few of them there were, too…)
Now, a confession is probably in order here. The OZ was always intended as a fairly mild piss-take, a forum for pointing out the overly melodramatic dialogue, occasional grammatical lapses and, quite frankly, bonkers plot turns of your average Orlando book. (Electric Warriors 4 is pretty much a Platonic ideal of a Steve Orlando book, incidentally.) I think it fair to say that I did not particularly respect Orlando as a writer when I started, although I was prepared – and still am – to give him a fair shake. During the course of waffling through the Zone, I must admit that I lost my mind a few times, reduced to incoherent raging by the absurdity of what I was reading (The Unexpected, I really am looking at you) or the sheer weirdness of it (Martian sex? Nth metal isotopes?) and it was all grist to the podcast mill. But…
Look, I’m not going to turn around and say that Orlando is an underrated genius, okay. He’s not the second coming of Frank Miller or Alan Moore. Or even Peter B Gillis (although some of his stuff has a very New Defenders feel to it, to be fair), but the weeks and months of Zoning into the mind of Steve Orlando eventually made me realise that he possesses qualities that are not only admirable but actually – in the current comics moment – quite rare. For one thing, Orlando gets superheroes. He gets the concept of heroism. He is not trying to deconstruct it, examine it, put a new spin on it, or question it. He simply wants to acknowledge it, affirm it, and make good stories about characters who exemplify it.
Orlando genuinely loves comics and, although his recycling of old characters can strike one as artless and ineffective (I love both Aztek and Promethea, but their appearances in Orlando’s Justice League of America title left me cold), his passion for the genre is undeniable. Plus, he’s a genuinely nice guy. His interactions on Twitter are courteous and what I’ve heard of his interactions at conventions suggests that he’s just as pleasant face to face. So, yeah, I kind of like Steve Orlando. Even if his work does drive me completely insane at times…
Here’s the review:
There are a number of things one can say about Steve Orlando (and I shall be saying some of them later on in this review) but he doesn’t really do ‘safe’. Last month’s issue took the series’ central premise of interstellar diplomacy conducted through super-powered gladiatorial combat and lobbed weird alien cannibalism into the mix. The result was genuinely unsettling and pushed the whole series in a direction I wasn’t expecting. Where do Orlando and the really quite impressive series artist Travel Foreman take us this issue? Let’s find out…
Well, having introduced the idea of rich smug aliens eating the bodies of fallen Electric Warriors, Orlando decides to mine the concept for the kind of body horror I never really expected to find in a sci-fi comic so closely linked to the relatively cosy world of the Legion of Super-heroes. Our winged warrior from last issue, limbless and with a fair amount of his skeleton exposed, hangs suspended while the aforementioned aliens bid over his body as if it were… well, so much meat. Although the dialogue is the usual Orlando mix of awkward plot delivery and (in this case garrulous) melodrama, here it’s actually quite effective with aliens throwing mostly incomprehensible jibes at one another which puts the reader quite uncomfortably in the same position as both the doomed and partially-eaten warrior and our hero Ian who’s listening in on the gruesome conversation. It’s not long before Ian and his small band of would-be rebels decide they’ve been inside the Monolith (the central structure which houses the headquarters of the Covenant) too long and head back to their own quarters.
The rest of the comic concerns the rebels’ attempts to find out the identity of the Preceptor mentioned by the carnivorous aliens, which is a curious choice of focus considering the reader already knows who Preceptor is. There is, I suppose, some mileage in following the rebels’ investigation, but it moves so slowly that a less patient reader may end up wondering why they’re bothering. It doesn’t help that their attempts at finding out Firestorm/Preceptor’s identity are interrupted by characters having conversations and, in the case of Ian and Khundian warrior woman Serene, sex in the shower block and our favourite (only) Dominator fighting and winning a battle in the arena. Oh, and Ian and Kana fighting an alien centaur-woman. In fact, having made the original premise of the series mostly irrelevant with last issue’s gourmet revelations, Orlando’s decision to focus more heavily on bouts in the arena that have little relevance to the main plot is an odd one. To be fair, the fight featuring the Dominator provides an opportunity for some characterisation, but he’s easily the least interesting character of the core group of fighters. The issue’s final fight is central to the plot but, at the issue’s end, the rebels aren’t that much further along in their quest to find out what’s really going on as they were at the beginning. In short, this issue has too much padding and not enough substance.
How you feel about this probably depends on what you want from this comic. If you want a gripping narrative that focuses on our central character of Ian Navarro as he works to find out Covenant’s big dirty secret, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Writer Steve Orlando has chosen to concentrate mostly on secondary characters and seems content to leave the big revelations for another time. The issue is not entirely without merit, though. Those readers who like their sci-fi colourful, garish and action-packed will find a fair bit to like here. Orlando’s more outlandish rhetorical flourishes don’t jar as much when they’re being uttered by naked Khundian warriors or a giant jet-skinned centaur-thing, and his attempts to flesh out the philosophical and cultural backgrounds of his aliens are, for the most part, successful. For me, however, it’s all a bit too scattergun and the sense of impetus being lost is very noticeable.
Foreman’s art continues to impress, though. As might be expected from the man who brought us the early issues of the New 52 Animal Man, his eye for the uncanny, the disturbing and, in the case of partially eaten but still conscious winged aliens, genuinely horrific remains undimmed. The fight scenes are kinetic and the shower/sauna scenes have an ethereally beautiful quality that forms an effective tonal contrast with the issue’s more violent and/or disturbing moments. Colouring and lettering are excellent too. Whatever else Electric Warriors may or may not be, it is a visually impressive comic.
This issue’s explorations of character relationships and background are diverting but do nothing to advance the plot and the impetus established in the first few issues of this series is consequently lost. Foreman’s art is gorgeous, and Orlando’s world-building is actually quite decent, but readers wanting the story to follow through on the previous issue’s ending with some explanation and development may be frustrated by this one’s more leisurely pace.