We open on Alexander Hamilton. Well, actually, we open on the American ship Anne Talbot as she burns off Tripoli. But the first words in this tale of the post-revolution United States belong to Hamilton. He doesn’t seem himself, though. He’s speaking in exposition rather than verse. Also, he’s white.
There’s a certain unavoidable tension in how Lin-Manuel Miranda’s explosively successful Hamilton awoke interest in the birth pangs of the American Experiment. Given the musical deliberately corrects an obvious historical injustice with its take on the period and its players, any decision to revisit that era and restore the status quo finds itself politically freighted. Simply put: if you make the decision in 2017 to bring us Golden Age Alexander Hamilton, you better have good reason.
So what is Brian Wood’s justification for Rebels? After reading this first installment, I’ll admit to not being entirely clear on that. Ironically for an issue that features three different American ships aflame as Barbary pirates set upon them in their Mediterranean berths, these first twenty-two pages are very much a slow burn.
The story here focuses on two characters, one historical and the other fictional. The former, obviously, is Hamilton himself. It’s 1794, Alexander is Secretary of the Treasury, and he wants Congress to build a modern navy to keep pirates out of their shipping lanes and George III off the eastern seaboard. No-one wants to hear it, though; his plan means taxes, and taxes mean tyranny. Nothing ever changes, I guess. Plus, most of Hamilton’s peers want to focus on heading westward, where they can clear out the natives and have their slaves build new mansions in which they can toast the freedom and equality that is every man’s birthright. Again, nothing ever changes.
Meanwhile – by which I mean eight years earlier – a boy with a singular focus on sailing vessels grows up in the forests of Vermont. All young John Abbott wants to do is build his own boats, and his parents are in full agreement that he’s so talented and focused it scares them. The promotional material calls John a savant, and he very much reads to me as being on the autistic spectrum. I don’t know what Wood’s thinking was when he wrote the script, and I’m not qualified to speak about how well he’s captured whatever form of neurodivergence he was going for. For my money, however, Wood gets it right here, and it’s certainly pleasant to see someone addressing the fact that not only are the neurodivergent a group who must be part of our shared stories, but they always have been. It’s the care that Wood puts into sketching out who John is and how his parents respond to him that makes this first issue more than the overlong opening crawl it otherwise threatens to be.
The link between the two plot strands couldn’t be more clear, obviously. But beyond the focus on ships, our two protagonists share a passion for construction. Abbott wants to build boats; Hamilton wants to build a nation. There’s a pleasing if simple symmetry in their respective positions, too: Abbott is the supply, Hamilton the demand. None of this is revelatory, but it’s as solidly put together as you would expect from Wood. If this were a boat, you wouldn’t think yourself lucky to step onto its deck, but you’d trust it to get you to your destination.
You’d also appreciate the scenery, I think. Mutti’s pencils are strong and expressive; more than enough to get you through multiple pages free of dialogue without things stalling. The choice of limited colour palettes works to evoke the world of three centuries ago, and by varying those palettes across locations Lauren Affe avoids the issue as a whole of seeming drab. This is a creative team that knows what it wants to do, and how to work together to get it done.
Given this issue’s focus on construction, of course, you’d expect nothing less. In fact, you’d expect quite a bit more. So far, though, I’m not quite seeing it. As competent as this initial installment in the second series of Rebels is, it serves less as a hook than notice that there might be a hook coming. There’s not yet that spark of greatness this story needs to justify its berth in increasingly busy waters. There’s not that all-important reason to be happy Hamilton Classic is once more upon the shelves.
Title: Rebels: These Free And Independent States
Publisher: Dark Horse
Reviewer: Ric Crossman