COMIC REVIEW: The Black Scorpion

I can’t help but have a big cheesy grin on my face as I write this review.  I know it’s off-putting, but you’re gonna have to get used to it eventually.  I loves me a good bit of old-fashioned war-time adventure and Black Scorpion promises it in spades.  24 pages of glorious art and intrigue set in the same world as Robert Curley’s other wartime ‘supers’ comic The League Of Volunteers.  The front cover sets the scene, lovingly recreating the style and colour-palette of the 30’s and 40’s pulp magazines.  The titular character even wears a Black Mask fer chrissake!  He races recklessly through the mists of No-Man’s Land with gritty determination on his face, twin pistols blazing away at the unseen Hun.  His clothing marks him out as different, his mask as something special.  The angle at which we see him places us sprawled at his feet looking up in wonder at this hero.  Who is this masked man?  Who is the Black Scorpion?

What?  You’re not sold yet?  Sheesh, tough crowd.  Ok, lets take a look inside.

Atomic Diner in an independent Irish comic company producing some top-notch work at the moment.  With Black Scorpion it has the backdrop to a fantastic wider world boiled down into an intimate and meditative series of vignettes.  Instead of the over-mythologised Second World War, writer Robert Curley has chosen the vividly sodden hell-holes of the First World War as a backdrop to his tales.  This neatly side-steps the Captain America: Nazi-Basher archetype because our cultural memory of WW1 is simply more stained by the tragedies than the victories.  The focus here is saving lives.  This is doubly important when we consider the dedication at the start of the piece.  In this comic we see this world through the eyes of three Irishmen, drawn from both sides of the domestic conflict burgeoning back home.  Whilst nationality is not essential to the plot itself (the underlying morality being universally applicable) it is a key element to the artistic endeavour.  The dedication therefore adds a fascinating additional texture to the world, characters and reading experience.  It’s also no bad thing to be reminded that the iconic British ‘Tommy’ came from a multitude of backgrounds with their own unique perspectives.

Plus, the artwork is gorgeous.

We open in true cinematic style to tramping boots, pulling back  to a small skirmish, then back further to an epic splash depicting the Battle for Messines Ridge.  Stephen Downey’s artwork is hugly evocative, eschewing fine detail for movement and atmospherics. He uses a mixture of black pens and monochromatic watercolour masterfully to delineate areas of conflict, lend perspective, render explosions, cloudscapes, bullet trails and so forth.  It is clear that Downey understands how to direct the readers eye, punctuating the movement with key elements of action to help us construct an overview of the battle that is both brutal and chaotic, yet never confusing.  Zooming back in again we are brought swiftly to the personal level as things go disastrously bad for one Tom Daly.  The last thing he sees before losing consciousness is the silhouette of a hero leaping overhead…

As Tom convalesces he meets Liam and Jim, fellow Irishmen with their own stories to tell.  The comic is essentially a series of vignettes as each man tells his tale around the poker table.  Like Andi Ewington’s ‘Forty Five’ and DC’s ‘Gotham Central’ before it, these stories are as much about the normal people observing the action as the masked Mystery men used to sell the tale.  The supers are only fleetingly glimpsed, more like mythical beings to be puzzled over than reliable ‘big-guns’ to be brought out when the fighting gets too tough.  As the stories progress we learn more about what it’s like to be an ordinary man in a terrible conflict, the hardships faced and the pragmatism built in the face of almost certain death.  And we learn about hope.  Time and again when all looks lost, the Black Scorpion and the Legion Britannia (think proto-Avengers) arrive.  Whilst few of these evince any obvious powers, they seem to turn the tide, acting as a beacon of hope and respite to the common soldiers.  Curley and Downey have managed to properly capture the wonder of the earliest super-heroes; shining stars in a world grown used to darkness; symbols rather than super-powered screw-ups.  It is perhaps more innocent, but no less powerful for its simplicity.

It’s difficult to discuss the heroes properly as they are glimpsed too fleetingly to give any but the loosest impression of character or ability.  Black Scorpion seems to turn up to save people in the nick of time, then disappear again.  There is a Batman-like quality brought to him in this; a spirit of protection in the darkest of times.  ‘Royal Agent’ seems to be a super-spy – a cocksure Bond with a dash of Nickolai Dante flare, whilst ‘Bulldog’ is a cheerfully bullet-proof bruiser.  ‘Lady Durga’ is a serene oriental, untouchably twirling her blade through the massed ranks of the enemy whilst ‘Queen Bee’ is a sparky lady rocketeer, packing some kind of laser punch.  The only obviously super-powered member of the team is called The Blue Flame, bringing to mind the bastard child of Johnny Storm and Doc Manhattan.  (Now there’s a mental image.)

I find myself paradoxically hoping to see more of this team in the future and wanting them to retain their mystery.  I guess the question really comes down to whether the creative team decide to maintain their focus and story-telling skills on the personal and political or go to different parts of the sand pit and tell broader action adventures as well.  It is certainly an interesting way to begin a super-story, but I cannot say that it is wholly successful.  On the one hand the creative ambitions are admirable, the artwork astounding and the story well told.  On the other hand, the comic doesn’t fully deliver the pulpy punch that we’re sold by the cover.  Defying expectation can be a powerful way to affect your readers, but if they feel too cheated you can lose their good will.

Based on what I have seen and read here I would like to the Black Scorpion return in the future.  I will definitely be picking up some of the WW2 League Of Volunteers books as well to see how they compare.    All in all, highly recommended.

You can support your local comic shop by asking them to order in a copy for you.  Alternatively, you can buy direct from Atomic Diner.

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can hear me blathering about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
You can follow me on Twitter @Dion_Scrolls too if you like.

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