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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Codename: Black Death #1 -- Did you see the season finale of The Shield a few weeks back? It featured one of the most shocking, visceral and disturbing moments in the show's history, as one of the least-ethical characters on the show murdered another far-from-innocent character in a particularly gruesome manner.

It was, as I said, shocking and disturbing; my wife actually was yelling to no one in particular, "He did not just do that! No way! HE DID NOT DO THAT!" And unlike me, my wife never yells at the TV.

But she was so immersed in the story and so outraged at the horrific act she just witnessed, because for the past five years The Shield has delivered "unique characters and compelling stories," something likewise promised in a text piece in this first issue. The Shield gives us what it promises. Codename: Black Death does not.

The reason I invoke The Shield as I reflect on Codename: Black Death is that there is a scene in this first issue similar to that memorable scene on from the show's season finale. In Codename: Black Death #1, we see a prosecuting attorney and his family wiped out by a bomb planted in their car, in order to put a halt to the case against a banker whose business is said to be a front for a huge money-laundering operation. With the help of a high-placed politician, the family is killed, and the underling who pushes the button setting off the explosive device that takes their lives chuckles "Heh heh heh, problem solved."

Now, the basic construction of the scene on The Shield was the same; the victim of the explosion is the only person who can testify against the Strike Team. The victim is not planning to, but the killer who takes the victim's life doesn't know that, so there is a layer of irony and drama added to the scene. Again, elements totally absent from the similar scene in Black Death #1.

Crucially, though, is the aftermath. On The Shield, the killer's grief and remorse at what he has done is palpable; you know that the second he's committed the murder he wishes more than anything that he could take it back. He did what he did because he is trying to protect his fellow crooks, men he loves like brothers. But he loved his victim, too, so there's an element of very human conflict introduced into the moment.

Contrast that, if you will, with "Heh heh heh, problem solved." The nameless, faceless thug who carries out the execution of an entire family feels nothing about what he has just done, most likely because the writer of the scene has thought nothing about what a real person might feel about carrying out such an horrific act.

Codename: Black Death is two-dimensional and sub-professional, but I can't say it isn't readable. I actually read it twice, wanting to be sure I had a handle on just why it's so unimpressive. It is typical of most amateur wanna-be superhero comics, in that it puts the origin story of its protagonist far ahead of the inclusion of any true human drama or attention to craft that would in any way distinguish it from more professionally-produced superhero comics.

In short, the world does not need Codename: Black Death, Agents of Talon or Devil's Claw, the three titles that are forthcoming from the ironically named Triumph Media Entertainment, LLC." There are plenty of superhero comics out there already, and virtually all of them are better than this.

The last time I gave a negative review to a comic that lamely emulates corporate comics, I actually got a phone call from one of the creators who wanted to explain to me what I was missing in his comic. I think in the course of that call that I actually was able to explain to the guy what he could do to at least make his book marginally better. So remembering that conversation, let me emphasize that I am sure that all the creators involved in Codename: Black Death are working as hard as they can to make the book as entertaining and compelling as they can.

The problem is that their very best is nowhere near the level of even Marvel or DC's most mediocre talents. While the people who created this comic book may someday make very good, professional superhero comics (as meager a goal as I might find that, personally), they have not done so yet, despite the claims of their text page. Codename: Black Death is the sort of thing that I imagine someone like Erik Larsen or Todd McFarlane was creating in their bedroom when they were 11, but thanks to the fact that it was much harder then to get a work into actual print, the only people who had to read it were friends and family members, who no doubt praised their work to the heavens, because they loved little Erik and Todd very much.

Comics like Codename: Black Death should be created in private and enjoyed the same way, as a way for their amateur creators to work on their craft and eventually perhaps even improve themselves. They should not be sent out into the marketplace full of promises they don't keep, with the expectation that everyone will love it as much as their friends and family told them they did, at the same price as much better comics that actually deliver on their promises, however limited those promises may be.



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