Comic Book Review: Shadow Cabinet

Shadow Cabinet was part of Milestone Media’s second generation of comics, one of the two series introduced during the Milestone universe’s “Shadow War” crossover event. The Shadow Cabinet is a secret organization of superheroes thousands of years old. Its operatives, in constant rotation from mission to mission, have sworn to fulfill its mandate: “To save humanity from itself”, whether humanity wants it or not.

Shadow Cabinet was part of Milestone Media’s second generation of comics, one of the two series introduced during the Milestone universe’s “Shadow War” crossover event. The Shadow Cabinet is a secret organization of superheroes thousands of years old. Its operatives, in constant rotation from mission to mission, have sworn to fulfill its mandate: “To save humanity from itself”, whether humanity wants it or not.

With consistently excellent artwork and storytelling, Shadow Cabinet was, at the time, the best superhero comic book I knew. The best. Though the series rarely addressed social issues—unlike most other Milestone titles—writer Matt Wayne consistently delivered sharp dialogue, exciting and twisty plots, the occasional dash of humour, and great character development. I think this was Shadow Cabinet’s main strength: its diverse cast of interesting and three-dimensional characters. The best thing about these protagonists? more than half are women. And they’re realistically drawn—none of those huge, silicon-fed breasts, thank you very much. Though it meant a bit more to my politically-active self of ten years ago, I still think the gender balance and racial diversity is a very big deal. The simple fact that Shadow Cabinet features (a) just one white male main character and (b) more than a couple token women does make the series pretty damn unique. Especially when two of these women are a lesbian couple.

Here’s a list of the main characters:

Dharma, the Shadow Cabinet’s current leader. His power is to see the past and future of any object. Some time ago he foresaw a terrible catastrophe, “a day where everything ends in fire”. Without telling his operatives he has been desperately using the Cabinet to prevent this vision from coming true.

Iron Butterfly is the Cabinet’s field commander; she has the power to move and shape metal and metallic objects. In battle she wears medieval-style plate armor with huge angel-like wings.

The origin of her powers is unclear. She has given two somewhat contradictory accounts of her past, but the common element is that her family was murdered, and her life’s quest is to avenge that murder. Iron Butterfly is cold and aloof, ruthlessly efficient in combat, and apparently without any sense of humor. Near the end of the series it is revealed that she is also secretly in love with Dharma, even though he’s incapable of loving her back.

Plus is a normal-looking teenage girl, with the ability to fly and project a variety of force fields. The strange thing was, she occasionally talked to someone called “Narnie,” who only she could hear talking back! Was this “Narnie” real, or just a figment of her imagination? Eventually readers discovered that Narnie was an energy being, and the source of Plus’ powers. “I can manipulate her otherwise inert physical form and communicate with her consciousness.” A bit later, it was revealed that Narnie was Plus’ sister, and Dharma was their brother.

Sideshow used to be a photojournalist for the alternative media. At one point he stumbled onto an illegal animal research lab, “a real horror show”, and got careless. He was knocked out and dumped into a vat of biochemical waste products. Instead of killing him it remolded his genetic structure, allowing him transform his body, or parts of his body, into that of any animal. Dharma brought him into the Cabinet and taught him to control his powers.

Iota is a very rich widow with an apartment in Sydney, Australia. Her power is to shrink herself or any inanimate object down to almost microscopic size. An interesting side effect of this process is that it destroys organic tissue (except for her own body): shrunk objects are sterilized, and shrunk food becomes inedible. She seems to spend a lot of her free time stealing things, and carries around a truly astounding collection of vehicles, houses and all kinds of tools and knickknacks in her pockets, ready to be brought out and used at a moment’s notice.

Donner is apparently the granddaughter of a Nazi geneticist. This might explain her great strength (she can easily bench-press 3 tons) and near-invulnerability to physical attacks. There are some hints that she was involved with neo-nazi gangs when she was younger, but she has completely left behind that part of her life. About six feet six in height with a bodybuilder’s physique, Donner is a big sports fan, especially enjoying baseball and pro wrestling. She is currently studying at Medina University in Dakota (the fictional Midwestern city where all the Milestone series take place) with her lover, Blitzen.

Blitzen was a scientist who developed a serum that enables her to move and think at speeds far beyond the normal human range. (She once claimed to be able to play 307 games of Solitaire in 30 seconds). Nothing else is known of her past before she joined the Cabinet. When not on missions, Blitzen works as a teaching assistant at Medina U.

Starlight was a simple mathematics student until she wandered into the university’s stellar observatory. There she found a scientist standing in front of a “tachyon telescope,” being bombarded by huge amounts of radiation. She tried to push him out of the way, and got caught in the beam instead. This turned her into a living pulsar, with the ability to emit and absorb energies of many different kinds. Though she had planned to be with the Cabinet only until she learned to control her powers, Starlight has since decided to stay.

As much as I love my old life, I can’t have it back. Controlling my powers isn’t enough. I have to use them where they’re needed most. As much as I need the quiet life of a university mathematician, the world need heroes.

Right from the start, Shadow Cabinet showed its readers what it was made of. The first issue, entitled “A Handful of S.A.N.D.,” featured a Cabinet strike team (composed of Iron Butterfly, Donner, Plus and Sideshow) sent on a search-and-destroy (S.A.N.D.) mission. Their target was a super-powered mass murderer whom Dharma claimed was going to be recruited by the American government as an assassin. In the end—despite some hesitation on Sideshow’s part—the team completes its mission, very neatly making the death look accidental. “A Handful of S.A.N.D.” was a disturbing, provocative piece of work that generated a lot of praise from readers precisely because it dared to go where few comics had gone before. As Dharma himself said, to counter his operatives’ moral objections: “It was a dirty deed, but it kept dirtier deeds from being done.”

The next few issues were a bit tamer, exploring some the interpersonal relationships between Cabinet members and setting the tone of Dharma’s relationship with his operatives. The “Father’s Day” storyline (issues #3–4), especially, showed him to be a cold, manipulative bastard who used his operatives like pawns.

The “Red Death” storyline (#6–10) put a violent end to the status quo. After being abandoned in the middle of a mission in Antarctica, the team of Iron Butterfly, Donner, Blitzen, Sideshow and Iota vowed to somehow find Shadowspire (the Cabinet’s headquarters, accessed only via a teleportation device called the “shadowslide”) and kill Dharma—who, meanwhile, got busy making deals with S.Y.S.T.E.M., an international crime cartel. What was going on? Had Dharma turned bad and screwed the Cabinet? No: it turned out that he just wanted his best ops away from Shadowspire while he tricked S.Y.S.T.E.M. into squandering a major portion of their military might, thus restoring a fragile balance to the world.

When they finally returned to Shadowspire, all the operatives but Sideshow accepted Dharma’s explanation. Taking the seeming betrayal personally, Sideshow killed Dharma in a fit of rage. After being brought back to life by Red Dog, a powerful wizard who led the Shadow Cabinet at the turn of the century, Dharma decided to tell his favourite operatives the whole truth. Up until that point, only his sisters had known about his chronal sight.

Dharma’s new openness didn’t last long. Soon he began to withdraw information and manipulate his operatives again. And as the apocalypse of his visions drew ever closer, he slowly, methodically, took over every single S.Y.S.T.E.M. cell in the world. His former approach had been wrong, he reasoned: to have any chance of averting the catastrophe, he had to take a more active role.

My plan is simple. I will control everything. Nothing will happen without my approval. I know my Shadow Cabinet may disapprove, but they are in no position to judge.

Things completely fell apart in the 17th and last issue, which came out in October ’95. Enraged at his sisters’ recent disobedience (Plus, Starlight and several other Cabinet ops had helped stop a riot in Dakota, against Dharma’s explicit orders), Dharma attacked Plus and wrested control of Narnie from her. When Sideshow tried to intervene, he was killed. Dharma then summoned his operatives and announced that, from now on, they were to leave Shadowspire only for missions. Realizing that their leader had finally gone mad, Donner punched her way out of Shadowspire with Blitzen right behind, joined moments later by Iota flying a jet she had dug out of her pockets. The issue’s last panel shows the three of them rocketing away to freedom.

And so Shadow Cabinet ended. I suppose it was inevitable: the series just couldn’t last for very long with that kind of setup; and kudos to the creative team for not trying to stick to an easy status quo. Still… I hope we see the Cabinet again someday, with or without Dharma.

Comic Book Review: Xombi

Xombi was one of the two series introduced during the Shadow War, the first crossover event of the Milestone universe. It’s also the only one in the whole lot that looks nothing like a superhero comic. With its unusual artwork and mindbogglingly weird plots and characters, Xombi is in a class all by itself.

Xombi was one of the two series introduced during the Shadow War, the first crossover event of the Milestone universe. It’s also the only one in the whole lot that looks nothing like a superhero comic. With its unusual artwork and mindbogglingly weird plots and characters, Xombi is in a class all by itself.

The central character is one David Kim, a scientist whose body—mostly by accident—has become host to thousands of microscopic robots which negate the effects of aging and disease, as well as immediately heal any injuries. Now he is a xombi, a mortal person rendered immortal through artificial means. At the same time, he has crossed the line into the world of the bizarre, which exists side by side with our own. No matter how much he wishes to, David Kim can never return to his normal existence.

The series is divided into several long storylines. The first, “Silent Cathedrals,” introduces Kim and his new companions, including Nun of the Above (a clairvoyant nun) and her associate, Catholic Girl. This spunky blonde adolescent has many neat powers, including flight, projecting a force field around herself when she recites the “Hail Mary,” and firing energy bolts from her rosary. Which, I admit, sounds completely ridiculous when I write it out like this, but that’s part of the series’ charm: writer John Rozum shamelessly mixed creepy horror, gratuitously absurd settings and silly puns and made it all work. That’s genius, right there.

“Silent Cathedrals” concerns the plans of Dr. Sugarman—an evil man with bizarre magical powers—to achieve immortality and summon a creature called Boraxis Megatheros, the incarnation of pollution. Servants of his break into David Kim’s lab to steal a supply of the regenerative nanomachines, killing David Kim in the process. His assistant, Kelly Sanborne, injects him with the nanomachines which bring him back to life. However, Kim’s body has been so badly damaged that the machines have to find an outside source to rebuild his tissues. That source is Kelly Sanborne’s body.

In the end, Kim and his friends manage to re-imprison Megatheros, but Dr. Sugarman escapes. The epilogue to this storyline (issue #6, entitled “Resurrection”) is one of the most beautiful and moving issues of any comic I’ve ever read. Feeling responsible for her death, Kim decides to bring Sanborne back using the same nanomachines that revived him. Most of the issue is taken up by quiet reminiscence and flashbacks as Kim looks back on her life.

It’s amazing how well you think you know someone, without really knowing much about them at all. She was one of my closest friends, yet I know next to nothing of her childhood, her friends from high school, her favorite color, her favorite flavor of ice cream, whether or not she wanted children. This time around, I’ll be sure to ask.

But upon finding that Sanborne’s remains were cremated, he realizes the nanomachines will be useless, so he has to accept her death.

The second main storyline, “School of Anguish” (starting with issue #7) pits Kim and his associates against a cult called “the Beli Mah.” Their central belief is that “the world can be made ideal by reducing everything to an abstraction of what it represents. A true form of itself, with no masks to be misinterpreted. They feel that the world is full of masks behind masks behind masks.” Accordingly, the Beli Mah create and use as their assassins creatures called the Painful Inscriptions: physical embodiments of certain abstract concepts. There’s Manuel Dexterity, crafted out of all the unfulfilled intense desires in the world; his twin sister Manuella, the embodiment of deep-rooted shame; Bludgeon, crafted from misdirected rage; Blister Ed, a construct of words spoken in anger, which can’t be unsaid; and many others, each stranger than the last.

Xombi’s last storyline (issues #17–21) is entitled “Hidden Cities.” Finally accepting that his life would never go back to normal, David Kim decides to learn more about the worlds beyond normalcy. With every page I got the feeling that everything we’d seen up to this point was just to get us in the mood, and the serious fun was about to begin. The hilarious (if slightly disturbing) lecture on sidewalk piranhas… David’s first meeting with another xombi, who tells the tale of how he became immortal (a magical healing concoction called the “serpent’s tail” that inexplicably stayed active in his body)… The visit to “Elsewhere,” a parallel world that is the source of all true artistic inspiration in our world… David’s meeting with yet another xombi, this time a forty-thousand-year-old woman living in a flying pagoda who has been having repeated visions of Kim and their life together in the centuries to come, and fell in love with him though they had never met… David agreeing to bait a trap for the Bogeymen Dread, evil creatures from Elsewhere feeding on hope, that invaded our world leaving a trail of death by suicide. Only David Kim can survive an encounter with the Bogeymen since he cannot kill himself. With his help, the Elsewhere authorities are able to imprison the Bogeymen again and save countless lives.

And… that’s where Xombi ended, with Kim realizing that his power could be used to help others, and finally accepting his place in the shadow worlds. A shame: though it was a good place to end, positive and hopeful, David Kim’s story had hardly begun, and I’m sure that Rozum’s twisted, fertile imagination would have been up to the challenge.

Comic Book Review: Static

Static is among the first generation of titles put out by Milestone Media. I bought the first issue when it came out in April ’93 but, stupidly, did not immediately keep reading the series. Then again, I guess I was lucky I picked up Static at all: back in those dark days, I hardly read anything but big-name Marvel titles, and even then never committed to any particular one. So I forgot about Static for about a year and a half.

Static is among the first generation of titles put out by Milestone Media. I bought the first issue when it came out in April ’93 but, stupidly, did not immediately keep reading the series. Then again, I guess I was lucky I picked up Static at all: back in those dark days, I hardly read anything but big-name Marvel titles, and even then never committed to any particular one. So I forgot about Static for about a year and a half; by then I’d matured a bit as a comics reader, and was better able to appreciate what an amazing series it was.

Static is the story of Virgil Hawkins, a teenager unexpectedly gifted with electromagnetic powers. As an avid superhero comics fan, he realized what his destiny was. Now, when danger threatens, young Virgil dons his blue-and-white costume to become Static, vanquishing enemies with wisecracks as much as lightning bolts. But, this comic isn’t all about action and adventure: Static and Virgil get equal time. Along with scenes of Static tussling with supervillains, we have the smartassed, nerdy, often annoying Virgil Hawkins going to school and hanging out with his pals. These include Frieda, his closest friend, crush object, and the only one who knows his secret; her much too smooth and suave boyfriend Larry (who seems to have an awful lot of money to spend on Frieda); and Rick, the butt of fag jokes from his classmates because he practices ballet.

This being Milestone, there’s plenty of social issues and brave storytelling amongst the action and humour. It’s not easy being a black teenager, and superpowers aren’t necessarily much help. For instance, Virgil has a hard time going on dates and can’t even hold down the lousiest McJob because he has to leave at a moment’s notice to confront rampaging supervillains, and he can’t use his powers to defend himself against bullies for fear of blowing his cover. The series’ high point was the “What are Little Boys Made Of?” storyline (issues #16–20), in which Static barely saves Rick from being gay-bashed, and is shocked to find out his friend really is gay. The following day Rick—bruised, with a black eye—courageously comes out to most of the school, inviting his friends to join him in an upcoming gay rights rally. Frieda is completely supportive, but Virgil and the boys have deal with their own homophobia. Later, having resolved most of his doubts, Static defends the rally against a viciously homophobic supervillain and his gang of neo-nazi thugs.

Some time afterwards Static meets Dusk, a teenaged vigilante superheroine with a pretty forceful code of justice. They take an instant liking to each other, even though Dusk is a lot more violent than Static in dealing with bad guys and refuses to reveal anything about herself or her past. The two had an interesting dynamic, for as long as their partnership lasted: Static was more idealistic and though he had, in the past, broken crack houses and stopped muggings and such, he rarely went looking for major trouble; his first priority was always to protect innocent people. Dusk, on the other hand, was grimmer and more pragmatic, actively looked for crime (especially organized crime) to stop, and seemed to revel in beating up on the bad guys.

“I told you checking back alleys and stuff would help you find more trouble.”
“Yup, Dusk, it did. I almost wish it didn’t.”
“Yeah. I know. Just don’t ever tell that to a victim.”

Not that I ever wanted to see Static turning all grim-and-gritty, but the two of them had a lot to teach each other.

In issue #28 (July ’95), the two drop in on a drug bust to give the police a hand, and Static discovered—to his shock—that one of the people being busted is Larry! Unable to confront his friend, Static lets him go, thereby earning the suspicion of both Dusk and the police. Working separately, Static and Dusk catch up with him the next day, but Larry’s former associate also show up to silence him forever, and Dusk gets shot while trying to protect him. Static flies in and carries her to safety, but is unable to prevent Larry from being killed.

It was a disturbing, but perfectly appropriate ending to this storyline. Larry had been more than a little suspect ever since issue #2, when he furnished Virgil with a gun to deal with a bully (which Virgil ended up not using), and it was about time his “deep, dark secret” came to light. Yet Larry was never portrayed as a cold, heartless, one-dimensional crook. He genuinely cared about his girlfriend and family, providing for them the best way he knew how; when the police showed up and arrested him, poor Larry was so scared he almost wet his pants. It was clear he never thought about the long-term consequences of his actions, and never dreamed he’d actually get caught.

Static’s reaction was less well handled, though. In issue #29 the series switched to a new writing team, replacing the fabulous Ivan Velez, Jr (who had replaced the no less fabulous Robert L. Washington III in issue #19). These writers were adequate, but no more, and the next few issues were filled with pretty average storytelling. First, there’s Static’s rage against on the drug dealers who shot Larry and Dusk, complete with extremely tiresome internal monologue. Maybe it was in character, but, really: the formerly-“fun” hero who temporarily goes dark and berserk is a tried-and-true cliché. Later, after Larry’s funeral, Virgil confides in Frieda that he wants to abandon his Static persona. It had always been a game, a flashy release from all the frustrations of adolescence, and now he figured it was time to grow up a little. Again, this little revelation left me cold because that kind of thing’s been done to death in other series.

Issue #31 featured an extended flashback that revisited Static’s origin story. Here the focus was on Virgil’s fascination with an old movie serial swashbuckling hero called “The Scarlet Scarab” who—apparently—was the main inspiration for Virgil’s taking on a superhero persona. My reaction? Meh. Not only do I question the logic of Virgil being more interested in old-time movies than modern comics (besides the fact that we’d never seen it before), I get the feeling the writers wanted to “make their mark” on the Static universe by rewriting history a bit. This issue was completely unnecessary and in fact far inferior to the first origin story in issue #2. But on the plus side, we do get to see the origin of the long yellow coat Static wears over his spandex costume. Yay. Except, no we don’t, because Virgil was already wearing that coat in the issue #2 flashback.

I kept up with Static for two more issues, but finally called it quits after issue #33 (March ’96). The writing wasn’t getting any better, and the artwork frankly sucked. Though I felt terrible about dropping a Milestone series, this Static was only a shadow of its former self, and it just wasn’t worth my time and hard-earned cash anymore.