Friday, March 9, 2012

Why Creator-Owned Superhero Comics are the Best: A Review of Dynamo 5

My wife and I were talking about romantic comedies one day and I mentioned that I never really enjoyed that particular genre because it is, by nature, extremely derivative. Boy meets girl, they court, they finally get together, boy or girl breaks the other person's heart, their partner leaves 3/4 of the way through the movie, then they make-up following an overly-dramatic display of affection and penance. Credits. You always know where the story is headed, and when watching the movie you feel as though you're just going through the motions.

Now I'm supposed to be writing about a comic book, so why the hell am I am talking about romantic comedies?! I mention them because superhero comics, specifically corporate-owned superhero comics, often suffer from the same plot issues as romantic comedies. When you pick up an issue of your favorite masked vigilante you rarely see something new, and the climax of their adventures is a foregone conclusion. And that's not always a bad thing, but we all like to be surprised and want to follow a story where we don't already know where things are headed. You rarely gets this with books that include capes and tights. But if superheroes are your thing, imagine picking up a book and not knowing what's going to happen. Imagine a book where characters could be killed off, I mean, really killed off with no warning never to return. A book where there are real stakes. Dynamo 5 from Image Comics was the perfect example of how a writer and artist can take the superhero convention and make it feel fresh and exciting, all the while delivering surprise after surprise in an effort to keep their readers guessing.

At first Dynamo 5 will feel very familiar to longtime comic book readers. It's essentially X-Men or Doom Patrol. You have a team of super-powered teenagers brought together to fight evil under the guidance of an older mentor/parental figure. Not too original, however where Dynamo 5 really separates itself from the herd of superhero team books is in the back story and the character-based drama.

Written by Jay Faerber and drawn by Mahmud A. Asrar, Dynamo 5 takes place in Tower City, a fictional metropolis that is often ground zero for meta-human threats. At one time Tower City was protected by Captain Dynamo. He's basically Superman, with a power set that includes flight, super strength, laser vision, telepathy, and shape-shifting. He obtained his powers after being exposed to a large dose of radiation (surprise, surprise). Dynamo, who's secret identity was that of William Warner, worked hand-in-hand with a clandestine government organization referred to as F.L.A.G., and was married to one of its agents, Maddie Warner.

When the series opens, we learn that Captain Dynamo has recently been found dead in a hotel room, murdered by the poisoned lipstick of an unknown woman. At first his wife assumes this was a set up, that he was murdered by one of his many nemeses and then positioned in a such a way as to damage his reputation. But after going through his personal effects, Maddie discovers Dynamo's "little black book," filled with the names, dates and details of his many conquests. You see, Captain Dynamo was a "playa," and as such he liked to crush a lot. This time it cost him his life.

Shaking off her pain, Maddie turned her attention to the protection of Tower City. With Captain Dynamo out of the picture, it wouldn't be long before his rogues gallery descended upon the city to devour it whole. When all hope seemed lost, Maddie had an idea. Given the number of affairs Dynamo had, it was very likely that at some point, whether he was aware of it or not, he fathered children. She furthered assumed that there was a possibility some of these children, if not all of them, would possess superhuman abilities. With an endless stream of government resources at her disposal, Maddie was able to track down the names and locations of five potential children. So she contacted them. And boy did she have news for them.

It's here we meet Olivia, Hector, Spencer, Gage and Bridget. Maddie has asked them to meet her face to face and within the first five minutes she drops the bomb on them, "Hey, you know that guy who raised you for 16 years? Not your real dad. Nope, your father is the now deceased champion of Tower City. And he was also a mega-douche."  Talk about having your world turned upside down. Not only did you just learn that you never knew your real dad, but now you have four half-brothers and sisters. You're angry, confused, back to angry. And while your processing all this you overlook the fact that Maddie has mysteriously left the room. Then BAM! She blasts the five of you with an unknown source of radiation, and, after regaining your composure and letting a few expletives fly, you realize you know have superpowers. However, unlike Captain Dynamo who had five, you and your siblings each possess one of his special abilities.

From this point forward, Maddie trains them to be a team, to be heroes focused on the protection of Tower City. Almost immediately they are confronted with several of Tower City's most infamous villains, and here the book delivers top-notch superhero action, but the real draw to Dynamo 5 is its unique take on the superhero family. Basically they're a family, but not really. They have led separate lives for about 16 years, they come from completely different backgrounds, and they all struggle with trying to understand who they are now and how they are supposed to relate to one another. And on top of this they have to put their lives on the line everyday to save Tower City and, at times, the world.

Each character is fully realized, and the book is written in such a way where it flashes to each member with their "family," so we see where they come from, who they were before Dynamo 5, and how the news has put a strain on the only relationships they have known, that of their family and friends. Then we see them with the team, trying to understand their powers, their new family dynamic, dealing with the betrayal of not knowing who their real father was. The drama is off the charts in this series, and in addition to the uniqueness of its set-up, Dynamo 5 was one of the most suspenseful and surprising books I've ever read. I read this book in trade, but you can tell that it worked wonderfully as a monthly title. Each issue ended with one cliffhanger after another. I plowed through the first trade in one night. There are five trades in all, and I pray that Faerber and Asrar unite and continue their stories. I'm hungry for more Dynamo 5.

Mahmud A. Asrar
I've talked a lot about the story, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the art. If you love art and don't know who Mahmud A. Asrar is you need to fix that. He is a master at putting together pages with dynamic action sequences and his double-page spreads are some of my all-time favorites. His character designs are unique, he has a great command of expression and his storytelling abilities are some of the best in the game. He's done interior work for DC, Marvel, Image and a handful of other publishers. His credits include Invincible, Thunderbolts, Justice League of America, Nova, and he is the current artist on DC's reboot of Supergirl. Admittedly he's the only reason I'm still picking up Supergirl. His pages sure are pretty.

I miss Dynamo 5. Every once in a while I pull out the trades and relive one of the best, perhaps most under-appreciated, series Image ever released. This is a series that exposes how limited corporate superhero books are in terms of taking their characters to new and interesting places. Much like Invincible, Hellboy, Irredeemable, The Mighty and many others, Dynamo 5 kept you on the edge of your seat the whole way through. You never how the story was going to end. You lived it right along with the characters. The series ended back in 2009, however they did release a min-series in 2010 that was collected in trade along with a holiday special. If you enjoy superhero stories, you like supporting creator-owned work, and you missed it the first time around, give Dynamo 5 a shot.


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