Sunday, January 10, 2010

Underrated/Overlooked: Battle Hymn

I believe it was Rickey (though if I'm wrong I'm sure he'll correct me) who recommended to me checking out the Battle Hymn limited series back in 2005 when it came out from Image. Whether it was him or somebody else, I'm glad they made that suggestion, as I really liked it; unfortunately, it was the fourth of five issues I picked up, so while I didn't have much trouble making sense of what was going on, I did regret I had missed three fifths of the mini already. Fortunately, back in those days I was the Image company contact for Wizard, so when my boy then-Image PR guru Jim Demonakos passed me the Battle Hymn trade, I tore into that sucker and it resides on my shelf to this day.

Battle Hymn, which was written by B. Clay Moore and illustrated by Jeremy Haun, is a pick-apart look at an Invaders/JSA-esque Golden Age team of heroes in the waning days of World War II, the first grouping of super heroes in their fictional universe. However, it's not a fond, nostalgic look back at more innocent times, as this group is a deeply flawed group of individuals whose vices and shortcoming demonstrate why such a team would have a tough go of it in the "real world," let alone back in the 40's.

Super hero deconstruction is of course nothing new, as Alan Moore started the ball rolling with Watchmen and the trend has continued to pick up momentum becoming as unto an avalanche in the present day. However, Moore's work here, besides being of high quality (and I rarely mind checking the hundreth variation on a theme provided it's still good) has plenty to set it apart from the standard fare.

First off, the Golden Age is slightly less-worn territory when it comes to deconstruction; though James Robinson and Paul Smith as well as Dan Jolley and Tony Harris did delve into the idea of the old guard not being so bright and shiny in The Golden Age and JSA: The Liberty Files respectively (and I have great fondness for both those works, Golden Age in particular), that they were using established DC heroes strengthened the stories but also held them back ever so slightly as they were at leasta bit beholden to preconceived notions, whereas Moore creates his own universe here and can go to town.

Secondly, Moore explores an angle not really covered in those books as well as one that has been touched upon in other comics, but rarely as well: the role of the government/media machine in making a bunch of freaks who can't get along seem like a finely-tuned fighting unit ready to save these United State at a moment's notice through a careful mix of propaganda and spin. Though the super-powered members of Battle Hymn's Watchguard are the soap opera stars of the stories, their government handlers and PR brigade are arguably even more interesting to follow, particularly if you're really into stuff like political manipulation of the free press (I'm not so much, but I do find myself fascinated by it when it's held right up to my face).

The more super hero themes Moore goes after and turns on their head include the super soldier created more for propaganda than function (Captain America and others), the other-wordly monarch who falls in love with a human woman (Namor) and the kinda creepy killing machine placed amongst a group of patriots in the hopes he can be used for the good of the country (the original Human Torch).

Additionally, Battle Hymn also explores the pretty realistic (and again, not terribly original, but well-done nonetheless) notion that heavily-hyped super heroes, particularly in war-time, would exploit their notoriety for vice (sex, drugs, not so much rock and roll) as well as how a British hero wouldn't necessarily be welcomed onto an American team with such open arms as we always saw in the comics.

Not too many of the characters Moore and Haun create are terribly likable, but that's kind of the idea. Cap stand-in the Proud American is an insufferable gloryhound more useful for photo ops than combat and who gets pulled from the team after their first press conference and replaced by a USAgent type called the Defender of Liberty. Ostensible Sub-Mariner Quinn Rey has the arrogance of his aquatic counterpart, but his lack of understanding of human culture is played less for laughs and more to illustrate how normal folks would really perceive a guy with gills. The Human Torch of the team, the Artificial Man, scares the hell out of everybody around him, and for good reason. Token speedster Johnny Zip (think Johnny Quick) is a lothario and louse looking for easy tail and a decent pay-off. British crimefighter Mid-Nite Hour is the only worthwhile dude in the bunch, and thus becomes our point-of-view character.

Perhaps the most interesting character of all is Betty Jones, the team's "secretary," but really only there to keep Quinn Rey, who is smitten with her, happy and in line. Unlike any actual female character from the Golden Age, Betty is hardly demure, with her bed-hopping, heavy drinking, and a filthy mouth on her that the good ol' Proud American can't believe. Again, Betty is not particularly endearing, but Moore's subversive way of taking the time-old "damsel in distress" and changing things up not by making her a strong, independent character, but rather one grounded in bad habits that weren't uncommon for the time, make you deeply invested in what she'll do next, particularly when she is in many ways the glue uneasily holding the unstable Watchguard together.

Jeremy Haun, whose work can currently be seen in Arkham Reborn and who did a bang-up job on Civil War: Casualties of War among other projects over the past couple years, throws himself into Battle Hymn full throttle, from concept design to action choreography. He impressivley takes timeless designs like Captain America, Namor, Doctor Mid-Nite and others and tweaks them nicely both to add more realistic elements and spice the looks up while not straying to far from his inspiration. In particular, his Artificial Man is a simultaneously tragic and terrifying figure who speaks volumes in the lack of dialogue Moore gives him thanks to Haun's excellent visuals.

There are of course explosions and warfare to be found in Battle Hymn, but that's really not what I'd recommend picking it up for. The character drama and window to a period comics have often made seem a more innocent time when we know it to be anything but is the main event. If you enjoy stuff like Watchmen and the genre it spawned, Battle Hymn is a unique and intelligent entry into that pantheon.


Rickey said...

It coulda been me! I recommended that bastard to a lot of people. I remember hoping that the Invaders series that eventually came out from Marvel would be as character-driven as this. It reminds me of a lot of the same things that I liked about Robinson's Golden Age mini, too.

Haun and Moore did a book together a little while later called The Leading Man at Oni, but its Hollywood secret agent plot didn't appeal to me as much as the straight war setting of Battle Hymn. Still, you should check it out. Haun's dope.

Ben Morse said...

It does seem like something you'd recommend, but lining up the timeline, I'm not sure we had even met when Battle Hymn came out. Maybe you encouraged me to hold on to the trade or admired it on my shelf.

BCM said...

You know, as a writer you throw stuff out there and hope it reaches an audience that responds the way you did, Ben.

You completely nailed what we were going for, and I appreciate seeing this review, no matter how long after the fact. The book is still available from Diamond.


Ben Morse said...

Glad I got what you were going for, Clay. It really is an excellent piece of work, so you should be proud.

Thanks for stopping by the blog!

Anonymous said...

I am a huge fan of this particular supers "genre" and I am surprised there aren't more ongoing series of this type. I'm definite to check this one out. Thanks!


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