Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Surfing the Bleed Review - The Great Ten by special contributor Bill Melville

On Wednesday, I anxiously scanned the racks for the team book I couldn't bear to miss.

I'm not talking about the finale to Cry for Justice, which I dropped at issue two. I long ago accepted James Robinson's collapse as a writer, as well as DC's successful efforts to turn its flagship team into a punchline.

Since tearing through the first three issues in a sitting, I found myself unable to skip the Great Ten, not surprising given the years DC made fans wait for this series.

Working off a Grant Morrison concept first fleshed out in 52 and recurring in Greg Rucka's late, underrated Checkmate series, the Ten finally get their due. At first glance, the Great Ten felt like Watchmen-lite, with the story chopped up by origins and these heroes who don't especially like each other gathered together. Despite the basic format, it works.

Past misgivings about Tony Bedard's work aside, it's quickly obvious this writer doesn't just view China as 2 billion people with slanted eyes and jet-black hair. Reviewers too often take issues in a vacuum, but often a series needs a little time to open up like a fine Bordeaux.

My fear over first issues proved correct; at first glance, Great Ten felt formulaic on the front end, full of condemnations of China's dictatorship with a scene from the Tibetan riots and subsequent military reprisal.

But amid that insurrection, a flicker of clever plotting emerged. The soldier who becomes Accomplished Perfect Physician fled his unit, accidentally becomes the 17th bearer of that title by killing the heir apparent. His new powers do not let his cowardice go forgotten. Team leader August General in Iron won't ignore a deserter. He wants to know root of the physician's powers so he can turn them off, then administer a beating.

The storyline has the Great Ten facing off against gods from Chinese folklore, with their origins sliced between the action. Bedard has obviously read the opening arc of Grant Morrison's JLA, with some similar story threads emerging.

Thanks to his origin, and witnessing heavenly lands, Celestial Archer sides with the invading gods. Thankfully, Bedard imparts a cultural literacy that avoids creation of a Hawkeye or Green Arrow knockoff. Thundermind is China's Superman analogue, a teacher whose object of affection pines for the superhero in the same fashion as a certain Metropolis reporter. Throw in a dash of Rick Jones due to his origin - he read an ancient scroll at a museum, unlocking powers buried in his DNA - and this Bodhisattva treads some new ground.

But it isn't all archetypes. Both August General in Iron and Immortal Man have origins steeped in alien technology, and Immortal Man in Darkness has an origin much darker than his name. I won't repeat it here, but as a small taste, he definitely isn't immortal. Nothing from the sometimes light-hearted Thundermind tale can escape the gravitational pull of how Immortal Man in Darkness came to fight for the Chinese.

The fifth issue finally arrived at the member most visible to DC readers: their leader. August General in Iron comes off as an egotistical, Sun Tzu-studying Ben Grimm, his mind still sharp in a body turned to rusting metal. At first, the alien origin concept felt tired, but Bedard really nails it on the final five pages with a key plot advancement and a moment for August General in Iron to establish a connection with teammate Ghost Fox Killer.

Having repudiated event comics, Great Ten was just the tonic I needed. If members of the team got Lantern rings in Blackest Night, I could care less. Well-plotted with decent art by Scott McDaniel, it has fallen under the radar, but this original tale should given the Great Ten staying power in the DCU.

I'll stick through the end, so long as the Chinese gods don't rape the Mother of Champions and leave Accomplished Perfect Physician to mind-wipe them. DC cannot be trusted with its team books; if the Justice League can fall into editorial ruin, any team can.

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