The late nineties of superhero comics have always been such a fascinating wild west to me. I know so little about this period that is building off the industry’s most significant recession. With so few eyes drawn to it, it’s ripe for uncovering fascinating hidden gems or unreadable stinkers. This year I’ve dug up the series and burgeoning franchise “A-Next” to sink my teeth into. Which category will this spinoff-of-a-spinoff fall in? Let’s find out together, dear readers!
Scripted by Tom DeFalco
Plotted and Illustrated by Ron Frenz
Finished by Brett Breeding
Colored by Bob Sharen
Lettered by Jim Novak
In a clever nod to the original “Avengers” #4, the cover of this issue shows a Captain America analog, the clunkily named American Dream joining the book with her astounding “Dream Team”. Yes, folks, we’re getting not one new character, but a whopping four members of what seems to be a sub-sector new arm of the Avengers? It seems like we’re never quite clear on this, hopefully, future issues sort out exactly where these folks sit. Frenz and Breeding introduces American Dream, Bluestreak, Crimson Curse, and Freebooter in a wonderfully kinetic splash page situated in a training room. Bluestreak easily wins my heart for the most immediate personality that he carries throughout the issue, with a snazzy, sharp-accented body suit punctured by a jeering expression. DeFalco also uses the introduction of these characters well to develop the core cast further. In response to the new teammates, J2 wonders if Mainframe is trying to shuffle him out of the gang because of his initial flight reflex in the fight last issue. It’s a compelling moment of this teenager in an adult’s body and situation trying to process what is happening around him and gives me a lot more love for the character.
The focus is zoomed back out after this scene, as DeFalco brings us over to Wakanda, to check in with who’s running the super-powered nation these days. The prince and son of T’Challa, T’Chaka is musing with his uncle de él N’Kano and his security team about how smoothly their upcoming Washington trip will be going. In a moment of immersion-breaking, “What could possibly go wrong?”-timing, the meeting is interrupted by the Soldiers of the Serpent! The ensuing fight is sharp, with Frenz and Breeding using smoke lines to cleverly create depth and layering in the panels. N’Kano is also revealed as Vibraxis in this fight, but it is in one panel, does him no good, looks kinda lame, and is never brought up for the rest of the issue.
Before long, the original Avengers team makes an entrance. Mainframe’s robot double from the last issue is addressed, with the rest of the team raising suspicion, before the tin-head shuffles out of it by busting out of the jet and into the fight, leaving poor J2 to land the plane! Frenz and Breeding sketch a tense sequence of the jet bashing its way towards landing, before J2 simply stops the jet by slamming his feet through the floor and into the ground below. It’s a great visual bit, punctuated with grating “KkkkKKkKK” lettering from Novak. Mainframe’s irresponsibility is briefly (and rightly!) addressed before everyone gets into the swing of things, where T’Chaka reveals he has the power to transform into a bestial form: the Coal Tiger. Now, far be it for me as a white person to comment on this, but this kind of physical beast transformation trope has happened multiple times with black characters around this era (I’m looking at you, “Universe X”), and it seems like a regressive story beat that plays into some unfortunate black stereotypes. On a purely technical level, at least, Frenz and Breeding draw a well-proportioned, bulky-looking hybrid that looks primed for battle, at least.
The battle with the Soldiers of the Serpent continues, who prove to be little more than a stand-in for just about any fascist terrorist group looking to break the status quo. To really drive this home, they announce that they are sick of their “proud land” being overrun by “mutants, mongrels, and misfits!” They have taken N’Kano – pardon me, I mean, Vibaxis – hostage to achieve this. And, oh lordy, Frenz and Breeding really go to town with this shirtless Vibraxis – he is a wealth of pecs, abs, and everything in between. The Avengers plus the Coal Tiger battle their way around pages, smashing through walls in dramatic shots, but have a bit of a rough time. Thunderstrike briefly saves Vibraxis from a knife but is quickly swept away by a giant snake, which is a great moment of humility for the ego-centric character.
But lo – the Dream Team arrive as backup! Each of the new members gets a panel dedicated to themselves, where they get to announce a quippy one-liner as they battle serpent-themed robots and henchpeople. Again, Bluestreak has the most personality here, with the others acting largely as cardboard boxes containing superpowers. The next page has an unfortunate panel from Frenz and Breeding that was not laid out to account for lettering, leading to some confusing positioning for American Dream’s word balloon, but the panel of J2 beating down a serpent saying “SURE. FINE. WHATEVER.” brought me back to high spirits quickly.
The day is saved with American Dream conveniently beating down the leader with a single punch in front of a camera, giving a patriotic speech about how evil will never win. It’s a great, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it parody of these corny superhero speeches, which was surprising from noted superhero stan Tom DeFalco. The parody is encapsulated even more as the rest of the team mopes about how American Dream was only in the right place at the right time and stole all the credit. In a beautifully nineties-as-heck bit of dialogue, the issue ends with Thunderstrike offering to get the team a pizza as compensation, to which J2 delightfully exclaims “COOL!”