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The Twelve

So a while back I mentioned that I had just read a comic but that I wasn’t quite ready to give my opinion on it because it was so fresh in my mind. While that may seem contradictory when it comes to reviewing, I like to give my brain time to naturally sort my memories and thoughts before throwing them down on paper… or digital journal… or whatever. So, with a few days passed since the last issue was read and inbetween reading Spider-Man and watching funny cat videos on Youtube I thought I’d finally give my impression of “The Twelve” and why I think it’s an amazing comic.

The Twelve in 1945

Well, I guess that’s kind of my impression and review in a nutshell, I think it’s amazing.

But before I start telling you about why this comic is great, since this is my first time reviewing a comic I think it only fair that I give a short history on my comic reading. Like most boys growing up in the eighties and nineties, comics were a thing but not really a major thing, at least not where I grew up. It’s certainly true that I knew very well what Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman and so forth was but I can’t really say that I read it with any regularity. I read more Donald Duck growing up than any other comic mostly because that’s what my dad was willing to pay for on account of everyone in the family being able to read it.
Neither Spider-Man nor Batman would garner much attention from my sisters or dad himself.

So I read most of my comics at friends’. I remember one of my favorite was a Venom comic with a whole story or arc collected in it, something about him going into the underground and saving a bunch of hobos or something. And whenever I could get my hands on some cheap comics at flea markets or yard sales then I’d totally buy ’em. But other than that, as a kid, my history with super hero comics was fairly limited. Most of my exposure to these epic heroes came from cartoons and it was how I was introduced to many of the main heroes that I today read regularly in comic form.

Then in my late teens I started reading comics on a more regular basis. I even started subscribing to Spider-Man and X-Men to sate my need. It was just around the time that companies were starting to get serious with super hero movies with stuff like Hulk and Fantastic Four and other such movies. I don’t remember exact year when I started but I do remember reading up to Civil War, where I took a several years long break from comics. Then a few years back, when I started university and started hanging out with a bunch of other really geeky nerds I started reading comics again, starting with Civil War so I had quite a bit of slack to pick up.

And for the record, I read both Marvel and DC and think neither is better than the other right now. They both have pros and cons, is all I’m gonna say.

So, The Twelve. First issue released in 2008, it was created by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston. Straczynski is probably most well known for some his Hollywood scripts and Babylon 5 but he’s a fairly prolific writer in comics as well, having written quite a lot of Spider-Man and helming the reboot of Squadron Supreme. Weston on the other hand worked a lot on Judge Dredd and 2000 AD before moving over to the US market with things like Swamp Thing and JLA.

If you don’t know what any of these names mean, don’t worry, because that’s pretty much the extent of what I’ll mention.

So what is The Twelve? The Twelve is a story of twelve Golden Age heroes who are cryogenically frozen by Nazis at the end of World War II when the heroes helped take Berlin. While sifting through the ruins for more Nazis to punch, they’re ambushed and forced into hibernation, the plan being to brainwash and use them as their own soldiers when the Nazis come back out of hiding. Unfortunately for the Nazis, and The Twelve, they don’t get very far before being caught by the enemy and executed. Sealed away in an underground bunker, the heroes remain on ice, sleeping their endless sleep.

Sixty years later, just after the end of Marvel’s Civil War event, construction in Berlin unearth the long forgotten tomb and find to their surprise that the heroes are still alive and well if still sleeping. Upon being woken up, the heroes are taken in by the US government and given one year to acclimatize to their new world and figure out what they want to do with their lives. Housed under a single roof, we get to follow the twelve through the eyes of Richard Jones, aka the Phantom Reporter, as they come to terms with the new world, what they have lost and what the future might hold for them.

One thing you must understand about comics is that Marvel has probably a few thousand heroes no-one knows what to do with. The 1930-40s are often referred to as the Golden Age of comics and you couldn’t take two steps without running into a new super hero. For every Batman or Captain America there were quite a few that only appeared for maybe one or two issues and then promptly disappeared.

I mean, who ever heard of this guy, right?

The Twelve is basically these guys come back to life. Various bit part heroes given new life. To a comic nerd this is absolutely fascinating, one of the best part about the comic is that they’ve included some of the issues where the characters originally appeared and that alone is worth the buy as it gives you a pretty interesting view on how they did comics then compared to now. And this is reflected in the super heroes as well. Let’s just say that there were a lot more “Punishers” running around back in the day compared to today when we have… well, the one and maybe a few others. DC have a few more hardcore vigilantes up their sleeves but overall, the approach to catching crooks and bank robbers has changed.

In fact, the comic makes a point of it when one of the heroes end up in trouble when his guns (yes, he uses actual guns) are revealed to be the weapons used in a murder back in the forties. As the cop points out, yes, the guy was mob and total scum but murder is murder. So he ends up in jail. In the forties, shooting a bad guy who was “ruining the greatness of America by existing” was rewarded with medals, not jail time.
And the main character, the Phantom Reporter (must be said out loud every time and with a echo in your voice), is no slouch either, having run around punching guys to death. But it’s harder to match knuckle imprints, I imagine.

There are more interesting things as well, such as the costumes sucking balls. Don’t get me wrong, I love the hell out of them because they’re crazy retro. But take a look at some of these heroes:

Those are three different heroes. The Phantom Reporter, Mr. “E” and The Witness. Calling them bland is an understatement to say the least so the duo had to work extra hard to make them distinguishable in their rebirth.

Nice legs.

And surprise, they did a pretty good job. To a certain degree they are definitely limited by the source material and no amount of small redesigns will ever help the fact that many of the heroes are simply dull to begin with. Mr. “E” is just a woefully dull hero to look at and looks like any other hero from that age, heavily inspired by Zorro or similar masked heroes. The only thing that saves The Phantom Reporter from becoming “woefully dull” is that he’s a focal point of the story and as such his costume doesn’t just receive a redesign but it’s also updated to fit more modern standards. The same can be said about the Blue Blade but for… other reasons rather than combat reasons.

Other characters, like Captain Wonder here or Dynamic Man, rocks pretty much the same outfit as they did back in the day with minor variations here and there. Others don’t really wear their outfits much at all like the Fiery Mask while others didn’t really have much of a costume to begin with like Excello.

And Electro is… well, he’s Electro, he’s a robot.

And then there is the question of the only female hero on the team: Black Widow.

“But wait! I know this one and I know for a fact that she wasn’t frozen in ice or whatever at the end of World War II ’cause she was in all those movies recently.”

Ah, yes, see, this is where Marvel likes to get confusing. First, in Mainstream Marvel Universe, aka Earth 616 where all the main comics take place, Black Widow is actually a title and not necessarily a name. While Natasha Romanoff, played by lovely, lovely Scarlett Johansson in the movies, is the best known I think there are actually something like… three Black Widows running around at this time. But don’t take my word for that, it tends to change quickly.

And secondly… we’re not talking about these Black Widows. No, the very first Black Widow to appear was actually an anti-hero/villain powered by Satan himself going around killing dudes who owed Satan his due, often with very messy results. And she is, of course, drop dead gorgeous… in more than one way.

Before your thoughts run rampant, please do remember that her power comes directly from Satan and she can kill you with one touch. Make sure it’s worth it, is all I’m saying.

So, that’s a rundown of the heroes as unspoilerish as I can muster because the beauty is in the details. The series circulates around two things: a murder mystery and the heroes coming to terms with the past in the present. Suffice to say, not everyone lives at the end of issue 12 but hearts will be broken, debts to society repaid and ways will be mended all the way. Those who can try to reunite with their families while others have to accept that their loved ones have all passed away. But all of them must find their own place in the new world.

The whole story is primarily told through the eyes of Richard Jones, having been asked by the Daily Bugle to write about the differences of then and now. The comic goes into topics such as racism and segregation although it does so with great care, playing as much on your own expectations as on the obvious, setting you up for a fall you’re not gonna see coming. We also get to follow the heroes in their struggles with accepting how the future actually turned out, noting that it’s not what they were promised. There are no flying cars or skyscrapers reaching miles up in the sky or jetpacks to take you from the store to home in no seconds flat.

“I’m just going to keep going until the future catches up with me.”

They fought to free the world from war, tyranny and crime and then they wake up in the world as is, a world in their eyes almost worse off.

However, the comic isn’t perfect. The mystery, for one, is too obvious and it shouldn’t take you very long to figure out what’s going on. And this is both because the mystery in itself is fairly basic but also because the creators make the clues far too obvious, not settling on either visual or written hints but both and fairly blatantly. Sometimes comic creators tend to forget that comics are also a visual medium and overstate things in thought balloons or explanatory squares. In some areas The Twelve isn’t so bad while at other times it’s quite lazy. The motives behind the killings is actually quite fascinating but it’s undone by a weak reveal that most people saw coming a mile away.

My only other gripe with the comic is that there’s not enough story while at the same time too much story. There’s eleven characters (not counting Electro) and they try to give each of them their time in the spotlight to deal with the world but with any character not central to the mystery, this tends to happen in the periphery, not affecting the story as a whole. As such they feel pretty useless and forgettable. Out of the twelve characters advertised, only five or so play a significant part in the mystery while the others serve to highlight the tragedy of what they’ve gone through and how they need to adapt.
The issue I have with this is that the comic would be more interesting if it had picked one track or the other. A comic more dedicated to the mystery could’ve been a fascinating read, a “whodunit” with super heroes. But on the other hand, seeing twelve golden age heroes adjusting to the world today would ALSO be a fascinating read, given how different our era is from their era. But splitting its focus between the two doesn’t do either justice. The character studies feel like they’re interrupting the mystery and the mystery stops most of the characters to fully develop and grow.

And then there’s the last issue… well, I’ll just say I didn’t like it. It felt too much like cleanup and not enough like part of the story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to see what everyone gets up to and where they find their places in the world but… there’s just something terribly off about it and serves to highlight that most of the comic worked as a setup for the Phantom Reporter, a payoff we’re likely to ever see much of. I’d love to see a continuation on this but I doubt we ever will.

Ultimately the comic is still good or even more than that. I said earlier that I think the comic is amazing and I stand by it. The idea itself is fascinating alone to make me love it and the care and love for these heroes of old is genuine. Most of the writing is expertly done and I’d expect nothing else from Straczynski, having been a fan of Squadron Supreme and much of his Spider-Man work (yes, even THAT thing). The artwork is very competent and mixes old with new very well, like you’d expect a comic celebrating the old.

I tore through the comic in no time flat, falling absolutely in love with it from issue one and even though the later issues falls behind in quality, probably thanks to the three, four year window between releases, it’s still definitely worth a read. Because even at its worse, it’s leagues above your typical comic.