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Sunday, 22 May 2011

Outsiders



Writer: Judd Winick
Art: Various
Publisher: DC

What’s it about?
The Outsiders are a superhero team set up to deal with the more dangerous threats to the DC Universe.  They have no interest in good PR or in being symbols of hope, instead they want to do the job – take down the dangerous guys and go home at the end of the day.  It’s work, not family.
Meet the team.

On our left is Nightwing.  Formerly Batman’s sidekick Robin.  Crimefighter, non powered.  He's traditionally been seen as a moody pretty boy.
On our right is Arsenal. Formerly Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy.  Now he’s gorwn up and taken to calling himself Arsenal.  He's an ace archer and a weapons expert, non powered.

Next up is Grace.  Tattooed, tall and a super strong juggernaut, she's nigh on invulnerable.  The black woman next to her is Anissa Pierce, otherwise known as Thunder.  Anissa is the daughter of another hero named Black Lightning.  She is able to increase her density, making her super heavy and invulnerable.
The green lady is Jade.  Jade can manifest energy into solid constructs, and is linked to the Green Lantern family of heroes.  The blue lady is Indigo, she's essentially a self aware android from the future.  She can fly, create force fields and emit energy beams from her hands and eyes.

Lastly we have Metamorpho, the element man.  Otherwise known as Rex Mason, he is an adventurer who gained the ability to manipulate his bodily elements into new shapes, forms and matter.

The group tackles all sorts of threats, from rampaging talking gorillas, demons from hell, child traffickers to mad scientists end of the universe scenarios.  Then there are more mundane things like father-daughter relationships, mistaken identities, burgeoning love and betrayal.

These books are known as volume 3, meaning that this was the third ongoing series titled the Outsiders.  All in all, there were 50 individual issues that have been collected into 8 trades (if you are unsure of any terminology used in this or any other posts please look at our glossary).

What’s good about it?
As much as Outsiders is an action themed story about a group of superheroes, it is also about personal relationships and the character’s own journeys.  I think I’ve implied in previous reviews that I believe superhero comics, and especially ongoing series, work best when they are used to examine big ideas like morality, accountability and justice.  After all, reading about superhuman fights and powerful punches is all very well, but for most adults that would get a little dull after a few issues.

Looking at the series as a whole, over the full 8 trades, it is easy to see how the characters develop and the relationships between them change and adapt.  The first trade tells us a fun story.  The second trade throws us some meatier elements and the third trade takes us down a much darker, more painful route that moves away from ideas of magic and fantasy and deals with the characters histories and real world problems.

By the time we get to trade number 4 we are fully invested in the characters lives and so the tragedy that unfolds hits us hard.  The remaining four books will be discussed in more detail further down.

But maybe you don’t care much for character development.  Maybe you are happy enough with that sort of thing, but what you really want are kick ass fights and tough supeheroes.  In that case, may I present to you Grace Choi.  The baddest of the badasses.  She’s super strong, pretty much invulnerable and  really doesn’t give a damn.  In a genre which can use the same goodie goodie template for it’s heroes, Grace is a breath of fresh air.  She smokes, she drinks and she fucks.  She loves life and she does it on her terms.  This is her reaction to waking up after one of the villains has tried to burn her face off:

Isn't she amazing?  I'd also like to point out that in the first trade she catches a godsdamn plane.  This woman is a real powerhouse, yet she’s greatly underused in comics.  Thankfully, Outsiders give her a chance to shine.
Add to this mix some humour (see left and below) and a decent creative team, and you get some really enjoyable books.  Winick get criticised a lot on the comics blogosphere, and to be fair, he has written some bad stuff, but when he’s good he’s very, very good.   In Outsiders he created a team outside of the usual all white-male-straight template.

He included Thunder, another kick ass heroine with her own mind and own goals, made a black family prominent within the series, effectively rode the balance between fantasy and real life and outed two characters to give us some more lesbian and bisexual heroines.  You’ll have to read volumes 7 and 8 to find out more about that though.
What’s bad about it?
Well, given that there are 8 trades in this series, some will be better than others.  My personal favourites are books 2 and 3, Sum of all Evil and Wanted.  Book 1, Looking for Trouble, is good, but I feel the series doesn’t really get into its stride until Sum of All Evil.

Then there’s the problem that the series enters crossover hell from book number 4, Teen Titans/Outsiders: Insiders.  This one is a good read, but won’t make sense if you haven’t read the earlier trades.  Next up is Crisis Intervention, and the effects of this crossover are felt until the final trade.

Crisis Intervention coincides with a big ‘event’ within the DC Universe, called Infinite Crisis, (for more information see this explanatorypost).  This event affected every single series which was being published at the time and meant that each series had to cover it.  Unfortunately, these stories don’t always standalone very well.   Without knowing about Infinite Crisis, or without reading the previous trades in Outsiders series, Crisis Intervention would not be particularly enjoyable.

When Infinite Crisis finished, all DC Universe books jumped forward in time a year, with the missing year being covered in the weekly series 52 (again, see this for more information).  This was confusing as all hell to me when I was reading comics at time of publishing because suddenly the teams changed without any explanation.  New characters are brought in, but in the case of the Outsiders books, these new characters are not well introduced and are not around long enough for the reader to care about them.

The other irritating thing is that issue 7 is not collected in any of these books, even though it’s a fairly major part of Metamorpho’s story.  If you want to read this I would suggest you look for it on eBay or Amazon.  Details will be given below.

So, the upshot of this is that you really have to start reading from Looking for Trouble or Sum of all Evil if you want to enjoy this series.  From Crisis Intervention onwards the books get more confusing and reliant upon other knowledge to enjoy them.
                               
What’s the art like?
As we’ve established that books 1 to 4 are the best ones, we shall look at the art in these.  The artistic teams change over the course of the books, and each one brings a different style to the story.  What links them is an emphasis on action, and an understanding of how to use colour and shading to the advantage of the story.

 It's probably worth mentioning that the art in the first book is more stylised than the rest, this means that sometimes faces look a bit strange and wonky.  For example:
Differing from the panels selected above, some of the art is quite light and breezy, for example this page from Sum Of All Evil:
The layout and perspective on some pages are thoughtfully done, and highlight the emotions of the scenes without needing any words included.
Both these pages have a different feel, but show how artists can play about with panel space to create something quite powerful.  The left scan is from Wanted, the right scan from Teen Titans/Outsiders: Insiders.



Other information
Outsiders has been collected into 8 trades, the reading order is as follows:
Looking for Trouble: £6.98, ISBN: 140120211X
Sum Of All Evil: £8.30, ISBN: 1401202438
Wanted: £8.29, ISBN: 1401204600
Teen Titans/Outsiders: Insiders: No price given, but you should be able to pick it up for a similar cost to the other trades.  ISBN: 1401209262
Crisis Intervention: £7.13, ISBN: 1401209734
Good Fight: £9.01, ISBN: 9781401211950
Pay As You Go:
Outsiders/Checkmate: Checkout: £8.99, ISBN: 1845767373

These books are more mature than your average superhero book.  Whilst I wouldn’t label it for mature readers, it is certainly aimed at adults rather than children.  There’s swearing, violence and sex, but it’s not gratuitous and it’s not offensive (unless those sort of things offend you anyway).

Wanted deals with the child rape and slavery trade, so may be triggering to some readers.  I can at least assure you that the book doesn’t dwell on the specifics of the children’s experience, it is told from the point of the view of the parents and the team themselves, hunting down the abusers.

Not collected are issues 7, 26, 27, 50.  If you want to purchase them from eBay, Amazon or a comics shop, this is what the covers look like:
 
 

For further reading, may I recommend Five of a Kind, the mini series which followed directly on from the final Outsiders issue.  This is actually good enough to be read on it’s own, even if you choose not to read Crisis Intervention, Good Fight, Pay As You Go, or Outsiders/Checkmate: Checkout.

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