Youngblood #1 (2008)
Writer: Joe Casey
Artist: Derec Donovan
Colorist: Bill Crabtree
Letterer: Rus Wooton
Cover: Derec Donovan
By Michael David Sims
08 February 2008 — The original Youngblood wasn't a good comic. We all know this, so let's not pretend otherwise. Yeah, yeah. Upon debuting, it might have sold over a million copies, but sales don't indicate quality. If that were the case, Joe Casey wouldn't have re-scripted the original series for the forthcoming hardcover. (See, even Rob Liefeld knows the book sucked.) So then why does it keep coming back? Do people like the concept and characters? Do they associate the title with an exciting era? Or is it that they like to see train wrecks, and figure anything with Youngblood for a title is destined for Derail City? If it's the latter, I have bad news for you: this new Youngblood series is a smooth ride.
I'm a Joe Casey fan. Let's get that out of the way right now. Though some people take issue with his writing, I like his fun, realistic take on the world of superheroes. Casey is more than capable of walking both sides of the line; he can do gritty drama, as well as bouncy fun. When meshed together, some writers can't handle the resulting tale, but Casey isn't one of them. In his hands he's able to balance the two, telling stories that are complex yet accessible to a wide array of readers. Youngblood #1 is exactly that.
As the story opens, a group of "typical white supremacist militia men" have take hostages in the Mall of America. To bring an end to the standoff, the United States government has sent in Jeff Terrell — also known as Shaft, the former Youngblood team leader. The bloody aftermath not only reminds me of a scene from Ripclaw: Pilot Season, but it also deftly illustrates what I mentioned earlier: the balance between light and dark. Having entered the mall unarmed, Terrell had to make due with whatever he could arm himself with, including forks and straws. Despite the seeming non-lethality of plastic dinnerware, the food court is a bloody mess, and at least three of the "typical white supremacist militia men" are left dead. It's meant to draw laughter and shock, both of which it delivers.
From there Terrell is told Youngblood is being reinstated, and he's once again been drafted as its leader — like it or not. Having been away from the game, Jeff hates it, but orders are orders. This is another reason I enjoy Casey's writing; not everyone is a gung-ho superhero. Some act out of duty, honor, money, revenge, family and so on. Too often in comics, especially opening / team-building storylines, a troupe of characters willingly charge into battle without hesitation. And though we see some of that here in Badrock, at least we know where he's coming from: he loves the limelight. So why wouldn't he want to be on a celebrity superteam? But Jeff is the other side of the coin, especially now that Youngblood is being rebuilt for a reality television show. Heading in he's suspicious, which shows he's no dummy. When you make a deal with the Devil, you read the fine print. Casey understands that, and he's infused Jeff with a healthy dose of skepticism — making him seem all the more real.
As the story progresses, Jeff's belief that this is a "complete farce" is compounded by one thing after the next: talk show appearances, advertising deals, Die Hard's so-called upgrades, photo ops, a line of action figures, a cartoon and, especially, the issue-ending battle. Nothing seems right, yet he's the only one who's taking notice. Another writer might have made Shaft seem like a whiner, but Casey's spin is much more honest. Jeff's eyes are wide open, which makes sense considering his level of experience. If a new recruit was this hardnosed, yeah, it would get annoying. Furthermore, a lot of his doubt comes in the form of thought balloons. As much as I enjoy what Brian Michael Bendis is doing with said balloons in Mighty Avengers, Casey's aren't used for comic relief — they're contemplative, and show that, though Jeff might not like the idea behind this iteration of Youngblood, he does want to help people. Again, humanizing what was once a rather flat character.
If this review is any indication, Shaft is obviously the focus of the first issue, with the rest of his team — Badrock, Cougar, Doc Rocket, Johnny Panic and Die Hard — playing supporting roles. Hopefully the subsequent issues will shift the focus to them, because, as nice as it is to see Jeff in a new light, it would be better if we could get to know the entire team as soon as possible. After all, this isn't Avengers or Justice League. Whenever those teams rebuild their respective rosters, chances are a good majority of readers already know who the individual members are, so it's okay for a writer to take his time introducing everyone to us. Sure, there might be one or two new / rookie characters we're unfamiliar with, but everyone else is an established icon in their own right. Here, not so much. Yes, the team and some of the characters have been around for 16 years now, but their previous paper-thin portrayals did them no favors. Currently all I know about Doc Rocket is that she's a female Flash, and Cougar is a cat-man. In one issue Casey has made Shaft a relatable character. If he can do that with the rest of the team, Image will have a hit on its hands.
Joining Joe Casey for the rebirth of Youngblood is artist Derec Donovan. Thankfully, before this issue I hadn't really seen much of Donovan's work. I say "thankfully" because this book already had a lot of baggage going in — what with it being Youngblood and my high expectations for any Casey-written comic. What it needed, and what it received, was an artist who was fresh and free of expectations. When readers open this up they'll find an artist whose style isn't that dissimilar from Phil Hester's or Cliff Chiang's, what with its lush inks and slightly cartoony edge, yet expressive faces and dynamic action sequences.
No matter how good Casey's script was, it could have been ruined by lackluster art. But that's not the case here. Instead of gnashed teeth and impossible postures, Donovan has brought a much more natural style to Youngblood. His characters react honestly to situations: Agent McGarry's body language shows an ulterior motive, while the team slows down to examine contracts and listen to their handlers. Not many artists can pull off quiet moments like contract-reading, but Donovan does. In fact, in what just might be my favorite panel, Cougar runs his long black nail over the text of the contract, studying it with great concentration. Earlier I lamented that we only got to know Shaft in this issue, but that one panel with Cougar gives us a little peek into the character. Rendering subtlety isn't something every comic book artist is capable of, but Donovan has that locked.
Casey has written this issue to be not only the opening chapter of a multipart story, but it's also a good standalone read. At least two mysteries present themselves, facilitating the need to read onward. Yet readers won't feel cheated upon closing the book. There's enough character development and mystery here to warrant the cover price. The action is a little quick — which is odd for a comic entitled Youngblood — but it's a nice change of pace from what we know. Set your reservations aside; Casey and Donovan have crafted one of the best reboots I've read in a long time, and I cannot wait to see where it goes from here.