The late 90s of superhero comics has always been a fascinating Wild West to me. I know so little about this period which is based on the most significant recession in the industry. With so few eyes drawn, it’s ripe to discover fascinating hidden gems or unreadable stinks. This year, I dug up the burgeoning “A-Next” series and franchise to get my teeth into it. What category will this spin-off of a spin-off fall into? Let’s find out together, dear readers!
Screenplay by Tom DeFalco
Drawn and illustrated by Ron Frenz
Finished by Brett Breeding
Coloring by Bob Sharen
Letters from Jim Novak
In a clever nod to the original “Avengers” #4, this issue’s cover shows a Captain America analogue, the awkwardly named American Dream joining the book with his amazing “Dream Team.” Yeah, folks, we’re not getting one new character, but four massive members of what appears to be a new Avengers sub-sector? It seems like we’re never quite clear on this, hopefully future issues will figure out exactly where these people are. Frenz and Breeding feature American Dream, Bluestreak, Crimson Curse, and Freebooter in a wonderfully kinetic boot page set in a workout room. Bluestreak easily wins my heart for the most immediate personality that carries throughout the number, with a sleek, sharply accented body suit punctuated by a mocking expression. DeFalco also uses the introduction of these characters well to further develop the main cast. In response to the new teammates, J2 wonders if Mainframe is trying to knock him out of the gang because of his initial flight reflex in the last fight number. It’s a fascinating moment of this teenager in the body and situation of an adult trying to process what’s going on around him and gives me a lot more love for the character.
The focus is enlarged after this scene, as DeFalco takes us to Wakanda, to check out who’s running the superpower nation these days. Prince and T’Challa’s son, T’Chaka, ponders with his Uncle N’Kano and his security team how smooth their upcoming trip to Washington will be. In a moment of immersion-rupture, “What could go wrong? », the meeting is interrupted by the Soldiers of the Serpent! The ensuing fight is lively, with Frenz and Breeding using smoke lines to cleverly create depth and layers in the panels. N’Kano is also revealed as Vibraxis in this fight, but he’s in a panel, does him no good, looks a bit lame, and is never brought up for the rest of the issue.
Before long, the original Avengers team makes its entrance. Mainframe’s double robot from last issue is tackled, with the rest of the team arousing suspicion, before the plumb head gets away with getting out of the jet and fighting, leaving poor J2 to land on the plane ! Frenz and Breeding sketch a tense sequence of the jet making its way to landing, before J2 simply stops the jet by slamming his feet through the floor and into the ground below. It’s a great visual piece, punctuated with a squeaky “KkkkKKkKK” lettering from Novak. Mainframe’s irresponsibility is briefly (and deservedly!) touched on before everyone gets into it, where T’Chaka reveals he has the power to transform into a bestial form: the Coal Tiger. Now far be it from me as a white person to comment on this, but this kind of physical beast transformation trope happened many times with black characters in 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, chunky hybrid that looks ready for battle, at least.
The battle with the Serpent Soldiers continues, who prove to be little more than a stand-in for just about any fascist terrorist group looking to shatter the status quo. To truly drive this home, they announce that they’ve had enough of their “proud land” being overrun by “mutants, bastards, and misfits!”. They took N’Kano – excuse me, I mean Vibaxis – hostage to achieve this. And, oh god, Frenz and Breeding are really going to town with this shirtless Vibraxis – he’s a wealth of pecs, abs and everything in between. The Avengers and the Coal Tiger smash their way through the pages, breaking down walls in dramatic shots, but struggle a bit. Thunderstrike briefly saves Vibraxis from a knife but is quickly swept away by a giant snake, which is a great humbling moment for the self-absorbed character.
But now, the Dream Team arrives as reinforcements! Each of the new members gets a panel dedicated to themselves, where they can announce a fun one-liner as they battle snake-themed robots and henchmen. Again, Bluestreak has the most personality here, with the others largely acting like cardboard boxes containing superpowers. The next page has an unfortunate Frenz and Breeding panel that wasn’t designed to take the lettering into consideration, leading to confusing positioning for American Dream’s word balloon, but J2’s panel beating a snake in saying “SURE. GOOD. NEVER MATTERS.” quickly lifted my spirits.
The day is saved with American Dream conveniently defeating the leader with a single punch on camera, delivering a patriotic speech about how evil will never win. It’s a great parody of those cheesy, blink-and-miss-you superhero speeches, which was surprising from famous superhero Tom DeFalco. The parody is further encapsulated as the rest of the team laughs that American Dream was just in the right place at the right time and stole all the credit. In beautifully ’90s-inspired dialogue, the issue ends with Thunderstrike offering to gift the team pizza as compensation, to which J2 delightfully exclaims “COOL!”.