Review: Forever Evil: ARGUS trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

If the test of a successful miniseries is whether you'd want to read an ongoing series of the same, then Sterling Gates's Forever Evil: ARGUS is a success, though there is not unfortunately an ARGUS/Steve Trevor series nor any material from Gates on DC's new post-New 52 docket. Toward the end, ARGUS takes on too much and can't ultimately deliver on it all, though that's some argument toward continuing the series in a monthly book. Also, while artist Neil Edwards provides a fine base for the book, the art quality varies wildly depending on the inker, hampering the story Gates tries to tell. In all, however, here at the end of the New 52, ARGUS is a fun read, especially for those wanting some key pieces of New 52 history filled in.

[Review contains spoilers]

One of the better innovations of the New 52 has been the government's superhuman support agency, ARGUS -- the DC Universe's iteration of Marvel's SHIELD, which quickly made its way over to the Arrow TV series -- and the starring role it gives hard-luck super-spy Steve Trevor. The fan that I am of Greg Rucka's pre-Flashpoint Checkmate series, it's easy to see how an ARGUS series could mine the same territory for the New 52. The work of Sterling Gates I've read has been superheroes more than super-spies, though after Gates's remarkable turn on Supergirl I'm game to give any of his DC work a try. So I had high hopes for Forever Evil: ARGUS, and I was glad that Forever Evil make the book possible.

Gates's success here is really in his portrayal of Steve Trevor. Everything that makes Steve compelling is present: that the reader can sympathize with Steve because we know that deep down, he believes in the Justice League and wants them to succeed; but also that Steve values duty above all and he's willing, as we saw in Justice League of America, to take down superheroes if need be, and that his dealings with superheroes always also have the undercurrent of his hurt over his breakup with Wonder Woman. Steve is good enough to be a good guy, but also damaged enough to be just this side of unpredictable.

In the book's early pages, we get a good spy tale, as Steve explores the broken elements of ARGUS after the Crime Syndicate's attack, and then also breaks into the White House and faces off with Deathstroke, Copperhead, Blockbuster, and Shadow Thief to rescue the President. I could read a whole series about Steve Trevor, one-man army. Most importantly, Gates also delves into Steve's early encounters with Wonder Woman, something we haven't seen before and which the New 52 has lacked, in general, in regards to Wonder Woman's origins.

The story, unfortunately, never quite gets to Steve and Diana's actual break-up, one of the un-tied threads of the story. Though, Gates does postulate a Steve Trevor/Wonder Woman/Cheetah Barbara Minerva partnership akin to Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and Harvey Dent, in which Minerva works with Steve and Diana until her turn to evil rocks their relationship. That's a "Year One" story I'd love to read, even already knowing how it might turn out. (Gates also teases an untold team-up between the character he recently wrote, Vibe, and the one he's perhaps best known for, Supergirl. I'd read that, too.)

But, some of the pins that the story sets up in the beginning don't get satisfactorily knocked down by the end. The first is, again, some resolution to the Steve/Diana flashback story. Another is that there's a touching scene in the beginning where the mystical Morai take one of Steve's memories of Diana in exchange for assistance, and he offers to pay them an even higher toll for more help. We wait anxiously throughout the story to see what Steve will ultimately have to give up -- some more precious memory? His love for Diana? Instead, what the Morai take is Steve's future accomplishments, which he quickly decides he can create for himself anyway; in essence what promises to be another tragic sacrifice that Steve has to make for Diana turns out to be amorphous and inconsequential.

As well, there's a promising storyline -- but ultimately incomplete and inconsequential -- involving a figure known as Mr. Green, and the Crimson Men. Green inhabits a mystical ARGUS panic room, and as Gates initially keeps Green's appearance secret, I was intrigued to determine which old or new DC hero Green might be, especially since his artful green dialogue reads like Volthoom, or the Tangent Green Lantern. Green is an elder of ARGUS -- an organization apparently much older than we or Steve thought -- but it also turns out he works for a rival cult, the Crimson Men. The Crimson Men appear here trying to wrangle the disembodied Dr. Light, which I guess ties up a thread from Trinity War, but ultimately neither Light nor the Crimson Men nor Green have much to do with the story's resolution. Were this set-up for the book's next story arc, I might feel differently, but instead it's pages that might have been better used to flesh out Steve further.

(In both of these shortfalls, there's reason to believe the book's ending is not entirely what was originally intended, not in the least because the final issue cover shows characters that don't actually appear in the book.)

A notable aspect of ARGUS is the inclusion of Killer Frost Caitlin Snow (and the exclusion of Gates's Justice League of America #7.2: Killer Frost is really a shame). It's hard to believe Snow is here for any reason other than that she figures prominently -- in pre-Killer Frost form -- in the Flash TV series. That's curious and not -- likely the character's profile will increase as the show continues and being part of Forever Evil is no small feat, though an ARGUS miniseries doesn't quite have the prominence of Justice League, which guest-starred the Metal Men and the Doom Patrol, for gosh sake. Maybe there was some thought DC TV fans would be drawn in by both ARGUS (Arrow) and Caitlin Snow (Flash), but it's still an odd mix. And Gates's Frost is too quippy on one hand and whiny on the other, such that her partnership with Steve Trevor never quite worked for me.

In its better moments, Neil Edwards's art begins to resemble Jesus Saiz, round and clear and assured. But consider the scene with ARGUS agent Etta Candy in the Green Room in the third chapter, versus the fight between Steve Trevor, Killer Frost, and a gun-toting Professor Martin Stein right after. The fight is much sketchier, with less detail and less cohesion. The series has two inkers primarily, Jason Paz and Jay Leisten; I can't tell who's responsible for which pages, but one brings forth Edwards's work better than the other.

Forever Evil tie-ins have varied in quality, from the very good, like Justice League, to the not-so-hot, like Justice League of America and Forever Evil: Arkham War. Sterling Gates's Forever Evil: ARGUS is on the good side, giving Steve Trevor and ARGUS a well-deserved spotlight (maybe for the last time; it remains to be seen after DC's relaunch, I think, how prominent the whole ARGUS system still is). The book left me wanting more, but not necessarily in a bad way; too bad there isn't actually more forthcoming.

[Includes original covers, sketchbook section]
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