Review: Stormwatch Vol. 3: Betrayal trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Peter Milligan's New 52 Stormwatch Vol. 3: Betrayal has going for it that it spotlights Midnighter and Apollo's nascent (in this continuity) relationship. It also spins from start to finish a focused, action-packed eight-part tale that culminates most of Stormwatch's ongoing plotlines since the series's beginning. All of that is good, and makes for a solid chunk of reading.

At the same time, for those who cut their teeth on Stormwatch as Authority, Milligan's story just doesn't measure up; the plot is rather typical, the characters naive, and the stakes pretty low as far as Stormwatch/Authority goes, with action taking the place of any intellectualism. As high a regard as I have for the Authority characters, one would think the titular "betrayal" here wouldn't give them a moment's pause; that things fall to chaos seems a failure of the creative team's imagination, not the characters themselves.

[Review contains spoilers]

From the outset, Betrayal is Apollo and Midnighter's book, starting with a Young Romance tale atmospherically drawn by Simon Bisley. Unusual for that title, the story ends with Midnighter actually rejecting Apollo for reasons we later understand have to do with the violence in Midnighter's life and his attempt at fealty to Stormwatch in order to focus that violence, even though Midnighter cares about Apollo and vice versa. To that end, most of the book's conflict either involves Midnighter or Apollo's not-so-secret concern about the other when one of them is injured by a foe, or Apollo's hurt when he believes Midnighter has betrayed the team and Midnighter's anger that Apollo might believe it.

There's no small amount of melodrama here, either in Apollo or Midnighter losing their cool when the other one is hurt or in Apollo's total and immediate freak-out when he thinks Midnighter is a villain. On one hand I'm glad to read a book that sets Midnighter and Apollo's relationship against the everyday "they love each other but can't be together" romance tropes (though there's something to be said for the low-drama Wildstorm version of their relationship, too), but at the same time the ending misunderstanding is predicated on Apollo and the rest of Stormwatch being fairly easy to fool. Even the Shadow Lords, Stormwatch's ultra-powerful ruling body, are tricked by rogue Stormwatch member Harry Tanner with little difficulty, such to suggest a team with the sophistication of the Young Heroes in Love and not the proto-Authority.

Milligan respects the characters and tells a hefty Stormwatch story, but it follows very predictable lines of the bad guy scheming and the good guys falling for it. Additionally Milligan telegraphs the secondary betrayal of the Engineer from the beginning, with multiple characters telling her (with some repetition) how much differently she's been acting since she absorbed an ancient weapon in Stormwatch Vol. 2: Enemies of Earth. Engineer's betrayal is never fully explained beyond that she's just "gone bad," similarly because the plot needs it to be this way. I appreciate that artist Will Conrad draws almost the entire book, but his work is inked very darkly and also comes off very rote, adding to the book's sense of everydayness.

Something else Betrayal does have going for it, however, is a couple of instances that tie Stormwatch more closely to the Demon Knights title. It's been common knowledge since this title's beginning that the latter was an offshoot of the former, but the characters haven't necessarily known it until now. Among the best issues of this book is the Etrigan the Demon two-part guest shot, at times shockingly and effectively violent, that ties the two team's histories that much closer together. Unfortunately any hope we had of a real Demon Knights/Stormwatch crossover under Milligan or previous writer Paul Cornell -- something like the modern-day Madame Xanadu, Etrigan, and Vandal Savage meeting Stormwatch -- is undoubtedly dashed now with Milligan leaving the title, not to mention Rebirth et al, so this is about as close as we'll come.

I'll also mention a couple of last-minute, almost nonsensical cameos by Wildstorm character Zealot (late of Rob Liefeld's Deathstroke) and the New 52 Dan DiDio-penned version of OMAC. OMAC is the real head-scratcher, as Zealot at least evokes the Wildstorm origins of Stormwatch, though Apollo's jealousy over Midnighter's affection for Zealot and questioning whether Midnighter is actually gay is one of the book's surprising low points. But both of these cameos, especially OMAC, are so random and silly as to liven up the book as the reader reaches the home stretch.

Though I didn't think Cornell's Stormwatch quite reached Authority levels either, Peter Milligan's Stormwatch Vol. 3: Betrayal is considerable inside baseball, effectively involving one ex-Stormwatch agent framing Midnighter for a crime against Stormwatch and the rest of the team trying to take Midnighter down. The whats and whys of Harry Tanner and Engineer actually taking over Stormwatch are never fully approached, and we're considerably far from a massive attack on our universe by Sliding Albion. What appears to be the injection of a pseudo-1990s tone to Stormwatch in the next volume by Jim Starlin hardly seems like the right approach and it's not surprising the next will be Stormwatch's last. Maybe there's an Authority: Rebirth somewhere around the corner?

[Includes original covers, page layouts]
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