THE UNEXPECTED #1 / Writer: Steve Orlando / Pencils: Ryan Sook and Cary Nord / Inks: Mike Gray and Wade von Grawbadger / Colors: FCO Plascencia / Letters: Carlos M. Mangual / June 6, 2018 / DC Comics
Comic book titles are supposed to tell the reader something of the characters or story they’re about to read. It’s rare that a title matches what a reader thinks after reading it. Such was the case with me and Unexpected #1. I had middling expectations for the latest–and last–New Age of Heroes books from DC, but the stunning art showcasing a deft balance of story, exposition, and fun was, in fact, unexpected.
Unexpected #1 opens on Firebrand, a former nurse who was experimented upon and given the Conflict Engine for a heart. As a result, she must fight someone every day to stay alive. After introducing her at a bar, the issue follows Firebrand to her volunteer position at a hospital where–fully incognito–she helps with patients. The night goes sideways when she encounters Bad Samaritan who means to steal her heart. Then the night goes very sideways when three supernatural heroes show up to protect Firebrand and capture Bad Samaritan. The fight is long and chaotic with multiple surprises and a conclusion that involves Firebrand’s recruitment for their team.
First issues are never easy, and DC’s New Age of Heroes titles have often struggled with them. The writing is frequently overly expository and the dialogue clunky, which leaves the star team of artists—the reason for the New Age of Heroes to exist—not so much shining in the spotlight as sweeping up the mess. Unexpected #1 carries none of that baggage. Steve Orlando’s decision to tell the story almost exclusively through Firebrand lets the reader get to know the environment and characters via her responses; he shows rather than tells.
Standing opposite Firebrand Orlando is the Bad Samaritan, a pure black hat villain who’s nevertheless well spoken. These two characters drive the story in Unexpected #1 so much that when the final three heroes arrive–Neon, Elligh, and Turid–the reader looks past the complete lack of characterization for them. What matters is how Firebrand responds to those characters; if Firebrand responds positively to them, the reader will, as well.
Having been freed from carrying water for a troubled script, the art team on Unexpected #1 truly dazzles. Ryan Sook creates a variety of characters, and Cary Nord depicts them well . I’m especially fond of Neon, who looks like an emo Dr. Strange, but FCO Plascencia’s colors are what bring them to life. This entire issue is awash in bright, vibrant colors. Firebrand’s shifting hues are an immediate indicator as to when she is in combat mode and when she is reasserting her human side. Bad Samaritan’s orange lightning and flames are an unexpected juxtaposition to his white suit and straw hat. Neon’s psychedelic blood is so vivid and looks so out of place that I found myself going back to the page more than once to see if it was some strange mistake.
Giving Plascencia’s colors a good place to go are Nord’s pencils. This is a first issue where consistency of character is dead on. More than that, though–and a key part of Orlando’s decisions to keep the story fixed on Firebrand–Nord makes Firebrand’s emotions understandable. When the hospital is going up in flames and she reveals to the nurse she liked that she is a meta, the reader can see the ache behind her eyes. Amidst all the craziness of that fight Nord makes sure the reader knows that Firebrand’s heart is on many things at once and she worries that she just lost one of those things. It is an amazing, understated moment that is more powerful than most emphatic fight scenes.
If I nitpicked Unexpected #1 for a flaw, it would be that Sook’s designs are a touch derivative. Turid looks like a female cross between Loki and Thor. Eligh is a blue Hulk, and I’ve already likened Neon to Doctor Strange with a bad haircut. That aside, this is a triumph of a first issue that does everything it needs to while remaining an exciting page turner from start to finish. This collaboration has found an excellent beginning, and I look forward to many future issues as well.
Verdict: 5 out 5 Conflict Engines
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Theron Couch is a collection of 1000 monkeys on 1000 typewriters trying to produce Hamlet. From time to time he accidentally types comic book reviews. Theron’s first novel, The Loyalty of Pawns, is available on Amazon and he’s published assorted short stories. Theron maintains a blog with additional comic and book reviews as well as posts on his personal struggle with mental health.