People who have been following the buzz for this series may think they have an idea of what is in store, but I would say to throw all those preconceptions out the window and strap in for the ride. The best way to describe 20th Century Men would be as the politics and espionage of a Robert Ludlum novel mixed with the dystopian sci-fi of 2000AD and a whole lot more in between. Right from the first page, you know you are in for something special!
The story plays on the edges of established genres. Vietnam, The Cold War, and the War in the Middle East are not new subjects for comics or other mediums, but nothing in this story is as it seems. Take the introductory scene in Vietnam as an example: With one simple sentence, the genre you were expecting is completely flipped on its head, and as a reader, you immediately want to know more. The pace of the story is akin to a chess match; the pieces are all put into place, and the story threads in and out, building and building towards a crescendo of moves. I like how Camp can achieve this without having a stand-out moment of action; the quality of the story speaks for itself.
The story flies in the face of pop culture pre-conception as the Russian character is who the reader spends the most time with in this issue and the most sympathetic character we are introduced to. Camp plays a brilliant balancing act as the American President’s character is again aligned with the real world by the fact he is a complete dick, who also happens to be an ex-super soldier. It fits in with the current pop culture Zeitgeist along the lines of Homelander in The Boys or a more watered-down version would be John Walker in Falcon and The Winter Soldier.
There is a lot of world-building, which can often be the case in a debut issue, and I feel the characters we are introduced to are interesting and compelling enough that you accept the world-building. By the end of the issue, you want to know what directions they are going to go in for the remainder of the series.
The art is breathtaking throughout. It will certainly be an exciting experience for readers to watch the artistic journey grow and see Morian push the boundaries of the format. I found the blend of styles from page to page to be fascinating. One page may be a painted-style landscape, and the next is a more honed character sketch. The colour work is beautiful; every setting has its own palette. You don’t need the captions on the page to tell the Vietnam scenes from the bleak Soviet scenes, and then the Middle East stuff has its unique colours again.
Special mention to the letterer Aditya Bidikar. One page, in particular, caught my eye as imaginative. As there isn’t a lot of action, there isn’t much use for onomatopoeia. In the opening sequence with a helicopter landing, the sound effect is a repeated ‘fuck’ for the helicopter blades. It plays a double role as functioning as a sound effect and foreshadows the doom the troops are to soon find themselves facing.
If you are a fan of the aforementioned novels of Robert Ludlum or the 80s 2000AD comics, then this will be well worth your time. It is a comic that shares a reading experience in line with works from Garth Ennis and Josh Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli’s run on Unknown Soldier from 2008. Lastly, if you are a comics reader looking for a completely new, daring, and thought-provoking comic unlike anything currently on the stands, especially from the big two, then 20th Century Men is the comic for you.