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Power and Responsibility

  J. Michael Straczynski's Rising Stars: Power (Vol. 2)


J. Michael Straczynski, Various Artists

Joe's Comics/Top Cow, 2002

Rating: 4.0


Posted: April 14, 2002

By The Gentleman

With Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski proved his talent for sweeping, intricately-structured sagas that take as long to unfold as a good Russian epic. But that was in television, a medium with a set of rules vastly different from those that govern comics. When Straczynski stated his intention to spin a similarly epic yarn in the milieu of the superhero comic, the question as to whether he'd be able to pull off such a feat was a valid one. After all, unlike episodic television, comic books allow for the audience to follow along on a monthly rather than weekly basis (and sometimes much longer). Would Straczynski -- or his audience -- have the stamina needed to follow through with the story to the end?

The answer, so far, is apparently resoundingly in the positive. Born In Fire, which collected Rising Stars' first "act," set the stage well. But it's with Power, the second collection, that Straczynksi's story shifts into high gear.

Rising Stars is the story of the "Specials," a group of 113 children who gained superpowers when a fireball struck the town of Pederson, Illinois in the late 1960s. As soon as the children -- who were in utero at the time of the crash -- begin to develop their abilities, the world takes notice, and the U.S. government begins monitoring them. Your humble correspondent has a fondness for self-contained sagas of this type, especially those in which the emergence of "powered" types is well-reasoned and part of a larger, unified tale. It's too easy, in these eyes, to explain away such powers as a "mutant" birthright, and sloppy to allow such characters to come by their abilities in varied and different ways. Straczynski's decision to hew to a formula that has garnered results both promising (Milestone Media) and questionable (Marvel's "New Universe" of the mid-'80s) bodes well for fans the kind of self-contained and believable epic he demonstrated he could deliver with Babylon 5.

Powers takes place 10 years after the events of Born In Fire, in which one Special began killing off some of his compatriots, having realized that the dead Specials' energy passed on to the remainder of the bunch. Long story short (and so as not to give too much away), this bad egg precipitated hostilities between the dwindling Specials and the U.S. government. Ten years gone, a couple of American cities lay in ruin, cut off from the outside world. Poet, the altruistic, brooding loner of the bunch, receives an offer of amnesty from the government, on the condition that he "clean up" Chicago, which remains under the thumb of Stephanie "Critical" Maas, whose split personality renders her highly unstable and -- factored in with her considerable mind-control abilities -- extremely dangerous.

Poet and a small band of Specials take up the gauntlet and infiltrate Chicago, and in short order all-out chaos breaks loose. Straczynski exhibits a nimble hand at building, sustaining and releasing narrative tension, stacking event upon event and plot point upon plot point with unerring ease. It's not an easy trick, and he gets full credit for making it appear so.

After the dust settles, Poet steers the remaining Specials in a new direction, delivering a dramatic speech in which he theorizes that they were all given these powers for a specific purpose -- to change the world. As Straczynski, currently scripting Marvel's Amazing Spider Man, knows full well, with great power must come great responsibility. The Specials take up the gauntlet Poet throws down, and their approaches toward making the world a better place are intriguing.

(A quick note about the artwork: Christian Zanier, who pencils most of the issues collected here, proves himself a competent practitioner of the Image/Top Cow style that's gained ascendancy in the last decade, and exhibits some moments of striking power and fluid storytelling. Stuart Immonen (known for his work for DC Comics) ably pitches in for an issue, and Brent Anderson (Astro City) contributes his usual peerless work, brought down a bit by the less-than-dynamic inking of Marlo Alquiza.)

Straczynski's decision to have super-powered types using their abilities to actually change the course of mighty rivers and such has been tackled before, notably in Marvel's Squadron Supreme maxi-series and in recent works like The Authority. Powers ends before Straczynski can fully explore this idea, which is unfortunate: Since this arc seems a bit 'tacked on,' coming as it does almost out of the ether, the reader is forgiven for harboring doubts as to how Straczynski intends to move forward with it and resolve the series in the final act. But his work, here and elsewhere, earns him the benefit of the doubt for the time being, since he's more than proven himself adept at this sort of thing in the past. Should the final installment deliver on the promise of the first two -- particularly Powers -- Straczynski will have crafted one of the top-tier superhero epics of the past two decades.

Related Links:

Amazing Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man

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