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You can’t fault Dynamite, writer Bill Willingham, or artist Cezar Razek for their boldness. The Greatest Adventure #1 centres around the ambitious idea of bringing together a host of classic characters created by prolific pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs and sending them off on an grand expedition against a seemingly implacable foe. It’s a big concept on a large, apocalyptic scale, to be sure. And while I give the team points for its pulpy ambitions, this first issue struggles with a narrative that is way too long on exposition and far too short on incident or excitement.
The issue opens with Tarzan coming across the crash of a strange spacecraft in his jungle, only to discover his old friend, engineer and inventor Jason Gridley, in the wreckage. As Gridley recovers from his injuries, he tells Tarzan and Jane about his abduction by an alien race and their attempts to force him to develop weapons for them in advance of an Earth invasion. Though Gridley has managed to escape, the Earth has limited time before these aliens can attack, and so it’s up to Tarzan to assemble a team of adventurers while Gridley prepares a craft for a voyage to the stars. Hopefully, together they can find a way to save the planet.
The issue suffers from a big case of showing, not telling, with much of its page count given over to Gridley recounting his tale to Tarzan. The problem with that is that in an effort to get the story going, Willingham’s script focuses heavily on exposition while scrimping on the aspects of the tale designed to generate excitement and engagement, such as Gridley’s escape and flight back to Earth. Then, the action stalls once again to focus on Tarzan and Jane planning. But the next thing you know, they’ve got a crew assembled of 17 people, the vast majority of whom you know absolutely nothing at all about. Some seem to know each other, but we don’t know how. I’m unclear if Willingham intends these characters to be strangers we’ll learn about, or characters we’re supposed to know already, and the script rarely gives anyone any kind of introduction at all. It all seems to be in an effort to get the story to the point where Tarzan and his spaceship are taking off on this adventure, and I get that desire to get the main story underway with efficiency.
But knowing information about a threat to Earth and the heroes assembled to stop only comes alive if we’re engaged in the threat and in the people lining up against it. Here, your average reader might be invested in Tarzan and Jane through cultural osmosis, and possibly in the elements related to the John Carter stories, but everyone and everything else is pretty much unknown. I’ve read more Burroughs (and pulp in general) than a lot of people my age, and I certainly struggled to get worked up about the events of the issue. I mean, it’s cool to know that Tarzan’s crew contains a man “once thought to be a vat-grown monster by the name of Number 13,” but that information is literally all we see of the guy. We get no other context about him, we don’t even get a clear picture of him. He’s just one of many people in a two-page splash showing the crew, all of whom seem to have rich backstories and none of whom we learn anything about at all.
The problem could have been saved, perhaps, by devoting this whole issue to simply Gridley and Tarzan, going into more detail about Gridley’s abduction and escape, so the first issue could end with Tarzan deciding to assemble a team and fight this menace. Then a second issue could be about assembling the team, learning about them and embarking on the quest. As it is, what we get here is enough story for two issues crammed into one, the result being a debut issue that feels like a giant info dump of backstory, without any emotional attachment or character focus applied. It might mean the main plot takes a bit longer to get going, but at least I’d feel like it all mattered.
Cezar Razek’s art is lovely however. He really captures a pulpy adventurous spirit to the proceedings, and The Greatest Adventure #1 does feel like a comic from the period in which Burroughs lived, where people might have thought space ships would have propellors or resemble blimps with baroque designs. The little action on display in the issue is full of derring do, and never makes the mistake of thinking old-school pulps were quaint. When Gridley gets into a fight, it’s a full-blooded affair, and it’s important to remember that these early pulp stories were often pretty violent and never shied away from indulging in that. That being said, there’s nothing inappropriate or R-rated here, just that the action is full bore, and I look forward to future issues where Razek can really cut loose and deliver more. If there’s flaw, it’s that there are lot of long-shots in his art, particularly in scenes introducing characters, so there are people introduced here that the reader really can’t recognize or distinguish aside from a basic silhouette.
Colorist Daniela Miwa delivers robust work, with moments that pop and an overall palette that feels alive without sacrificing the old-fashioned sepia-toned quality of the genre. Taylor Esposito also delivers on the lettering side, an especially difficult task given how text heavy the issue is. However, the reading of The Greatest Adventure #1 never feels like a slog or a chore, even if you do wish that it was way less dense and more engaging.
The opening issue of “The Greatest Adventure” is flawed, no doubt, and mostly on a structural level. It never has that kick that an opening instalment ideally should have to immediately hook the reader back for another issue. That’s too bad, because the central concept and idea of bringing together the canon of so rich a writer is a novel one. But if the series is to really take flight, it’s going to need to streamline itself and focus and getting the narrative moving with more dynamism and energy. 6/10
The Greatest Adventure #1 will be released April 19, 2017