For more than twenty years, Bryan Hitch has been among the shining stars of the comic book industry. As an artist, he has worked on a broad range of characters under the direction of the Big Two, while also finding occasional time to work independently with publishers like Image and Valiant. It was his wide-screen, realistic approach to character design and panel layouts which helped drive the early success of The Ultimates, the title which served to inspire much of the look and feel of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. As recently as last year, he worked with writer Jonathan Ross on America’s Got Powers, which the duo released under the Image banner. With Real Heroes, Hitch takes his first foray into the next frontier as an independent creator in delivering both the artwork and script for the title. The series is being pitched as “the cast of Avengers does Galaxy Quest,” an intriguing concept to be sure. With all of the success that Marvel studios has achieved with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the stars of the franchise are well on their way towards a pop culture status on the level of the cast of the original Star Trek. Given Hitch’s connection to the franchise’s origins, it is only fitting that he be the one to offer up a concept which, while somewhat lampooning it, also uses it as the fodder for a story which looks quite intriguing on its own at first glance.
The characters who form the core cast are not direct stand-ins for the real-world actors who play Marvel’s Avengers, but they do bear a great number of similarities. There is decidedly more gender, racial, and age diversity in this bunch than the batch chosen by Kevin Feige and team. We have Chris “Olympian” Reynolds, all-American hunk and a sort of Superman-meets-Thor archetype described as “the lost son of an ancient god”; Jennifer “Tiny Titan” Sanchez, easily recognizable as a stand in for Giant Man/Ant Man; Danny “Patriot” West, a Robert Downey Jr-esque actor whose character archetype shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out; Leo “Velocity” Washington in a race-bent twist on Quicksilver; Jeremy “Hardware” Roberts, the paraplegic actor whose re-configurable mech-suit serves as an analog for Tony Stark’s Iron Man; and his long-time co-star Nichola “Longbow” Fox, whose character is a riff on Hawkeye. This bunch, the stars of the Olympians franchise, are shown to be largely as shallow and self-involved as Hollywood stereotypes would suggest. There is the shameless promotion of side-projects, the vastly different public and private personas, substance and sex addiction, and cast infighting. Simply put, the people behind the veneer of glitz, glamour, and special effects are as flawed as anyone else and enabled to act upon those flaws in ways the general public isn’t.
From a visual standpoint, it is somewhat surreal to see the work of the artist who created The Ultimates, which inspired the cinematic Avengers, portraying a cast of character comprised of the actors playing knock-off versions of the Avengers. If that sounds somewhat meta-textually circular, it is. The character designs of the Olympians owe much to the work which Hitch did on The Ultimates. There are certainly design elements which have become a mainstay of his super-hero work, but one can’t help but get a sense that a quick repaint and the action sequences at the beginning of the book would be almost indistinguishable from an early issue of The Ultimates. This is not to say that it doesn’t work very well. If anything, Hitch takes the opportunity to show how some of the changes which Marvel made to the line-up of their movie Avengers could have been improved on. Implementing stand-ins for the absent Hank Pym and the forthcoming Quicksilver works very well in creating a diverse texture to the action, moving seamlessly from the literally larger-than-life visuals of Tiny Titan towering over buildings, the frantic street-level moments featuring Patriot and Longbow, and the super-speed slow motion of Velocity. The pages which feature the actors out of costume are just as dynamic as the action sequences but in a much different way. There is a certain overall smirk to these people, something Hitch manages to convey quite well through posture and subtle facial expression. Only Reynolds and Roberts come off as very likable and even they have a somewhat aloof quality which makes them hard to connect with. Each has a distinct look and feel which gives the reader a sense of their general attitude and temperment, an impressive feat given the breakneck pace at which the issue moves once they’re introduced.
Where the title suffers a bit is the script. As a rookie writer, Hitch struggles somewhat with pace and clarity. The early pages are difficult to the follow, with the juxtaposition of the book’s first page, which features the real-world events of September 11th 2001, with a ten-page action sequence (the first portion of which can be found in the preview below) that is eventually revealed to be scenes from the book’s version of the Avengers film. With the issue clocking in at an unusually solid thirty pages, this still represents more than a third of the total volume devoted to a sequence which, while it showcases Hitch’s ability to deliver a dynamic action scene, does nothing to introduce the audience to the characters who will feature in the story or any elements of the story they will be reading. This section is likely to be important in the broader context of the series as a way of showing the difference between how the Olympians of the film act versus how their actors behave when placed in situations of similar danger. That said, reaching the end of the first eleven pages only to discover that they’d been a meaningless action sequence felt like the book had already cheated the audience a bit. From that point things improve dramatically. Hitch whips through character introductions and a couple of moments to show us the established relationships between his core players before getting the plot truly rolling. As the tagline suggests, these actors are placed in a situation where they are expected to take on the roles and responsibilities of the characters they’ve made millions playing. They’re brought to a world which they are legitimately expected to save. How? That’s a question for next month, apparently.
The concept for Real Heroes is an extraordinarily solid and timely one. The art is vintage Bryan Hitch, which is to say that it’s phenomenal, kinetic, and feels as though someone in Hollywood should already be on the phone begging him for the rights. This first issue does suffer from some pacing problems, but those should feel like much less of a problem when the story is collected in trade. Despite those early hiccups, HItch has managed to create a fully realized and diverse cast of characters, establish their relationships, and place them in a remarkable sort of jeopardy, all within thirty pages. The only real question will be whether he can keep the book on schedule. Hitch has taken a lot of flack over the course of his career for his propensity to see books delayed. Now that he’s handling the script as well as the art, it is entirely on him to ensure that there is not a several-month gap between issues, which would cause this title to lose what is sure to be the considerable momentum the first issue will command.
Real Heroes looks like it’s going to be a hell of a ride. Visually spectacular, personally engaging, and a stinging shot across the bow of the super-hero movie machine which dominates modern box offices. If not for the early problems, it would likely get a perfect score, but it receives a solid 9/10.