The comic medium has been around for centuries, with stories of heroes and monsters recorded in artwork to tell sequential stories in cultures across the world. But when people say the word comics it often conjures to mind very specific images of modern day superheroes.
Whilst the medium itself is as versatile as any other, able to be as varied in genre and style as any film or novel, people tend to have very specific views on the kinds of stories that comics tell;, and as such, the superhero genre has become big business in comics. Outside of the ‘big two’ (Marvel and DC) you tend to not get as many large universes inhabited by hundreds of costumed characters, and instead get more self contained and specific deconstructions of the genre. Minor Threats from Dark Horse comics and writers Patton Oswalt and Jordan Blum fits nicely into this style, as it takes a fun, interesting look at superheroes and their villains.
Minor Threats drops readers into the middle of its own bustling superhero universe, in Twilight City, where costumed heroes and villains are a common occurrence. We meet Frankie, a down on her luck former villain fresh out of prison. Having been raised by her supervillain mother, Toy Queen, Frankie grew up using her powers to create any kind of complex machinery she wants to fulfil the role of her mother’s side-kick as Playtime. However, having spent the last few years in prison she’s trying to go straight, to find solid work, and prove to her ex that she can be a decent mother to her young daughter. But, not many places will hire a meta-human former con, so Frankie ends up serving drinks in a dive bar frequented by the crappiest D-list villains around.
Her life is disrupted, however, when a villain comes into the bar cradling the body of his lover, who’s been beaten near to death by the costumed vigilante known as The Insomniac. As the assembled villains ponder why this expert vigilante would turn so violent, news reports come in that the villain Stickman has murdered The Insomniac’s kid side-kick. With The Insomniac on the warpath, killing any villain between him and Stickman, the assembled heroes are trying to find the killer first, leading to a supervillain crackdown. Knowing that their lives might be at risk, and their very futures as villains could be over, Frankie dons her former costume and gathers together the loser villains of the city for a mission to take down Stickman themselves.
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The concept for Minor Threats is a wonderful twist on the superhero tale that is kind of familiar in a lot of ways. One of the biggest ‘oh my god could you imagine!?’ twists on the superhero formula is turning heroes into monsters. We’ve seen it happen numerous times with figures like Superman, and when done with existing heroes it gets stale quickly, feeling like a bastardisation of their entire identity. Even when people create their own worlds to tell these kinds of stories, such as in Invincible or Irredeemable, the focus tends to either be on the hero turned villain, or the former hero’s friends and colleagues tasked with stopping them. Minor Threats does things different by focusing on not just the villains, but the bottom of the barrel villains.
The main cast of characters, Playtime, the medic Scalpel, the hulking Snakebite, the elderly Pigeon Pete, and the delusional puzzler Brain Tease, feel like throwback characters to the golden age of comics. They’re not interested in taking over the world, they’re not cosmic level threats, and none of them really have any powers that make this flashy or deadly. They’re barely above hired goons in the hierarchy, and are either hanging on to their lost glory days, or simply tying to move on. In a lot of ways they reminded me of the Flash’s Rogues, a group of bad guys out to make money, with their own codes, and lines that they won’t cross; and that makes them the perfect kind of group to follow in a more brutal comic world.
There’s even a part at the start of the book that talks about ‘the alien invasions, the time travelling despots, and the secret multiversal wars’, poking fun at several stories from the big two publishers, as well as the evolution of superhero stories in general. Minor Threats feels like a celebration of older style comics, ones without end of the world stakes, without the big events and massive cross-overs, where you’ve got two people in brightly coloured costumes facing off against each other, both knowing that neither is going to try to kill the other. And it does this wrapped in a modern package of brutality, gore, and violence. This is a very difficult thing to manage, yet the writing team manage to walk this line perfectly, and strike the tone needed not just to make the story work, but to make it truly delightful.
Speaking of the writing team, Jordan Blum is no stranger to writing in the superhero world, having written for characters such as Venom, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and MODOK. And, speaking of MODOK, his MODOK Head Games co-writer (and MODOK voice actor) Patton Oswalt is also working on the book. Oswalt is no stranger to comics, having worked behind the pages of several books over the last twenty years, as well as appearing in comic projects like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Sandman, and Big Hero 6: The Series. It’s clear that both writers know the genre well, and hold a lot of reverence for it, and much of that love comes through in the writing.
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The book’s art, by Scott Hepburn and Ian Herding, looks fantastic, and wonderfully merges the bright flashy costumes and gadgets of the superhero genre with the grimy gritty realism of everyday life that perfectly sells how crappy these characters and their lives are. One of the best parts of the book is looking at the wonderful details that are put onto the page that help to bring more life to the world and add context, such as characters like Brain Tease having clear straps and clasps on his helmet, and a suit that looks worn and stretched in places like something you could make at home, whilst the bigger heroes and villains look flashier and sleeker. The moments with action also work fantastically well, and there’s one delightfully strange scene where the art team get to try different looks and styles that feels truly special.
Minor Threats is a book about superhero comics, by people who love superhero comics, for people who love superhero comics. It’s got plenty of nods and winks to the characters and worlds of places like Marvel and DC, yet never feels like it’s poking fun at it or making it out to be silly. And even more surprising, it ends up being a world that you want more of come the end, and could easily see becoming its own universe if the creators wanted to, thanks to how well crafted and realised everything is. This is not one to miss out on.
Minor Threats is out now from Dark Horse.