Feb 12 2015
Today’s BlackComicsMonth Throwback Thursday is Christopher Priest and Joe Bennett’s The Crew.
One of my biggest complaints when it comes to diversity in fictional media (comics, film, tv, whatever) is the sense that representation only comes as a byproduct of an explicit adherence to a specific set of subject matter. Basically, the idea that if you get a comic book starring people of color, it’s going to have to focus solely on the color of their skin and not seek to have any sort of storytelling merit on its own. A comic book starring a white man has no limits placed on it in terms of theme or scope, but if it centers around any other demographic, there’s a set ceiling. If you’re writing a detective story, and the lead is black, it tends to have to be about how it is to be black and a detective. There’s always a qualifier.
Twelve years ago, when former Black Panther writer Christopher Priest was pitching his Marvel series The Crew, he braced expectations for the new title thusly:
So I find myself having to say, more than what The Crew is, what The Crew is not. The Crew is not The Black Avengers. The Crew is not “A Ghetto Book”. The Crew is not even remotely about race. Race is never even mentioned in The Crew. It is a complete non-issue.
The Crew, which ran for seven issues way back in 2003, was such an exciting comic book because it featured a diverse cast given the exceedingly rare opportunity to exist in a story without being shackled to someone’s paper thin diatribes about race. Spinning out of Priest’s Black Panther run, the book is structured a little like a 90s, post-Tarantino crime caper, with four disparate leads, each with their own narrative, being brought together for one common goal, to bring down the biggest gang in New York City. It owes a lot to 70s blaxploitation and spaghetti westerns, as well, but it principally is the platonic ideal of the street level Marvel book. It could very well end up being an unsung influence on Netflix’s upcoming Defenders series.
Comprised of one (planned to be introductory) story arc titled “Big Trouble in Little Mogadishu,” The Crew begins with a down and out James Rhodes (better known as War Machine) discovering his drug addicted sister has been murdered. Equally disgusted with the city that let this happen and with himself, he takes up residence in The Mog, the crime ridden part of Brooklyn where the book takes place, and works his way up the food chain of corruption, inspiring some of its inhabitants, some unwittingly, to join his crusade.
While it’s clear that the book could have run far longer than seven issues, it’s so tightly structured that ending the title at its conclusion feels right, no matter how much you want to keep following these characters. The first three chapters devote one issue each to three of our leads, Rhodey, Kasper Cole (The White Tiger), and Danny Vincent (Junta.) A fourth issue draws their three plot lines into a tighter web, before flashing back to earlier in the twentieth century to explore Josiah X’s history in the fifth, leaving the last two issues for the big third act, a two-parter blow off. Along the way, Priest and artist Joe Bennett turn The Mog into a microcosm of Marvel Universe. It feels like an alternate history take on the “team-up” book, where superpowers and special abilities are forced into an urban environment that lives and breathes more like the real world than the comic book one we’re accustomed to without being too mired in grounded realism. The characters feel real, so the high-tech armor and super strength follow suit.
While Bennett’s art is rugged and dynamic in the way a lot of post-Marvel Knights relaunches required, the real driving force behind this book’s enduring appeal is Priest’s voice. As David Brothers once pointed out, he wasn’t just one of Marvel’s first black writers, but also one of its best. He was versatile when it came to genre and tone, but singularly efficient as a storyteller and a craftsman. Of all the comics of his I read in my youth, it was The Crew that felt like the rawest distillation of his authorial voice. A decade later, some goofy and out of date pop culture references aside, it still holds up.
By having the book separately narrated by four different leads with drastically different characterization, he’s able to deliver a prismatic point of view on this little corner of the Marvel Universe, a neglected garden only Priest seemed interested in watering at the time. His Rhodey, while a departure from most other writers’ takes on the Iron Man supporting character, is defined by a tougher edge and a wit that no one would write him with again until Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. Black, himself, is echoed in the Lethal Weapon machismo of it all, the hard boiled weariness hidden beneath a lot of swaggering self awareness. Kasper, a half black/half jewish cop more concerned with making detective (himself a holdover from Priest’s Black Panther), sounds different from Rhodey, his inner monologue a mixture of Peter Parker-y neuroses, Law & Order one liners and the laconic poetry of Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express. There’s “too clever for its own good” tone to Danny’s narration perfectly in line with his hotshot operator status, constantly maneuvering three steps ahead of anyone he deals with, while Josiah’s voice is more even handed, unencumbered.
By juxtaposing these dissimilar voices and their respective perspectives on the nature of heroism, he crafts a really engrossing take on what it means to be a Marvel protagonist and all the requisite pathos that archetype entails.
Essentially, it’s a team up book that follows the trajectory of most Marvel origins, as each of the leads start out as flawed, somewhat selfish assholes who have the wool removed from their eyes and their world opened up until they become real heroes. Rhodey gets caught up in his own cycle of bullshit, between his financial problems and overcoming a failed relationship, that he doesn’t care about his sister living in alleyways and performing sex acts for crack, so her death shocks him out of his superhero complacency bullshit and gets him motivated to light a fire under The Mog. Whether he set out to or not, by involving Kasper, who primarily just wants to keep his pregnant wife off of his back and make more money, and Danny, who wants nothing more than to get back into the good graces of his old spy contacts, he puts them at similar crossroads, creating multiple variations on the Marvel origin.
This is primarily evident in the way he builds Josiah X up with a truly marquee origin story, spinning out of Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s The Truth (about the black Captain America) and setting him up as a legitimately viable property. If this was The Black Avengers, Rhodey, in the Tony Stark role, knows a team needs real inspiration, and just as Captain America has always been that beacon of hope for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Josiah X, the experimented on son of Isaiah Bradley, presents the same kind of magic to this book’s dynamic. Unlike Danny and Kasper who, while inherently possessing a certain goodness, can only see enhanced abilities as keys to a better life for themselves, Josiah just wants to lead a peaceful life and do good works. Once he’s thrust into this world of gangs and vigilantism, his first priority is saving lives, and it comes with an effortlessness that puts his compatriots to shame.
The Crew is a down to earth take on the Marvel universe that presaged Fraction & Aja’s Hawkeye and pretty much everything Bendis has done with Luke Cage in recent years. I don’t think Mighty Avengers, in its current incarnation, would exist with this title making such a stark impression and getting unceremoniously cancelled. It’s thrilling, well paced, and laugh out loud hilarious at times, while constantly feeling vital and game changing. It’s insane to think Marvel released this around the same time as their failed, manga baiting Tsunami line, which included gems like The Runaways, as it wasn’t the new reader friendly, light hearted jaunt you might have anticipated, but it was far from the grimdark of the MAX line. It was everything you wanted from a buddy movie, but set against the backdrop of the Marvel NYC. Maybe it just came out too soon, but I have a hard time we would even see this title prosper in today’s landscape, as evidenced by the book not being collected in print.
It’s a damn shame, because it’s a great, complete story and exactly the kind of thing you want to be able to put in someone’s hands when you want to show them what comics are capable of.