Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Run Reader: The Crew (2003)

Former Iron Man James Rhodes meets Josiah X, heir to the Super Soldier
legacy in The Crew, Issue #1.
War Machine, James Rhodes, on
the cover of issue #1 by
J.H. Williams. 
While combing through some old longboxes recently, I came across a unique take on the superhero team book from back in the early 2000's. Though I am unsure whether it is part of current continuity (then again, who is sure what is anymore), Marvel Comics' 2003 series written by Priest with pencils by Joe Bennett, The Crew, offers an untraditional take on longtime Iron Man understudy/partner James "Rhodey" Rhodes. Additionally, the series also introduces an heir to a recipient of the Super Soldier serum tests from the time immediately following the emergence of Steve Rogers as Captain American, the first Avenger. A number of iconic character-types (Captain America, Iron Man, Black Panther) and familiar Marvel tropes (heroes of color and of diverse cultural backgrounds) are tweaked here laying the groundwork for further exploration in future issues.

Josiah X's secret is exposed in
issue 6, with art by Joe Bennett.
But, in yet another case of a promising series gone-to-soon, The Crew was cancelled after only seven issues leaving the reader with only the slow-burn introduction of each individual character's in a storyline that establishes its roster and the team's basic motivations. The team's formation is put into motion when Rhodey, having lost everything after living the exciting lifestyle of a wealthy, superhero and CEO, learns that his sister has been found dead in New York City. Rhodey is characterized here as a weary, greying-at-the-temples veteran who is simply looking to move on, though just to where is uncertain. The search for justice in the death of his sister rekindles his heroic fire. While James Rhodes is the anchor that keeps the proceedings firmly planted in the street level world of Marvel's New York City (specifically a neighborhood dubbed "Little Mogadishu"), it is Josiah X's heroic arc which echoes Rhodey's journey of redemption through the entire seven issues.

In the current Marvel Comics Universe, the highly publicized change of shield-bearer from Steve Rogers to former partner Sam "The Falcon" Wilson would seem to subtly put forward the notion that he is the first African-American "Cap." Not so. Just over a decade ago, Marvel Comics fans were given some disturbing new insight into the U.S. government's efforts to recreate the project that resulted in Steve Rogers becoming Captain America.

The Crew as depicted on 
the cover of issue #6 by
J.H. Williams. 
Though Rogers was the first successful beneficiary of the Super Soldier serum, the "honor" of being the secondary recipients of the U.S.'s efforts to recreate it belonged to African-American soldiers who served as test subjects. The limited series Truth: Red, White and Black explained that while most of the test subjects ultimately died, one survived. For a short time, Isaiah Bradley served as an occasional substitute "Captain,"before facing court martial and sent to Leavenworth prison for 17 years.

The hero-in-full revealed at last
in the series final issue, #7.
In The Crew, after challenging Rhodey's sense of personal responsibility and pride, Josiah X is himself forced to evaluate his own willingness to stand up and be counted. After being revealed to be Isaiah Bradley's son, Josiah must choose whether or not to emerge from urban legend into reality as the "black Captain America." Due to the diverse backgrounds of the four Crew members, it would be fair to suggest that one of the themes Priest intended to explore here is race, but based on the seven issues that were published, that couldn't be farther from the truth. It is Priest's treatment of our multiple protagonists as complex and conflicted individuals facing relatively common concerns (in a traditionally super-heroic world) with moxy and grit in the face of adversity, regardless of ethnicity, that rings true.

Dannny "Junta" Vincent and Kasper
"White Tiger" Cole are the other two
members of the Crew, seen here in issue #4
The Crew is not a "black super-hero comic book," but rather a study in what can drive one to make the difficult, heroic choices necessary to bring light into a community where lawlessness is ingrained in the shared code of survival. As the series progresses, the more familiar artifacts of super-heroism such as costumes and code-names move to the forefront only after the characters and their intentions are firmly established. For example, in Issue #1 the only indication of Rhodey's past as a crime fighter is his misguided effort to pawn a non-working Iron Man helmet as a means of pulling together some finances. By issue #7, Justice, the name Josiah X will use as a code-name, is revealed to the community as their hero after saving children from a fire.

It should be clear that I enjoyed the plot and characterization inherent in Priest's work with The Crew, and in a medium where the artwork is an equal contributor, Joe Bennetts' work is also worthy of note. I had previously been unfamiliar with Joe Bennett's pencils. which possess a Bart Sear's vibe. Bennett's backgrounds effectively evoke the somber sadness of Little Mogadishu, while the panel blocking communicates both the frenetic energy of our more active superheros, Junta and White Tiger (above, left), as well as the stoic posturing of Rhodey and Josiah X. The infrequent splash pages also serve to establish striking iconic superhero poses for the relatively new heroes on the scene (see Josiah X below).

Though forgotten as a team following the seven issue "Big Trouble in Little Mogadishu" storyline, some events in The Crew have echoed into the current Marvel Universe, such as the later emergence of Josiah X's nephew as The Patriot of the Young Avengers, but this tale of the cast of the Crew has unfortunately fallen once again into the realm of urban myth and back issue longboxes.

The moments during which Rhodey dons armor 
exist only on the series' covers such as this one for issue #4.
The cover to issue #5 echos that of Truth: Red, White & Black,
the miniseries that first brought Josiah's, father, the "black Captain America"
into Marvel Comics continuity.

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