The name of this article is borrowed from a DC comics special in the 70s, where material already made for cancelled comics was dumped in a one-off special. This article isn’t about that. Instead it’s possibly the first in a series looking at unsuccessful comics that have moved on to the great spinner rack in the sky and why they failed. Today we look at The Order, from 2007, by Matt Fraction and Barry Kitson.
The Order was a spin off from Marvel’s big Civil War event in 2006 and was designed to be a showcase for the 50 States Initiative, where every US state got a local super hero team. In this case, the Order are based in California. The book was set up prominently in Civil War itself, however right out of the gate it was crippled. The team and the book was intended to be called The Champions, after the LA based super team of the 70s that starred Hercules amongst others. However Marvel didn’t realise that they’d lost the Champions trademark decades again through disuse and that an RPG publisher had picked it up. Initially they seemed to ignore this problem and it was only last minute that the book and team were renamed. You can see the alterations in the team’s costumes – originally they all had a big c logo that was discreetly turned into a sort of O/sort of target.
From Champions to The Order
There are two big ideas for the team. The first is that the members only get their super powers for a year, a result of artificially creating them with nano stuff. It’s like Strikeforce Morituri in the Marvel Universe, just with less death. The book tries to sell a reality show angle to this set up – ordinary people becoming super heroes – but nothing comes of it really, presumably because it ignores the fact that all super heroes are ordinary people at first.
The other big idea is that the team structure is based on the pantheon of Greek gods, with each member assigned the position of a god or goddess. This is a terrible idea. It muddies up the introduction of the team members (more on that later) by telling us their real name, their code name and what position in the pantheon they have. I assume this is another hangover from the Champions name, but it makes no sense. While the Greek gods all had individual jobs or areas of speciality, they weren’t a cohesive unit. It’d be like taking Christian patron saints as the blueprint for a sports team. So someone is Hephaestus – what the hell is that supposed to mean in this or any other context?
Getting to know the team is also hampered by Fraction trying the first issue bait & switch gimmick of replacing half the cast after issue one. Not only does this undermine the Civil War set up/connection even further, its a waste of some good concepts (Avona and her talking AI sword for instance). It doubles the amount of new characters the reader meets though, deluging them with introductions and makes it hard to care about anyone.
Fraction doesn’t do well selling his characters to the reader, relying more on telling than showing. Each issue has a different character do an “interview to camera” about their life story and motivation, which is incredibly clunky. It’s a gimmick from another medium that rarely translates well to comics and reads like Fraction’s been watching The Office too much. It’s used as a crutch to not have to put much characterisation into the story – we should learn about characters through their dialogue and actions in the plot, or through their internal narrative. Having them answer a load of probing questions to an unseen interviewer is crap. (Which is not to say that it never works in comics – Abnett and Lanning’s Guardians of the Galaxy did something similar, the difference there is that all of the team take part in each issue and they’re all talking about the story, not just themselves). The one member per issue pacing means that it takes ages to get to know anything about most of the cast. The awfully named Heavy is pretty much a blank slate til his interview in #9, the penultimate of the series.
Totally-Not-Britney-Spears Aralune wastes panels.
But then, it really feels that by the end of the series, no-one cares any more. Fraction begins to rush through the reveal of the series’ main antagonists and their aims, casually offs most of them and then steams ahead into perhaps the most uninvolving riot ever written. Characters learn information they can’t have known – the team learn that the mysterious government man in sunglasses plaguing them is “the Man from SHADOW” without being told. They then also start using his name, again without finding it out or being told – and everything just starts to feel half-hearted, not least the art.
The series’ main artist is Barry Kitson, who’s been a solid B list name artist for a few decades now. I’m never entirely sure why, because although Kitson has a good design sense (not particularly evident for most of the cast of The Order though, it has to be said), he’s an incredibly inconsistent artist. His work can change radically between panels, let alone pages, and yet through it all his characters only have about three faces between them. I think it’s possibly down to the amount of inkers on his work, as no matter the series, he always seems to end up with about six on the go at any one time. This is possibly because he runs late very late and the pages have to be inked simultaneously by different inkers – I can’t say for certain – but that would explain why about half the series has fill-in art where Kitson provides only the breakdowns for other artists to pencil out. This gets especially bad for the last few issues, where all the cast end up looking off-model and thoroughly generic.
Mulholland, one of the few interesting characters, despite the LA obsession at the root of her powers.
In interviews, Fraction has said that The Order wasn’t cancelled but rather he chose to end it when he did. Quote the wiki: “I chose to end it. Marvel allowed me to choose to leave the stage, rather than to continue on in a state in which I felt was compromised and decidedly unawesome.” Which does sound a bit like Marvel were looking to end it or change it drastically anyway. Fraction would quickly move on to writing Invincible Iron Man and looking back at The Order, that makes perfect sense. The Order was continually living in the shadow of Iron Man. The group’s totally-not-Oracle figure is Pepper Potts, Iron Man’s former secretary; the team’s leader, Hank Hellrung, played Iron Man on TV and is quite similar to him in many respects and the big villain turns out to be Ezekiel Stane, the son of Iron Man old villain Obadiah Stane. This was all presumably to build to a theme about the whole team existing on the whim of Tony Stark, but in reading it just makes the whole endeavour feel like a waste of time. The book is about a group of heroes that even the villain doesn’t even really give two shits about, using them as pawns to mess with someone else entirely. If the primary antagonist doesn’t care, why should the reader?
Henry Hellrung talking head (click to embiggen)
Fraction’s bailing on the series means he was able to salvage a lot of the half-baked ideas thrown into it. Pepper’s role as a sort of super-human would be expanded upon in Invincible Iron Man, Stane would show up there as well, with a better written scheme. The Order’s PR gury, Kate Kildare would show up in Fraction’s X-Men run, which would also see the team moving to San Francisco, as teased for the Order.
The Order frankly ends up being a bit of a waste of time for all involved. It’s really a dry run for Fraction’s other Marvel series and while there are a few good characters, or at least concepts, waiting to break out in here (the afore-mentioned Avona, the team rebel Mulholland Black and the slightly over-burdened Veda) they’re dragged down by poor story-telling and thin characterisation (which is to say nothing of the icky relationship that springs up between the faux-Britney Spear shapeshifter, Aralune, and the paraplegic, mecha suit wearing army vet, Supernaut, after the latter wears the former as a suit of armour). Most of the characters’ powers aren’t explained for ages and the only character to really get much attention is Hllrung, who is just “Not Iron Man” and therefore not as interesting. Fraction seems more interested in telling you how awesome LA and California are rather than the characters, which is pretty annoying. Every issue starts with three different quotes from literature of notable people, which feels incredibly pretentious (I find even one quote used to start a story off irritating, so three every issue is unbearable).
It may not technically have been cancelled, but ending The Order was definitely the right move.
The Order by Matt Fraction on Amazon