Monday, July 12, 2004

Review - The Watch: Casus Belli #s 1-3

The Watch: Casus Belli #1-3
By Christian Read, Stewart McKenney, and Annette Kwok
Published by Phosphorescent Comics

The Watch: Casus Belli is the third volume of The Watch, a superhero conspiracy saga about a world gone awry after thousands of its citizens spontaneously acquire superhuman powers. The Watch Inc., founded by the powerful telepath Jack Hawkins, acts as a superhuman mercenary organization. In the third installment of the series, the team is sent to help stop a supervillain’s merciless assault on Beijing. While battling the villain Lucifer and his warped cronies, the team is in for more than they bargained for, including surprise attacks by heroes and villains alike, and an encounter with the mysterious Abaddon that may or may not help answer the question of why the world has spawned so many super-powered warriors, as well as hinting at a shadowy agenda on the part of Jack Hawkins.

My first impression was that The Watch: Casus Belli promised to be nothing more than a smaller press superhero-fight book. A good portion of the first issue is reserved for listing the various players and their respective powers, and I sighed a little at one particular line from the character Luc Coltraine: "My powers say he’s vulnerable to my strength level." It read like the kind of line Internet "versus thread" debaters quote for future reference, while leaving the more discerning readers scratching their heads as to how anyone can know what their "strength level" is, and wondering how long it will take for the tabletop RPG to come along.

Further reading reveals that, while it certainly is the action that drives the story, more than "just another" superhero-fight book, it’s a damn good superhero-fight book. It’s smart and funny, with some great lines like, "I’m an iconoclastic leftist poet who juggles helicopters. You ain’t seen nothing like me," and the bloody fisticuffs are done with an artistry most superhero battle mags lack. It has the feel of a more cartoony Ultimates, except that it plunges headfirst into the action.

The main problem with The Watch: Casus Belli is its size versus its scope. By the time the UN-sponsored superhero team, UNite, arrives in the third issue, the cast list is already too long. Along with The Watch and Lucifer’s followers, the superhero duo Magus and Paladin battle Lucifer in the skies above Beijing, former Watch member The Fisher shows up hoping to take revenge on Jack Hawkins, and the villain Abaddon and his thugs the Blackday Soldiers trouble the heroes as well. In spite of the prompts tagged to each battle (e.g., "Event 3 –Adelaide Green Vs. Johnny Grond"), it’s tough to not get lost in the action. This is the first full-color volume of The Watch, and I suspect that had a lot to do with the length of this installment. Regardless of the reason, with multiple super-battles raging across a war-torn Beijing and a dense conspiracy just beginning to be understood, it’s really more than three issues–regardless of the storyteller–could withstand. That, coupled with a climax that serves mainly to build suspense for future issues rather than as resolution, leaves you more confused than intrigued.

Still, it should be mentioned that I’ve never read either of the first two volumes of The Watch, and those with some emotional investment in the characters and story may feel differently. If nothing else, if you’re like me, the more engaging aspects of The Watch: Casus Belli may pique your curiosity enough to make you want to track those first two volumes. Unfortunately, on its own, it leaves a lot to be desired.

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