The Rise of Arsenal #1-3
Written by JT Krul
Art by Gerard Borges
So the funnybook interwebs are all a-flutter about this DC Comics mini-series, with some claiming that its third issue is the Worst. Comic. Ever. So of course I had two immediate reactions. 1) “I’ve GOT to read that!” and 2) “Worst funnybook of all time, eh? We’ll see about that!” And see I did.
Rise of Arsenal is a story about Speedy, Green Arrow’s former sidekick. He’s been going by Red Arrow lately, but I’m gonna refer to him as Speedy here, because it amuses me. Anyway. Speedy’s most famous for being a junkie, as revealed in a classic story from the early 70s, and that’s pretty much defined the character ever since. So the poor bastard’s been a recovering heroin addict for close to 40 years now, and this story draws on that same fertile ground. Here, we see Speedy get an arm lopped off by a super-villain, and then lose his young daughter to a terrorist attack perpetrated by the same villain. Understandably, these events lead him into a downward spiral and straight back into addiction.
Many of the Worst. Comic. Ever. reviews of this series are based largely on that idea alone. This ruins Speedy as a character, many have said, or at the very least ignores decades’ worth of stories about him putting the heroin behind him. I say that suffering horrific loss and finding solace in life-destroying drugs you fought hard to stop using sounds like what happens to a lot of people who struggle with drug addiction. And as for it ruining the character… Come on. This is the stuff of great drama and grand heroic tragedy we’re talking about here. It’s probably the single most interesting thing anyone’s done with Speedy since the first time he shot up, and offers the character a chance to really shine as we watch him climb up out of this hole again.
I’d also read that the series was very poorly-executed, though, and poor execution can make just about any idea laughable. Which brings me to the actual reading. To take such a momentous thing as the Worst. Comic. Ever. in the proper context, I figured I'd better read the first two issues of the series as well as the near-legendary third. So I picked up all three and plowed through them in one sitting. Now, keep in mind that I don't really follow the DC super hero universe anymore. I keep up with the major plot movements via interweb headlines and discussions I overhear at the funnybook store, but I miss stuff. Lots of stuff. So I went into Rise of Arsenal pretty much blind. In a more or less complete plot vacuum, in fact.
So I was initially impressed with the balls on writer JT Krul when it looked like he'd written an assault on the JLA Satellite, killed off a major supporting character, and destroyed a big chunk of Star City, all off-camera. Speedy gets his arm cut off, and then we cut immediately to him waking up in the hospital after everything's over, nursing a bloody stump! I thought this was a great way to put the reader into Speedy's head, giving us the story entirely from his perspective and setting us reeling every bit as much as he is. It was only in the second issue, when we find out that Green Arrow is in jail for killing Prometheus (the villain responsible for all the mayhem) that I figured out this wasn't a clever narrative technique. Krul's just referring to events that happened in another comic. Quite disappointing.
I'll give Krul this, though: you don't need to have read Cry for Justice (the "other comic" in question) to understand Rise of Arsenal. The attack in which Speedy loses his arm is presented as an entirely new scene, and everything else you need to know is filled in as Speedy learns of it, without flashback or painful exposition. So I’m pretty impressed with the writing on that front.
But back to the execution of the thing. Honestly, after reading the first two issues, I didn‘t think it was all that horrible. The dialogue is kind of clumsy, and the dramatics are heightened to such a ridiculous degree that I had to laugh at scenes I almost certainly wasn’t supposed to. But I laugh at the same crap in comics written by Geoff Johns all the time, and you don’t see anybody claiming that he’s ever written the Worst. Comic. Ever. Not even me.
What’s most interesting to me is that Krul actually pulls off some nice scenes here and there, but consistently undermines them with ham-fisted execution. After Speedy finds out about his daughter’s death, for instance, there’s a really nice cinematic page. Speedy's reaction to the news plays out silently behind a pane of glass, until he throws a bedpan through the window and we finally hear him cry out in anguish. But Krul has him cry out with an hysterically cliched "Nnnooooooooooooo!!!"
Ouch. But also, HA!
Gerard Borges’ art functions at a similar level. He has a few problems with storytelling and consistency. He can’t seem to decide, for instance, if Black Canary’s super-fit or if she’s got a big ol’ soccer mom butt. Mostly, though, his art detracts from the story only by lacking flair. He’s got that sort of clean-but-uninspired line and composition that’s essentially the DC house style. To his credit, he does pull out some nice facial expressions for Speedy’s darker moments. I was particularly taken with a shot where Speedy‘s getting ready to yell at one of his friends, and Borges has his face partially shadowed, with one eye bigger than the other to demonstrate his fury.
Luckily for Borges (and for me as the reader, I suppose), Speedy’s got plenty of moments like that. He gets mean as a snake in this story, and more often than not, he takes it out on his friends. He reminds Black Canary that she can‘t have children, he tells the imprisoned Green Arrow that he was a terrible father, he attacks Green Arrow's new sidekick at his daughter's funeral, he yells at Batman for breaking up the fight, he tells Donna Troy that she's a whore... Speedy's just a mean bastard throughout.
This isn’t simply a spectacular failure of the grieving process, understand. The laser-knife thingie Prometheus used to cut off Speedy’s arm released some sort of nano-tech into the wound, preventing it from healing properly. So it hurts all the time. And the cybernetic replacement arm Cyborg and Dr. Mid-Nite make for him hurts even worse. So he’s popping pills for the pain (GREAT idea for a former junkie!), and that’s making him even more irrational. He’s also evidently losing his damn mind, because he keeps having hallucinations. He runs from his daughter’s graveside because he thinks he can hear her banging on the coffin lid! And he keeps getting visits from a dead junkie friend of his, who keeps reminding him that just one hit would make all the pain go away…
Which makes this sound way better than it is. There are some great ideas here, but try to remember that the ham-fisted execution renders most of it laughable. For the long-term funnybook fans in the audience, imagine Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Daredevil run being done by, say, Gerry Conway and Rich Buckler. That should give you a pretty good idea of what’s happening here. Remember that comparison, in fact, as I outline for you the events of the controversial third issue...
Okay, so. At this point in the narrative, Speedy’s alienated everyone that loves him, and comes home from his daughter’s funeral to be confronted by her mother, the super-terrorist Cheshire. She’s come by to kick Speedy’s ass for letting their little girl die, and they have a big fight in Speedy’s living room. A fight that ends when Speedy lassos her wrists with an electrical cord and slams her against the wall. The violence over, they both break down, and wind up having sex on the floor. Or rather, they TRY to have sex but can’t, because Speedy can’t get it up. Humiliated, he goes out and vents his frustrations by beating the hell out of some random thugs. Then his dead junkie friend appears to him again, pointing out a dealer up the block. And finally, Speedy breaks. His arm’s been cut off, the stump won’t stop hurting, his daughter’s dead, his friends all hate him, and he can’t even get it up to fuck his sexy Asian kinky-dangerous bad-girl baby mama. Nothing matters to him anymore, so he scores some smack and finds a nice filthy alley in which to free-base it. Unfortunately, the hallucinations start up again once he’s gotten his hit, and he sees his daughter being menaced by a whole gang of Prometheuses, who he proceeds to beat to a pulp. That’s when Batman shows up, and we see what’s really going on: Speedy’s holding a dead cat in his arms, and he’s just beaten up all the junkies in Junkie Alley.
Yes, that’s right. This comic features A ONE-ARMED JUNKIE SUPER HERO BEATING UP DRUG ADDICTS IN AN ALLEY WHILE CRADLING A DEAD CAT.
Worst comic ever? Pssh. More like BEST comic ever!
Okay. So imagine all that done by Daredevil-era Miller and Mazzuchelli. The hallucinations, the hate that expends itself in bad sex, the humiliation, the final awful descent back into addiction, even the dead cat… That would be a noir masterpiece. Now imagine it done by Conway and Buckler. It’s competent, but dumb. Everything that should be chilling or nuanced is… just kind of obvious. The gorgeous artwork and masterful panel compositions are instead awkward and rushed. And worst of all, the scene of Speedy cradling the dead cat makes it look like he’s getting ready to fuck the damn thing, turning something that should have been horrifying and pathetic into the stuff of bad comedy.
In other words, it’s like about 95% of all mainstream super hero comics, just with edgier subject matter. So while I hate the execution, I applaud the edginess. I like that they’re telling such a painfully honest story about a good man falling off the wagon, and that they were willing to make Speedy such an incredible prick in the process. That’s brave storytelling. They’re not trying to make him look cool. This is a tragedy. A poorly-written tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless.
So is it also the single worst funnybook ever written? Not even close. Rob Liefield’s entire career is far worse than this, so just get that bullshit out of your head right now. To be honest, I enjoyed this more than what I read of Infinite Crisis. I mean, that had better artwork to be sure. But at least Rise of Arsenal had a few nice moments, a few scenes that I actually enjoyed. I can’t say that about Infinite Crisis, so for my money this was better. Not good. But better. And when the bar’s set this low, that’s not a bad compliment to pay.
Grade: Heroin and a Dead Cat!