Having watched Iron-Man 2 recently, I was put into a mind to re-read the old Chuck Austen U.S. War Machine series from Marvel MAX. In fact, I had been meaning to crack open this miniseries for the last 2 years, since the first Iron-Man movie was released. My reasons for this were two-fold; firstly, I had fond memories of the weekly miniseries when it was released in 2001, and I wanted to see how the high-octane action set-pieces measure up against their big-screen counterparts. Secondly I wanted to revisit this relatively early work of Austen; a creator who in the years to follow this, through a number of very badly received runs on several of the highest profile comics franchises around (like JLA, Avengers and Uncanny X-Men) became one of the most villified creators in modern comics.
To be honest, it's not a series that I would normally have picked up; to me the concept of James 'Rhodey' Rhodes operating as War Machine seemed typical of the '90s Marvel glut of dark anti-hero analogues to their tentpole characters. You had Vengeance (a pumped up version of Ghost Rider), Thunder-Strike (a souped up version of Thor), U.S. Agent (a bad-ass Captain America) and Venom (Spider-Man on steroids), so War Machine just seemed to be an iteration of Iron-Man for gun porn fetishists. On the surface of it though, there were a number of peculiarities about this series which made it stand out from the crowd...
(a) It's a Marvel MAX comic. The adult MAX imprint was until recently intrinsically related to the ultraviolent Punisher series which writer Garth Ennis orchestrated for 5 years, but in 2001 the concept of a self contained Marvel pocket universe was somewhat novel, particularly an adult one inwhich the reader could regularly enjoy bloodshed, hard swearing and the occassional boobie. The world in which U.S. War Machine unfolds takes some elements from the traditional Marvel '616' universe, in particular the terrorist baddies A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) and Nick Fury with his ginormous S.H.I.E.L.D. hellicarrier, although no other traditional superheroes are mentioned; and it is implied that teams such as The Avengers may not even exist. The industrial and espionage elements of the plotting strike a tone which is quite similar to Ed Brubaker's recent run on Captain America, or more appropriately to the contemporary Iron-Man movies. In fact the characterisation of Tony Stark in his brief cameo appearances, as a repentent iron-monger, a shrewd self-publicist and a slightly facetious twerp, is the closest I've seen in print to Robert Downey Jr's interpretation. The resulting mish-mash of continuity may be in equal measures frustrating and intrigueing to long term fans of Rhodey, but it is certainly accessible to new readers, and leads to a rather neat re-imagining of the diabolical Victor Von Doom, who comes into play in the final chapters of the series.
(b) As mentioned earlier, the 12 miniseries was released on a weekly schedule, between September 2001 and December 2001, which was over 4 years before Marvel's competitors DC would shakedown the weekly comic market with their landmark series '52'. Whereas that year-long DC epic involved a heavy cash investment from the readers (at $2.50 per issue), Marvel MAX went to efforts to make the U.S. War Machine series much more affordable, and as a result collectable. A no-nonsense format of black and white artwork on cheaper paper-stock, with no adverts brought the price down to just $1.50, or £1 in the UK. It was a very appealling package that encouraged new readers to be give the title a shot, and to come back for more in the weeks to follow.
(c) The artwork consists of a blend of traditional super-hero character design, manga draftmanship and glittering CGI mech. It's a combo which could easily have looked disastrously juxtaposed, but instead it manages to create a surprisingly immersive hi-tech environment and identifiable characters (with perhaps somewhat stiff body language). Chuck Austen shares the art credits on U.S. War Machine with a couple of art studios, who I assume implemented much of the CG characters and background, but he still deserves huge kudos for pulling together these disparate techniques, and for his cinematic storytelling techniques which shy away from expository dialogue and often rely on actions to propel the plot. Around about the same time, Christian Gossett and Team Red Star were at work producing multi-media comics for Image which would knock the socks off this stuff, but more on that some other time.
The above remarks are all to an extent editorial, and the strengths of U.S. War Machine do run somewhat deeper. In particular, it is noteworthy not just as a super-hero story with 2 black protagonists, but that it uses the men-on-a-mission framework to make a concerted statement about the evils of race bigotry, from internalised racism to militarised race hate. Make no mistake, this is Big Issues Comix. Being a middle-class white male, I'm lucky enough to belong to the least oppressed demographic on the planet, so I'm not an expert in how balanced or credible the race subtext is portrayed here. What I can appreciate is that it helps to define the 2 main characters in the War Machine team, Jim Rhodes and Parnell Jacobs, and the non-trivial tensions which exist between the pair provides an interesting set of character arcs. The White Supremacist villains are not handled with kiddie gloves either, which makes for uncomfortable reading at parts, but which underwrites the stakes of the mission and the emotional payoff once the inevitably explosive climax arrives. It has to be said though, that the liberal crusading of Austen's plotting do not extend to addressing sexism, and the female characters in the series purely serve the purpose of cannon fodder, plot device or eye candy. The latter of these is particularly jarring since Austen's artistic rendering of the female form is often awkward and sleazy, and doesn't seem to include a bra at any point. I have read that Austen's early comic career included producing pornographic comics, but on the evidence shown here those are more likely to put the reader off his stroke.
This miniseries was reasonably well recieved when it was first published, and a proposed ongoing sequel was to follow in the next year in full colour. Due to unforeseen internal circumstances the sequel was severely truncated and then canned after only a few issues (rumours on the grape vine posited discord between editorial and the new art team). In a sense this is a shame, as the original mini-series created a compelling and dramatic reality, which was ripe with potential for conflicts and drama, but on the other hand it would have been a difficult task for the creative team to indefinitely walk the tightrope between meaty issues-driven storytelling and tasteless exploitation. It's arguable that U.S. War Machine had already strayed over that line a couple of times in it's short run.