After raising $150,000 on Kickstarter and other sources, Morgan Rosenblum has launched not only a graphic novel saga, but a new media franchise “combining the style and tone of The Dark Knight” and “the traditional mix-and-match group of character archetypes that makes ‘X-Men’ so successful.” What at first glance might seem like a by-the-numbers science fiction comic proves to be much more.
In the wake of a global economic meltdown, chaos erupts and the world’s safety is jeopardized by a new wave of crime and terror. A privately funded team of hi-tech special operatives is assembled, known as TREADWATER, the only force standing between anarchy and hope.
TRDWTR, Part 1 written by Morgan Rosenblum & Don Macnab-Stark and illustrated by Ray Dillon is the first publication by the newly-formed Darkrose Studios. The book is described as “a serious and realistic approach to the superhero genre.” I found this to be a bit of misnomer. Only one character, the enigmatic Wraith, has any of the vestiges of a superhero, such as a fancy costume and superpowers. Instead, the operatives for TRDWTR (which stands for Technological Research and Development Working Toward a Resolution) have more in common with G.I. Joe: a special forces team with advanced weaponry battling terrorist threats around the world. In fact, the aforementioned Wraith is much like the silent and deadly Snake Eyes. Regardless, both do have some shades of superheroes in them.
TRDWTR is intended to be a 30-part series, so this first volume plays out much like the pilot episode of a TV show. Most of it is setup, and being a science fiction story, it must quickly establish its characters, world and premise. The latter two is done quite well, presenting a frighteningly plausible future where Europe is in shambles, with many of its countries controlled by dictators. The characters—what the graphic novel prides itself on—take more time. With an ensemble cast and eclectic characters, some are more developed than others in this first outing, which is common practice in most ensemble series like this.
The primary focus in Part 1 is the team leader, Lucky Joe, a widower who joined the team so that its financier would provide his injured daughter with medical treatment. Since her injuries—and his wife’s death—happened in a car accident while he was driving, he blames himself for her plight and carries that guilt with him into missions, often endangering the rest of the team. His is a heart-wrenching story and I have nothing but sympathy for him. Unfortunately, the narrative fails to mention some key information that is found in character profiles in the back of the book. The most important is Lucky Joe got his name because he wears a rabbit’s foot with a magnetic device that repulses all metal objects within a six-foot radius, including bullets. That’s something that should be established within the story itself, but it’s a minor issue.
Part 1 also acts as an origin story for the German defector, Wolfgang, an assassin who once served Gen. Kirklau, the dictator of Germany. He joins the team so they will rescue the general’s son. This subplot runs throughout the graphic novel and clashes with the main plot toward the end.
The rest of the characters are distinct and have strong characterization: Dom is the foulmouthed muscle from New York, Sylvie is the token femme fatale with a crush on Joe, Jerry is the Jamaican pilot and comic relief and Kiyoshi is the cybernetic assassin. The most intriguing, however, is the mysterious Wraith. He appears only a few times and has strange and frightening powers. He emits purple mist from his Iron Man-esque armor and extends razor-wires from his fingers. The most perplexing thing about him is the circular meter on his chest, which, according to his profile in the back of the book, seems to be counting down to something. To what? I have a few theories.
The artwork rivals anything from the big comic companies. Ray Dillon’s photo-realistic painted style fits the story’s dark edge and reminded me of Alex Ross’ early work in Terminator: The Burning Earth. In fact, the designs of much the book’s tech have influences from James Cameron’s nightmarish visions of futuristic war. The characters are articulate, though a few of them seemed to be stuck in certain expressions in some scenes, such as CIA director Mel’s unending smile during a dinner party. Still, it’s better than the permanent sneers plastered on most superheroes during the ‘90s.
TRDWTR certainly has a modern style. There are no narrative captions, and some pages have few if any voice or thought balloons. The artwork is allowed to tell the story, and the silence creates either brisk pacing or pulse-pounding suspense, depending on the scene. However, there are a few pages crowded with voice balloons, making it difficult to determine who is speaking. In rare instances, the balloons don’t even point to a character, so the speaker must be determined by the balloons’ proximity.
Part 1 is a solid start to a series that is full of excitement and intrigue, but don’t go into it thinking you’ll get everything promised in the promotional materials. Only one of the several advertised villains makes a substantial appearance in this volume, for example, but they will return later. This is a big world, after all, so all of it can’t be crammed into every graphic novel.
Ambition is the series’ greatest asset. The graphic novel is just part of an extensive franchise Darkrose Studios is launching. There will also be a 10-episode live action TV series, a video game and a feature film. Its website includes loads of interactive content, much of which must be unlocked by taking an entrance exam to become a TRDWTR operative. In other words, the story doesn’t end with the comics.
I can’t wait for more!
Final Grade: B+
Purchase the book on Amazon.