The End of the New (Universe), Part 2 – The Draft
The Draft is the middle chapter of the New Universe’s closing trilogy, the square-bound trifecta that put the chairs on the tables, swept the floors and turned out the lights on Marvel’s grand 1980s experiment. A follow-up to the events depicted in The Pitt (which had themselves been partially depicted in the pages of Star Brand), it tells the story of an assemblage of paranormals conscripted into the United States Army and sent to a special boot camp to further explore their powers and hone themselves into fighting machines. It’s a fairly straight-forward book, one constrained by a structure that we’ve seen 1000x before in movies.
It’s also vastly superior to its predecessor.
The great fault of The Pitt was its relative pointlessness. Yes, it had a cataclysm — the destruction of Pittsburgh by Star Brand’s dopey attempt to rid himself of his powers — but the resultant storytelling had all the force of a pop gun. People wandered about, talked a lot (a lot), and in general accomplished absolutely nothing. The book was all middle. No rising action, no falling action, no setup, no dénouement. Just stuff.
The Draft , written by Mark Gruenwald and Fabian Nicieza, has structure. It’s not great structure, but it’s there, and this is refreshing after the slogging disappointment of the previous installment. If you’ve seen any movie with a boot camp in it — Heartbreak Ridge, Full Metal Jacket (more on that in a moment), Stripes, you name it — you get the idea. A disparate group people come together, clash, bond, and come out the other end more or less intact, if steeled by the experience. Apart from the superpowered component, no new territory is explored in these pages, but there’s a bit of entertainment to be had. Actual character development! Arcs! What a concept!
The titular draft is passed into law not long after the destruction of Pittsburgh, and it makes all males between the ages of 18 and 45 register for six months of training and service. This is partially a guise to screen and identify people with superpowers, so that those powers can be put into the service of the good old U. S. of A. Most of the first half of the book is spent introducing us to the three new characters who will be the main components of this narrative (other established names, most notably Nightmask, are also included in the cast). First up is Chris Barrett, a farm boy who comes upon what he thinks is a magical Chevy hubcap:
Though it’s unclear in the book whether or not his ability to manipulate the hubcap applies generally to other metals, he gets the codename Metallurgist. (If I were him, I’d petition to have that spiced up a bit. I mean, cripes, he can stand on his magical thingy and zip around like Marty McFly on his Back to the Future II hoverboard.)
Then there’s Garth, a New York cabbie who discovers one day — while stuck in traffic, natch — that he has the (really odd) ability to construct elaborate networks of bars out of thin air:
He gets the moniker Gridlock, because of course he does. (Also, this ability would be quite handy if you were designing climbing apparatus/jungle gyms for playgrounds. Also, “My word!” may be the tamest exclamation ever uttered by a cabbie.)
The last of the new blood is Harlan Mook, a genius graduate student who’s on the brink of finishing his dissertation, but roving library bullies set off his explosive teleportation power and all his notes are incinerated — oh, and the bullies are too:
He’s essentially Nightcrawler with more fire and less brimstone. And he gets the name Blow Out (or Blowout). Because, again, of course.
Their drill instructor is Sergeant Hadelman, himself a paranormal, with the ability to project unspeakable grief into the minds of his targets. Though all the men (apparently women needed a paranormal Title IX to get themselves some powers and break through that superhero glass ceiling) have unique abilities, they still have to go through the PE meat-grinder, which is a challenge for the scrawny Harlan. Remember Vincent D’Onofrio’s doughy character in Full Metal Jacket? The one who eventually goes nuts and kills R. Lee Ermey in the showers before splattering his own brains on tile? Harlan is the skinny answer. He too is bullied, by a behemoth named Pit Bull, and he too is the one that goes off the rails in the final scene of the book. Spoiler ahead: Finding himself in the stockade after a foiled attempt to kill his tormentor, he snaps, teleports out and into a live televised speech by President Reagan (who’s not identified by name, but it’s him, as you’ll see), and then teleports out in an assassination attempt. Which reveals that, well:
And that’s how it ends. Which is an odd way to close a book, but whatever. (It’s also a bit uncomfortable to depict a comic book assassination attempt on a President who was within inches of being gunned down in real life. There’s something glib, something far too casual about it. Would they do the same with Kennedy?)
Like The Pitt, Draft has a text piece at the end, this time written from Harlan’s cookoo perspective. (There’s also one in the beginning, from Nightmask, which feels a bit tacked on since his presence is hardly felt in the story.) Again, it’s a bit too cute for its own good:
Herb Trimpe’s pencils are unfortunately embellished by an uneven assemblage of inkers — Kyle Baker, Michael Gustovich, Klaus Janson, Lee Weels, Keith Williams — any one of whom would have been fine. But the law firmish delegation makes the artwork a bit haphazard, and this doesn’t make for smooth reading. But what makes The Draft rise above the previous installment is that you get to know the characters a bit more. Chris and Garth both seem like nice guys, and though you don’t get much of a chance to root for them within these pages, you feel like you might want to later on. And even if Harlan’s sociopathy is a bit ginned up, it at least feels genuine. If not real people, they’re all at least not ciphers, mere vehicles for line delivery like the principals in The Pitt. At least the final trajectory of the good ship New Universe wasn’t all straight down.
The Draft was published while New Universe titles were still being produced, and the characters and events depicted within spun out into that web of titles. That fictional milieu was on borrowed time, though, and soon it would all come to an end. Coming soon: a look at The War, the final four-issue kick from the
New Cancelled Universe.