Waiting for the Trade
By Bill Miller
X-men: S.W.O.R.D – No Time to Breathe.
by Kieron Gillen and Steven Sanders
Collects S.W.O.R.D. 1 – 5.
Why I bought this: Well technically I didn’t buy it; I borrowed it from the library. I had actually passed this over for a couple months before picking it up, but I’m glad I did. This is a spin-off from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run, which I purchased in omnibus form last year and despite the hefty price tag I thoroughly loved it. Whedon created SWORD in that title, as the sister company to SHIELD, but with the mission of monitoring extraterrestrial threats. The hard-nosed agency director Abigail Brand developed feelings for the Beast in X-men and at the end of Whedon’s run he agreed to work for SWORD. This picks up from there.
The Plot: Despite the title, this is not an X-men story, indeed the only X-man in this book is Beast and he’s not the main character. I suppose I should offer back-story on the key players since they are lesser known. Brand, besides being a female Nick Fury, is also a mutant who can burn by touch (hence the name Brand) with an extraterrestrial father (whom we haven’t seen but is also blue and furry like Beast) and she has natural green hair. Her right hand man is a telepathic humanoid dragonish-reptile looking alien named Sydrren. Also Lockheed, who since the 1980s had been Kitty Pryde’s pet dragon that was about the size of a cat that she found in a space mission in a story I never read, was revealed under Whedon to actually be a highly intelligent SWORD agent who had been keeping tabs on the X-men all these years. Their base is a sword-shaped satellite in orbit.
The non-spoiler version of the plot is in the wake of the Secret Invasion crossover, Norman Osborn (a.k.a. the Green Goblin) was appointed the new director of SHIELD and he in turn appoints Henry Gyrich (long time government bureaucrat who tries to regulate super heroes, usually seen pestering the Avengers) as co-director of SWORD under the pretext that Secret Invasion was an alien invasion (by the Skrulls) and Brand/SWORD failed to stop it from occurring. This is of course a bid by Osborn to oust Brand and eventually take control of her agency too. In so doing all hell is going to break loose as several alien threats emerge concurrently. If you want more specifics read below, there will be spoilers.
Chapter 1 – Gyrich gets the morning update of alien activity, which includes three items: the Drenx are approaching Earth and demanding tribute, a political fugitive is requesting asylum while being pursued by a bounty hunter, and there is a mysterious spooky signal. Gyrich decides to do nothing and hide the report from Brand until 10 a.m. We check in the rest of the cast, including Lockheed who is getting drunk because of Kitty being missing and presumed dead in X-men in a funny throw-away scene. Just as Brand and Gyrich are about to walk into an oversight committee meeting at 10 a.m. she gets the various reports from earlier leaving Gyrich to go in alone while she saves the world. Learning the fugitive is her n’er-do-well half-brother Lothi, she sends Sydrren to negotiate with the Drenx in the first of what will be many amusing scenes between them. Lothi is accused of stealing a priceless artifact but claims not to be in possession of it. His pursuer Death Head, who is one of those over-sized gun-toting cyborgs that were so prevalent in the 90s–I’ve only seen him once in a Fantastic Four story from that era so for any more back-story than that you are on your own. Brand refuses to turn her brother over so Death’s Head pretends to leave, then doubles back, breaches the satellite and successfully snatches Lothi. This leads to our most intriguing subplot of the series as to save her brother she goes into the SWORD prison where we meet an unnamed robot that is referred to as Unit for advice, and he gets the full on Hannibal Lector introduction contained in a force field surrounded by a subliminal dampening field inside a heavily sealed room with robot guards outside and door that emits “negative energy.” Before opening the door Brand issues Beast a very precise warning on not to say an extra word in the Unit’s presence under any circumstances. And in just one page he steals the book, identifying the problem and its solution with minimal information instantly, and as they depart Brand assures Beat it is not psychic/telepathic in any way but doesn’t have time to explain further. The chapter concludes with Brand, Beast and Lockheed confronting Death’s Head while Gyrich makes a pitch to the oversight committee to deport every alien on Earth.
Chapter 2 – Gyrich begins rounding up and deporting aliens. He also begins consulting with the Unit on how to neutralize some of the more dangerous aliens, among them Beta Ray Bill (humanoid horse alien with the powers of Thor) and Warlock of the New Mutants. Meanwhile in space our heroes manage to keep Death’s Head off-balance long enough to free Lothi and blow themselves into space while Beast whips some super science that makes that a non-suicidal tactic. We also get funny banter between Beast and Death’s Head during the fight. Brand brings her brother to the Unit who instantly identifies where the stolen artifact is and she returns it to Death’s Head in return for allowing Lothi safe passage. Just as things are winding down, Brand learns of Gyrich’s deportation, she goes to confront him and he announces she is being deported as well (as she is half-alien).
Chapter 3 – Brand is imprisoned along with any other aliens on staff except for Sydrren, who is still negotiating with the Drenx, and Lockheed who is in his quarters relaxing after the last mission (and by the way Lockheed’s quarters is another fabulously funny visual). Lockheed instantly rebuffs the agents who come to deport him. With no allies left on the satellite Beast turns to the Unit for help and we get his origin—the short version is he is the last survivor of a alien race that tried to install a benevolent dictatorship on the rest of the universe over a billion years ago. Beast then frees Brand and they hire Death’s Head to assist them. Meanwhile that mysterious spooky signal that was ignored the past three issues manifests as an invasion of South Dakota by giant alien rock men known as the Metroliths.
Chapter 4 – the Dark Avengers deploy to South Dakota but find no sign of the invasion as Brand has cloaked the area so she, Beast and Death’s Head can deal with the problem. After a brief battle she negotiates a truce as the whole invasion was the result of a humorous misunderstanding. Gyrich decides to no longer wait to deport Sydrren and pulls him from his negotiations with the Drenx. The agents who arrest him note the only cell left is near that “yappy robot” which immediately causes the Drenx to pull guns and demand to see said yappy robot. When they open the cell the Unit shape shifts to look like a Drenx robot instead of a human robot, and starts offering them advice on how to takeover the satellite and then the Earth. Brand meanwhile gets herself reinstated by revealing how Gyrich ignored three warnings that morning, she radios to the ship to dock but we see the Unit was impersonating the human subordinate she spoke to. He then gives the Drenx advice for an ambush to kill the returning heroes when they dock and when Lockheed tries to advert it he is thwarted.
Chapter 5 – Brand and company break into the airlock from above and a shootout with the Drenx ensues. They battle their way through waves of aliens until only the Drenx commander is left; in desperation he begins to free the Unit but when he turns off the subliminal field the Unit puts him to sleep with a word and allows Beast to reimprison him. He then explains his motivations to Beast in a scene so well-written it is hypnotic. Once peace is restored Gyrich is forced to resign and the deported aliens are freed. Once the crisis is past Brand and Beast enjoy a tender moment to close the book.
Critical Thoughts: This is book is fabulous. Considering I have no use for SHIELD, and am not much of an X-men fan either I was stunned by how engrossing this was. I can’t praise the writing enough. It manages to be full of funny moments and yet at the same time the dramatic parts are as compelling as comics get. If Gillen is ever given an ongoing SWORD series I will buy every single trade of it as soon as it is released, that’s how good this was. It’s a layered story, with several subplots all of which peak at different moments. This is how you do comic cliffhangers.
I also want to add I am normally against the cynicism of modern comics, especially when done in retcons (like The Illuminati series.) Even though I worship Joss Whedon for reasons that go far beyond comics, I didn’t like his retcon of Lockheed as he presented it in Astonishing X-men. But here Gillen finds the perfect note for the new Lockheed, he’s loyal and dedicated to Kitty and his teammates, but he also drinks and swears. His scenes are often funny and yet he is shown to be the team’s most capable fighter. I want more stories about this version of Lockheed.
More importantly I want more stories the Unit is who is one of the most fascinating new characters in years. Basically everything good about Silence of the Lambs is done just right with this character but with enough science fiction trappings to make it feel fresh. The scene where he turns into a Drenx to greet them is wonderfully chilling. As is the Drenx reaction to him: all of their dialogue throughout the story is about being this war-like race that revels in gore and yet when we get to see their fear at possibly opening the Unit’s cell the anticipation is palpable. And I love how his ultimate explanation of why he allows SWORD to keep him imprisoned ties into the Infinity Gauntlet crossover from the early 90s.
The only negative is the art. For the most part it is serviceable but Beast looks nothing like he does normally with a snout that must be 3-feet long. Also whatever Lockheed is doing in the chapter four cliffhanger is completely incomprehensible. On the flipside I love the cover art by John Cassaday.
Grade: A. The art is only thing stopping this from being an A+. The writing is amazing. All I can say is read this now; thank me later.