Whether you’re a fan of them or not, it’s impossible to deny that superheroes are just about everywhere these days. These characters, whose colorful adventures once sold for a nickel a piece on newspaper stands and spinner racks, have now exploded into a worldwide pop culture phenomenon that generates billions of dollars and dominates not only comic books but also film, television and far, far too many streaming services. With so many to choose from and only so much time in the day, it’s only natural for audiences to gravitate towards the more established characters and stories, rather than spend their time and money on something they might not even be into.
My own comic-buying experience has been no exception. While I’ve often walked into the bookstore with the intent to try something new, the truth is that nine times out of ten I’ve ended up walking out with something “safe” or “reliable” like Batman or Captain America. It’s only in the last year that I’ve made an effort to force myself outside my comfort zone, avoiding old favorites from Marvel and DC in favor of new titles from publishers like Image, Boom Studios, Dark Horse and Viz Media. Though not every book I’ve picked up has been a winner, there are times when I stumble across a book that gets me genuinely excited. This month, that comic is Generation Gone Volume One.
The story takes place in America, 2020. Neither a beautiful paradise nor a full-stop Orwellian nightmare, the version of America the reader is dropped into is as close to the current day as one could (un)comfortably imagine, warts and all. People still work multiple jobs to make ends meat, peaceful protests go horribly wrong, racial discrimination and mistrust leads to terrible acts of violence, and poisoned water supplies spread incurable diseases. In these uncertain times, a lone government scientist named Akio believes he has found the key to unlocking a brighter future: a mysterious “code” that activates strange and amazing abilities in whoever reads it. They become, for all intents and purposes, superhuman.
Against the orders of his superiors, Akio selects three talented and unsuspecting young hackers to test his code and become the first generation of superhumans: Baldwin, Nick, and Elena. Baldwin is cool-headed and methodical, preferring to stay out of the limelight and observe quietly, determined to keep himself and his friends safe. Nick is by far the most passionate but is also extremely bitter at the state of the world, a walking powder-keg of emotion who cares little for the thoughts and feelings of others. Elena is the heart and soul of the group, endlessly patient and forgiving especially at her own expense, she doesn’t know exactly what she wants out of life other than a general desire to help people.
On paper these three are probably not the best candidates to receive this “upgrade”, but Akio believes they have the potential and the will to change the world for the better. Still, this isn’t simply another story of ordinary people becoming extraordinary, as entertaining as those are. At it’s heart, Generation Gone is a story about a group of confused but well-meaning human beings who are given the chance to overthrow the systems of control in their lives, whether it’s in the form of riot police, secret government agents or even each other.
Let’s talk about the creative team for a second, because wooh boy, there are some very clever people working behind the scenes on this one. First there’s writer Aleš Kot, who does an exceptional job marrying the outlandish-by-nature concept of superpowers with a more realistic and down-to-earth setting, no doubt aided by his experience writing a number of superhero titles in addition to his own independently published work. With the exception of the magical code that gives people super-powers the rest of the story is surprisingly grounded; there are no aliens here to fight, no giant monsters to vanquish, just the same everyday struggles and anxieties nearly every person in America is already dealing with, whether they’ve got super-powers or not. I do find it hilarious that the only other semi-fantastical element we see occurs in a single panel showing two giant operational humanoid robots who are never seen or mentioned again. If that doesn’t drive home what kind of story Kot is telling here, I don’t know what will.
His character work in particular deserves special recognition; in Kot’s capable hands we see people who are neither completely good nor evil, but deeply complicated human beings with real problems and the best of intentions. Akio, the creator of the superhuman code, is depicted not as a maniacal mad scientist but merely a man trying to create a world where children will never have to be helpless again. There’s the authority figure only ever referred to as General, at first glance the latest in a long line of generic Hardcase Army Guys™, who is gradually revealed to be as flawed as the superhumans he’s chasing, doing his darnedest just to keep the people around him safe and alive. Then there’s young Nick. Without going into too many details, Nick is just the worst. Here’s a character who could have very easily come off as a completely irredeemable dumpster fire of a human being in the hands of a lesser writer, but Kot expertly feeds us just enough information about Nick’s background to make us at least understand where he’s coming from, even if we don’t like him (we really don’t).
Of course you can’t have a comic book without pictures, and artist André Lima Araújo is well up to the task. At first I wasn’t certain Araújo’s style was going to be up my alley, but my concern quickly abated once I got a feel for the story Kot and Araújo are telling here. The thing we have to keep in mind here is that the storytellers are going for realism first, superhero action second. Our characters look like plain, ordinary people because that’s just who they are. They wear plain jeans and sweatshirts because they’re not gonna blow money on designer clothes from Forever 21. This emphasis on plain designs and normalcy may come off as a criticism towards Araújo’s style, but it’s actually the artist’s most effective tool for this particular story. Working alongside Nick O’Halloran who serves as the book’s colorist, Araújo lures both the characters and the reader into a world that’s quiet and subdued with barely a hint of anything being “off”. There’s actually a great sequence in the first issue showing an average day in the life of our main characters that manages to perfectly encapsulate everything we need to know about them in just a couple pages each, all done completely without dialogue.
While Araújo does a fantastic job with the quieter introspective moments he’s no slouch when it comes to capturing the more fantastical elements of the story either. Aided by O’Halloran’s masterful use of color to punctuate the more emotional moments, Araújo demonstrates an uncanny ability for depicting his characters in crisis as their worlds are slowly and irreversibly thrown into chaos. Then once the action sequences begin and characters start getting hurt Araújo makes it very clear that these fights are doing real damage; just looking at some of these pages was enough to make me queasy. To be clear, these are not fights where characters walk away with a few cuts and bruises; these are ugly, sickening fights where bodies can and do get graphically messed up. It really hammers home the fact that no matter how the battles end, no matter who lives and who dies, no one is going to be able to go back to the way things were before.
Overall, reading Generation Gone has been a most welcome shift from the standard superhero fare I usually enjoy. More than any other superhero comic currently being published today, this story really feels like something that could happen in today’s social landscape, “the world outside your window” as Marvel used to say. The world that Kot and Araújo have established in just the first five issues has me eagerly awaiting to see where they take this story next. Generation Gone Volume One gets an obligatory rating of…screw it, I dunno, Three Screens Full of Magic Superpower Code out of Three.
Do let me know in the comments if you start spontaneously flying around the room or you grow a third arm or something.
See y’all next time, Squares!
Generation Gone Volume One is available now. The paperback edition can be ordered at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Image Comics, and your local comic book retailer. Digital editions can be purchased at Image Comics and Comixology.