Review: “Star-Spangled Squadron” Issue 1 (Ascendant Comics)

What started in 2020 as a table top role-playing game, the Ascendant Universe has now graduated to the esteemed medium of comic books. Do you sense sarcasm? Maybe. Certainly modern comics have fallen far from their heights decades ago, but thankfully for you, dear reader, Ascendent Comics’ first book Star-Spangled Squadron (which is now crowdfunding via Indiegogo here) isn’t trying to be like a modern, mainstream comic book.*

Some light spoilers will follow.

The Star-Spangled Squadron stars a mismatched group of heroes trying to work together as a super-powered team. Mismatched? American Eagle, Stiletto, Dr. Quantum, Warp, Stronghold and Aurora all have their own unique personalities and definitely their own visual flair, so unlike books like Fantastic Four or Legion of Superheroes, the members of the Star-Spangled Squadron each look as though they have been brought together from their own corner of the Ascendant Universe. If it felt reminiscent of any previous books I’ve read, the closest I can come up with is DC’s The Outsiders from the 1980’s – the Mike Barr and Jim Aparo era (You all read that… right?).

The story is familiar enough – the US Government is assembling a super team (the titular Star-Spangled Squadron) to counter an emerging threat of the government’s own making. “So, you’re telling me that the government secretly created a giant problem, and is now scrambling to find a solution to the problem that they themselves created?” Yes. The imagination is truly the limit in the world of fantasy and science fiction!

Co-written by Alexander Macris and David Campiti and featuring illustrations by Mel Joy San Juan and colors by Jay David Ramos and Rohvel Yumul, Star-Spangled Squadron has a few more creator credits than most typical single-issue comics do. Because of that, I half expected the book to feel inconsistent, but I was pleased to find that I was wrong. The story moves at a fairly brisk pace, and there is plenty of action to keep the pages turning.

LOL

In fact, while I rarely would complain about it, there almost seemed to be too much action for a story intended to introduce a team of six brand-new heroes. As it is, we get a few seeds of inter-team drama and broader intrigue, and the brief origins of both American Eagle (the unabashed Superman stand-in) and Stiletto (the raven-haired femme fatale), but the other four members of the team are mostly along for the ride. It’s quite possible that the Ascendant RPG offers more background to the book’s characters and the world around them, but for those jumping straight in with the Star-Spangled Squadron comic, there simply isn’t much to chew on.

On the art side, Star-Spangled Squadron is very much in the 90s tradition of big action, guys with big muscles, and ladies with big… attitude. The characters often look to bend or flex in ways that don’t always seem natural, but are likely intended to follow Todd MacFarlane’s “Rule of Cool.” This will certainly be refreshing for some (myself included), but the style certainly has its critics, too. The character designs are varied, and while most readers probably won’t love every particular hero design, there will at least be one or two that will resonate. All the more reason to flesh out the characters of the entire team, eh?

Double LOL

The backgrounds are richly detailed, though there were a few times when the characters are drawn smaller and the line weights are so light, that I can’t help but wonder how well it will show up when printed. To nitpick further, there were some inconsistently-drawn weapons in the opening scene, too. They start by looking like M-16 A2 rifles, and slowly transform into M4s a few pages later. Since I know that there are some gun enthusiasts in the indie comic book market, it felt worth noting.

I should also mention that the Star-Spangled Squadron’s military sponsor, “Hawkins”, is referred to both as a “General” and later as an “Admiral,” and there are also inconsistencies in his military uniform, too, regardless of which branch he’s actually a part of. Lifelong civilians might not notice – or care – about these things, but military veterans will probably notice, and some of them will care.

“Sir! Staff Sergeant Worrell requests that you put your tie on, General/Admiral, sir!”

There are admittedly a few times when Star-Spangled Squadron rides the fine line between following of the conventions of the genre and being cliché. Sure, you get the aforementioned large-scale action scenes, gloriously gravity-defying super-lady costumes, and “superhero landings” aplenty, but there’s overt references to Spider-Man’s “With great power” mantra, and Action Comics issue 1 briefly appears as “research material” for American Eagle. I find moments like these to be more immersion-breaking than anything else, but your reaction might vary.

The biggest moment, however, is a scene where the Christlike imagery is really on the nose. I’m not all piss and vinegar on these things, though. I did appreciate American Eagle unironically delivering the line, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Bravo.

It should also be noted that Star-Spangled Squadron is not intended for a younger audience. The language, level of violence, and Stiletto’s character design put this book squarely in the late teen/mature range, so it’s not one that I recommend ordering for your kids.

Triple LOL

Overall, Star-Spangled Squadron is an enjoyable introduction to a new superhero team, and a solid hook into what is planned to be the broader Ascendant Universe. As a 92-page graphic novel, it also provides a lot of value for your crowdfunding buck, and the story is one that has a satisfying end despite being left open for follow-up issues. It’s a book designed for a slightly older audience, and one that prefers action over plotting, but it definitely delivers on aspirational heroes, sexy heroines, and big action.

I personally feel that the connective tissue could have been a bit meatier, and I hope that future installments of the series do more to bring the team’s other characters to the forefront. Maybe issue two will open up with Warp and Stronghold partying in Vegas? Given that there is still time before the book goes to print, it’s entirely possible that some of the small quirks or inconsistencies can still be remedied in the editing process (Hawkins’ rank, the M-16/M4 rifles, etc.).

If Star-Spangled Squadron campaign sounds like your kind of superhero jam, you can buy into the Star-Spangled Squadron crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo here. There are tons of perks available, too, so you’ll have plenty of options to customize your level of support.

*Disclosure: A copy of Star-Spangled Squadron was provided to The Splintering for the purpose of this review.

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2 comments

  • Ascendant Comics

    Thanks for the lengthy review! I wanted to add two comments:

    1) General Hawkins changes branches from the US Army to the US Coast Guard when the Department of Defense realizes they can work around posse comitatus by having the heroes work for the USCG. This is briefly mentioned in one of American Eagle’s speech balloons but not explained fully. A complete transcript of the secret meeting where this is all decided is found in the RPG and might be added to the comic if we hit our stretch goal to add pages.

    2) The characters are self-aware of genre tropes because Ascendant is intended to be set in our “real world” where those tropes already exist. When Robert Kirkman created the Walking Dead, he decided that George Romero and zombie movies had never existed in his fictional world, so no one in the comic knew about the need to “shoot them in the head” or called them “zombies”. But Ascendant, on the other hand, is set in a world where everyone knows all about caped superheroes because they all watch DC and Marvel movies. American Eagle self-consciously understands himself to be Superman-like, because when he became an invulnerable flying strongman, it made him think of Superman. The US government makes him look Superman-like in his official costume for the same reason. Unlike e.g. The Boys, the pop culture references aren’t the author cutely breaking the third wall to wink at the reader; they’re the characters themselves in the world interpreting their world through the symbols of their (which is to say our) pop culture.

    Thank you again for the kind words about the graphic novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Ascendant is an impressive effort, so we backed it. Only thing I’m wondering about is: if Doctor Quantum is a super-smart adult scientist, why is she wearing a cutesy teen-style costume with a miniskirt? Wouldn’t some kind of functional high-tech lab jumpsuit make more sense? Guess I’ll find out when we get the book!

    Also, thanks for showcasing our Heroineburgh character Gardenia (lower left corner) in your “wearing of the green”!

    Like

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