Given that I enjoyed the New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes miniseries Archie Comics / Red Circle published a year ago, I was probably going to get their next offering, the five issue miniseries The Fox. Of course, as soon as I found out that Dean Haspiel would be plotting and illustrating the book, well, I was sold.
I’ve been a fan of Haspiel’s work since he collaborated with Josh Neufeld on the Keyhole anthology series in the late 1990s, and subsequently worked solo on his Billy Dogma stories. Haspiel is one of those rare creators who successfully straddle the worlds of independent and mainstream comics. He is equally at home crafting bizarre, experimental projects and chronicling the adventures of popular Marvel & DC superheroes. In fact, The Fox is very much a meeting ground between those two worlds, as Haspiel brings his innovative small press sensibilities with him in a clever revamping of a long-time Red Circle costumed crime-fighter.
Paul Patton Jr. is the son of the original Fox. Unlike his father, Paul never set out to be a hero. Rather, as a photojournalist, Paul felt that by becoming a masked vigilante he could attract news stories, create material to help his career. Unfortunately Paul eventually realized that he had become, in Haspiel’s words, a “freak magnet,” attracting all sorts of bizarre individuals & strange events without meaning to. Now all Paul desperately wants is a normal life with his wife and kids. But fate just keeps conspiring against him, throwing a succession of oddities and curveballs his way with alarming regularity.
Scripting “Freak Magnet” is veteran writer Mark Waid. I really enjoyed his work in the past on such series as The Flash, Captain America, The Brave and the Bold, and Kingdom Come. Although the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Waid is old-school, traditional superhero tales (and I mean that as a compliment) he really is a diverse scribe, having also penned the extremely dark titles Empire and Irredeemable. With The Fox, Waid shows yet another side of his talent, scripting some hysterically insane dialogue to accompany Haspiel’s bizarre, surreal plotting. The two make a hell of a team. And, yeah, you could say that Waid makes the Fox much more witty and eloquent than the original Golden Age version, who was introduced in 1940 by writer Joe Blair & artist Irwin Hasen:
“Yah yah yah yah yaaahh!” Indeed.
Beginning in issue #2 is a back-up story featuring the Shield. Writer J.M. DeMatteis reunites with penciler Mike Cavallaro, who he previously collaborated with on The Life and Times of Savior 28. Joining them is the insanely talented Terry Austin who, as I’ve mentioned on at least one occasion, is one of the best inkers / embellishers in the comic book biz. He does superb work over Cavallaro’s pencils here.
DeMatteis’ story is a flashback to World War II, as Joe Higgins, aka the Shield, heads to Antarctica to investigate a mysterious power source that the military suspect is being caused by an unknown Axis super-weapon. At first tangling a horde of monsters, the Shield then encounters the German and Japanese agents Master Race and Hachiman. Not stopping to ask questions, the Shield leaps at them, engaging the two Axis super-soldiers in battle. But these three men soon discover that things are not as simple as they seem.
One of the aspects of DeMatteis’ writing that I have appreciated since I first encountered it way back in the pages of Captain America #278 was that he would demonstrate that not every problem can be solved with violence. In a genre such as superhero comic books, which (truth be told) often involves costumed superhumans beating each other senseless, this is a somewhat unusual approach, one that has often set DeMatteis apart from his contemporaries. But I appreciate that he scripts protagonists who utilize their intelligence & reasoning to arrive at a more constructive solution than punching the other guy in the face.
Not to get too political, but there is such a significant problem in the real world where non-violent strategies are frowned upon. One need only look at reactions to the current crisis in the Ukraine. Various politicians are decrying the tactics of negotiations with and economic sanctions against Russia because they make the United States look “weak.” Of course, the people usually calling for military action either cannot or will not recognize that conflicts such as this one are not black & white affairs with “good guys” and “bad guys” that can be quickly & neatly solved by blowing up some “evil” enemy. And you can be guaranteed that those saber-rattling politicos and armchair generals are not the types to lay their own lives on the line in the service of their country, instead leaving it to others to fight & die on the battlefield.
Very unexpectedly, the extremely different adventures of Paul Patton and Joe Higgins come crashing together at the end of issue #4, as the Fox, having helped rescue the other-dimensional Diamond Realm from the diabolical Druid, is transported back to Earth. But instead of returning to the United States in 2014, an alarmed Fox materializes in Antarctica seven decades earlier, ending up smack dab in the middle of a four-way fight between the Shield, Master Race, Hachiman and an equally time-displaced Druid.
With DeMatteis taking over both the plotting & scripting for the final issue, I really wondered how this would work out. DeMatteis has very different sensibilities from Waid. Much of his work features psychoanalytical or spiritual tones. That’s not to say that DeMatteis cannot do comedy, because he has written some very funny stories in the past. But, yes, there is a somewhat abrupt shift in mood between #4 and #5. Perhaps DeMatteis might have endeavored to maintain some of the Fox’s irreverent commentary in the concluding issue. But, on the whole, it is a pretty effective conclusion. The fact that the Fox is not your typical superhero, that he really just wants to have a nice, quiet life, makes him just the sort of individual to think outside the box. He’s the one who is able to realize that the Shield, Master Race, and Hachiman have to stop thinking with their fists, set aside their distrust, and come up with a more intelligent strategy to stop the Druid.
Haspiel does a fine job illustrating the concluding issue. After the wacky shenanigans of the preceding four chapters, he ably shifts gears, ably depicting both the gritty horrors of war and the mystic, esoteric final confrontation with the Druid.
I also have to give a tip of the hat to John Workman. As always, his lettering is dynamic. It’s an oft-overlooked art.
One other nice touch to The Fox was that there were a number of tie-ins with New Crusaders. In addition to the Shield, there are also appearances by Dusty the Space Chimp and Bob Phantom. And we learn that Paul Patton’s daughter is Fly-Girl. For those who have also read New Crusaders, these are nice touches that will make you go “A-ha!” But they are done in such a way that if you’ve never laid eyes on that other miniseries, you will still be able to appreciate The Fox as a stand-alone piece. That is how continuity should work.
I did think that having 17 covers for 5 issues was a bit much, though. Yeah, there was some nice artwork on those variants. I guess they’ll make for a really lovely gallery in the back of the upcoming trade paperback. Okay, I did splurge a bit and pick up a couple of the alternate covers, namely Haspiel’s “Freak Magnet” issue #1 variant, and the cover for #5 showcasing a vintage rendering of the Fox by the late, great Alex Toth.
All in all, despite a couple of hiccups, The Fox was very well done. I’m glad that Haspiel & Waid are already working on a second miniseries. I’m definitely looking forward to the further misadventures of everyone’s favorite freak magnet.