One of the best superhero comics of the century (so far)? I think so!
Noble Causes by Jay Faerber (writer), Billy Dallas Patton (penciller, First Impressions: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner …?”), Patrick Gleason (penciller, First Impressions: “… By Its Cover”; In Sickness and In Health #1-4), Amanda Conner (penciller, In Sickness and In Health #1: “Special Delivery”), Jamal Igle (penciller, In Sickness and In Health #2: “Life Support”), Jeff Johnson (penciller, In Sickness and In Health #3: “Common Ground”), Sean Clauretie (penciller, In Sickness and In Health #4: “Too Close to the Son”), Ian Richardson (penciller, Family Secrets #1-4; Distant Relatives #1), Jonboy Meyers (penciller, Family Secrets #1: “Fire & Ice”), Matt Wendt (penciller, Family Secrets #2: “Unrequited”), Jon Sommariva (penciller, Family Secrets #3: “An Early Frost”), Andres Ponce (artist, Family Secrets #4: “Grown Ups”; Distant Relatives #1-4), Andie Tong (penciller, Distant Relatives #1: “The Ring”), Shane Davis (penciller, Distant Relatives #2: “Normal”), Ray-Anthony Height (penciller, Distant Relatives #3: “Unexpected Arrival”; issue #25), Ethen Beavers (artist, Distant Relatives #4: “Gretchen’s Story”), Fran Bueno (artist, issues #1-18, 25), Gabe Bridwell (penciller, issue #7, 25), Freddie E. Williams II (artist, issues #13-18, 25), Jon Bosco (artist, issues #19-25), Jason Craig (penciller, issue #25), Valentine de Landro (penciller, issue #25), Tim Kane (artist, issues #25-26), Yildiray Cinar (artist, issues #27-40), Damon Hacker (inker, First Impressions: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner …?”; In Sickness and In Health #2, 4: “Life Support,” “Too Close to the Son”; In Sickness and In Health #3; Family Secrets #1: “Fire & Ice”), John Wycough (inker, First Impressions: “… By Its Cover”; In Sickness and In Health #1-4; Family Secrets #1-2; Distant Relatives #3: “Unexpected Arrival”; issue #25),
Jimmy Palmiotti (inker, In Sickness and In Health #1: “Special Delivery”), Phil Balsam (inker, Family Secrets #1: “Fire & Ice”), Ed Herrera (inker, Family Secrets #2: “Unrequited”), Vivienne To (inker, Family Secrets #3: “An Early Frost”), Lebeau Underwood (inker, Distant Relatives #1: “The Ring”), Sam Mooney (inker, Distant Relatives #2: “Normal”), Kris Justice (inker, issue #7, 25), Ed Waysek (inker/colorist, issue #25), Clayton Brown (inker, issue #25), Ralph Niese (inker/colorist, issue #39), Rob Schwager (colorist, First Impressions), Chris Sotomayor (colorist, In Sickness and In Health #1-4; Family Secrets #1), Jeremy Roberts (colorist, In Sickness and In Health #1-4; Family Secrets #1-2), J. Brown (colorist, In Sickness and In Health #1-3: “Special Delivery,” “Life Support,” “Common Ground,” “Too Close to the Son”; Family Secrets #1-2: “Fire & Ice,” “Unrequited”), Ken Wolack (colorist, Family Secrets #3-4; grayscales, Distant Relatives #1-4), Dawn Groszewski (colorist, Family Secrets #3-4; grayscales, Distant Relatives #1-4), Thomas Mason (colorist, Family Secrets #3-4: “An Early Frost,” “Grown Ups”; issue #25), Sebastien Lamirand (grayscales, Distant Relatives #1-4: “The Ring,” “Normal,” “Unexpected Arrival,” “Gretchen’s Story”), Ron Riley (colorist, issues #1-32), Ryan Vera (colorist, issues #13-18, 25, 33-36), Joshua Ravello (colorist, issue #25), Jacob Baake (colorist, issues #37-40), Shelly Helms (letterer, First Impressions: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner …?”), Ray Dillon (letterer, First Impressions: “… By Its Cover”; In Sickness and In Health #1-4; Family Secrets #1-4; Distant Relatives #1-4; issues #1-31), Jeremy K. Feist (letterer, Family Secrets #1: “Fire & Ice”), and Charles Pritchett (letterer, issues #32-40).
Published by Image Comics, 53 issues (First Impressions, In Sickness and In Health #1-4, Family Secrets #1-4, Distant Relatives #1-4, issues #1-40 of the ongoing series), cover dated September 2001 (First Impressions), January – July 2002 (In Sickness and In Health), October 2002 – January 2003 (Family Secrets), July – October 2003 (Distant Relatives), July 2004 – March 2009 (ongoing).
This is a pretty plot-driven comic, so of course there are going to be SPOILERS, but I do try to keep them to a minimum!
In 2001, Jay Faerber was a fairly nondescript comic book writer who had toiled in the salt mines at DC and Marvel for some years. Then he decided to start writing his own creation, a superhero book about a wildly dysfunctional family, and over the course of the decade, he grew into one of the best superhero writers around.
How did it happen? It seems like a simple fix: Editors should let writers do what they want, man!
With Noble Causes, Faerber was able to indulge in some of his nostalgia for the “good old days” of soap operatic superhero storytelling (also called “The Claremont Way”), all while giving the readers an insightful way celebrities deal with the 21st-century media culture. He was able to make the comic far more interesting than your run-of-the-mill DC or Marvel superhero book mainly because the Nobles were his creations, so he could allow them to grow and change. Superhero comics from the Big Two were once better at “dynamic stasis,” but especially in the past decade, they have become more and more calcified. Faerber understands that part of the fun of superhero comics is the soap opera aspect, so he upends the status quo more than once in his book just to see what will happen. If one major plot point is astonishingly retrograde, all the others force the book and the characters to deal with events rather than just ignoring them. It’s one of the reasons why Noble Causes is such a wonderful example of the genre.
Faerber does something smart with the first one-shot (First Impressions) – he gives the readers a POV character in Liz Donnelly, who owns a bookstore. Race meets her when he trashes the place – he was angry because a former employee had written a tell-all book and was signing copies at Liz’s store. Liz marries Race in the first issue of the first mini-series, and she becomes the readers’ conduit into this fabulous world of superheroing. It’s an age-old conceit, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work – the Nobles have been superheroing for a long time, and their world might seem a bit too insular if Faerber doesn’t show them from the point of view of an outsider, and Liz is perfect for the role, especially after that first issue (I’ll get to that).
For most of the comic, Liz acts as our guide and the moral compass of the book – she’s the “down-to-earth” one (she was raised on a farm, for crying out loud) who lets the Nobles know when their concerns for their public image is overriding their ethical sense. She becomes the shoulder to cry on for Zephyr, the Nobles’ only daughter, and she stands up to Gaia, the matriarch, in a way that’s different from the way Gaia’s own children stand up to her – Liz stands up to her because Gaia is wrong, while the kids often come off as whiners. She’s also, of course, the one character who can be endangered in a fight, because she doesn’t have powers. This allows her to remain closer in personality to the readers than to the Nobles. (Naturally, other characters can get hurt and even killed, but because they’re superpowered and choose to engage in dangerous activities, the impact of their injuries or deaths has a different focus.) As Liz becomes more and more part of the Nobles’ world, she helps bring the readers further in, but she also becomes less of a POV character. As this is Faerber’s book, he is able to simply shunt Liz aside and introduce a different POV character … with a twist, of course!
Faerber has fun with the conventions of the genre from the very beginning. In First Impressions, Race’s family is wondering about the woman he’s bringing home, and when she turns out to be … normal, they’re let down a bit. Then, in issue #1, Faerber kills Race. On his honeymoon. To Faerber’s credit, it’s not a hoax or imaginary story.
Liz has to adjust to life with the Nobles without her lifeline, and the early issues of the series (when it was a “series-of-mini-series”) are very well done with regard to Liz trying to figure out where she belongs in the Noble hierarchy. Faerber brought Race back (in an unfortunately convoluted way which he tried to paper over quickly) and the regular series settled into a very nice look at domestic life among superheroes. Although this is a very plot-driven comic book, Faerber wisely uses the plots to reveal character, so while events are buzzing around the Noble family, we get great insight into what makes them tick. The Nobles are: Doc and Gaia, their kids Rusty, Race, and Zephyr, and Gaia’s illegitimate son Frost (whose father is one of the fun twists of the series). Joining them are Celeste, who is married to Rusty but sleeping with Frost; Krennick, a demon whose father is one of the Nobles’ worst enemies but who is best friends with Race; and later, Cosmic Rae, who starts dating Rusty after he divorces Celeste. Of course, others come into and leave the Nobles’ lives (especially after issue #31), including the supervillain family the Blackthornes (who have their own intimate connections to the Nobles), but those remain the core. Faerber gets plenty of mileage out of them.
As this is a superhero soap opera, Faerber knows the clichés and uses them to his advantage. It begins, of course, with Race’s death, which is a standard “big twist” in a comic, but one, in Noble Causes, that ties into the issues of family, which are always at the fore. The first mini-series is essentially a murder mystery, as everyone tries to figure out who killed Race. Faerber, however, introduces several other plot threads that will play out later, always confounding our expectations.
So Krennick, who has a crush on Zephyr, doesn’t pine away for her … he hires a prostitute to dress like her. Zephyr herself is pregnant, and the mystery of the baby’s father shows how deeply damaged the Noble family really is. The first mini-series reveals this as well, as the murderer has very personal reasons for killing Race. When the series begins, Doc has placed Rusty’s brain in a robot body because his human body was so damaged in a fight with a supervillain, and this dichotomy between his human emotions and his robot body plays out, Cliff Steele-style, throughout the series. When Cosmic Rae comes into his life, we learn fairly soon that she’s harboring a secret as well. There’s another murder mystery at the beginning of the ongoing series, and it’s also related to what the Nobles represent as a family. With the ongoing, Faerber could also indulge in a love of long-running subplots, many of which took the first 12 issues to resolve (and dovetailed very deftly in that twelfth issue). In issue #13, he introduced the Blackthorne clan, the Nobles’ opposite number. They quickly became tangled up with the Noble family drama – one of them became romantically involved in a Noble, while Zephyr, attempting to live a “normal” life with a secret identity, coincidentally moved into an apartment building where a Blackthorne was doing the same. This “era” of the book came to an end in issue #31, after Hunter Blackthorne, the patriarch, was no longer a threat to the Nobles (for reasons I won’t reveal) and Gaia was in jail (again, for reasons I won’t reveal). The final phase of the book is issues #32-40, which take place five years after issue #31.
Faerber shook up the cast, brought in a new wife for Doc and stepkids, and removed Liz from the board for a time, as she had served her purpose. According to Faerber, he lost his passion for writing the book, so he ended it with issue #40 … with a cliffhanger, appropriately enough.
Within all the standard soapy (yet nevertheless superheroic) aspects of the book – deaths that are reversed (in a way), teenage pregnancies with mysterious fathers, lurking murderers, old-fashioned cheating on spouses, alternate dimensions, identity switches, robotic replacements, adventures on alien planets, secret lesbians, powers switches, moles, enemies becoming friends, out-of-control werewolves, time travel (all of which show up in this series, believe you me) – is a very interesting take on modern superheroics. Gaia maintains an iron grip on the family’s public image, and makes sure that everyone falls in line. We can see that this will lead to no good, and it does, eventually. Doc’s obsession with science and his distaste of human relationships is examined in a far more disturbing way than with his Marvel universe counterpart, Reed Richards, although when Doc starts to figure out that he needs to connect with his kids, that’s also more emotionally resonant than whenever Reed makes the same steps. All of the characters go through their arcs and experience growth – Zephyr becomes less of a spoiled teenager and more of a confident young woman; Liz and Race become a solid married couple, and when Liz accidentally gains Race’s powers, Faerber doesn’t go the stereotypical way with these kinds of power shifts; Rusty has to learn how to deal with a cheating wife and a lack of a human body; Celeste learns how to love and be strong without turning into Gaia, whom she most resembles; Frost becomes more of a hero and less of a rogue.
Faerber might pull some standard superhero stuff, but unlike many of the comics from the Big Two, these characters must live with the results of their actions and learn (or not) from those consequences. Faerber doesn’t kill off many characters, but when he does, he explores the ramifications of that moment more thoroughly than in most superhero books. As the Nobles are in the public eye, he also shows how famous people manage the press and how living with no privacy affects everything about them. Gaia always thinks of how the public will respond first, meaning she acts very coldly when she finds out Zephyr is pregnant, for instance. When Celeste begins an affair after she’s done with Rusty and Frost, she tries to keep it clandestine because of the public relations nightmare it might turn into. When Liz tries to leave the family after Race’s death and live a “normal” life, she realizes quickly that that’s no longer possible, and as stifling as living with the Nobles can be, it’s better than the alternative. Faerber even turns the tables on the Nobles when Hunter Blackthorne realizes he can use the press to destroy their image and build up his family’s – and it works brilliantly, because we’ve seen in today’s media culture how much the press likes to tear down idols. Faerber does this all within a framework of superheroes, and while the idea itself isn’t the most original, Noble Causes examines it from so many angles it becomes far more incisive than we might expect.
I don’t want to write too much more about the writing, because I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Faerber paces the story wonderfully, and each issue works very well on its own and ties into the larger storylines he’s juggling. Even the “five-year break” continues some plot threads from the previous issues, all while Faerber deftly introduces new ones and plays off our expectations from earlier in the book (Surge, Doc’s stepson, bringing home his new, non-powered girlfriend, for instance, which mirrors Race bringing home Liz, but with a darker edge to it).
Faerber did a nice job with the artists he got, too, presumably using the contacts he had built up working for the Big Two and his eye for new talent to give the book a nice, superheroic look. Patrick Gleason was too good not to get noticed by the Big Two, and he could only draw the first mini-series, but his bold, clean, slightly exaggerated style provided a template for future artists. (There’s nothing wrong with a little exaggeration in superhero comics; it’s when it gets ridiculous that I object to it.) Ian Richardson and Andres Ponce followed with similar styles, and you can see above the fine talent Faerber got to draw the back-up stories. With the ongoing, Fran Bueno changed the style slightly – Bueno’s figures were a bit more blocky – but continued the tradition of strong artists. The only misstep, artistically, was Jon Bosco’s brief run (issues #19-24, with some pages in #25). Bosco’s figure work was terrible – rounds faces, bad hairstyles (which is something I usually don’t notice, but when they’re as ugly as Bosco’s, I have to), lack of definition in the facial expressions, disproportionate bodies – and while his storytelling was adequate, the linework inside the panels overwhelmed any positives he might have brought to the table. Luckily, after an all-star artist roster in issue #25 and a fill-in in issue #26, Yildiray Cinar came on board and instantly became the Noble Causes artist par excellence. Cinar has gotten a lot better after he started working for DC, but even back when he drew Noble Causes, one could tell he would be a great superhero artist. He has clean lines with just enough edge, easy-to-follow panel-by-panel storytelling, and he is able to draw different faces and body types while making sure everyone is still attractive. Visually, issue #39, in which Celeste travels back in time, is a feast, with Cinar changing his style just enough to make the 1950s look like a comic from that era, with Ralph Niese providing heavier inks and more garish colors (in the best possible way) to Cinar’s pencils that complete the look. It’s always nice to see artists take some chances, and Cinar and Niese pull it off beautifully.
While it was disappointing that Faerber chose to end the book, especially as he seemed to be reinvigorated a bit by the five-year jump (according to him, he wasn’t, but the stories felt fresh), I’m glad he went out on a high note and before he got so sick of the comic the actual work suffered. Noble Causes remains a wonderful read, a breath of fresh air in the increasingly depressing superhero comic world, where characters spin their wheels and gore is a default setting. When violence occurs in Noble Causes, it always serves a purpose beyond “comics aren’t for kids, man!” and the violent actions always have far-reaching consequences. Faerber understood that great superhero comics shouldn’t stand still but should always push forward, because that’s what life does.
Despite the small hiccup with bringing Race back to life (which, in the long run, was the right move, even though in the short run it felt a bit cheap), Faerber never looked back. He gave us a superhero comic that showed what can be done with the genre – it can be exciting and feature wacky villains and impossible scenarios, but it can also offer keen insights into our culture and society. Even if we know what’s going to happen (which, of course, you do after reading it), it’s easy to re-read and chuckle at how well Faerber satirizes our obsession with celebrity. Noble Causes remains a stellar superhero comic partially because of this, and that’s why it’s a comic you should read.
The series is collected in several trade paperbacks, and also two giant and inexpensive “phone-book” omnibuses that are in black and white, if you don’t mind that (the third mini-series, Distant Relatives, is in black and white because of cost concerns, and it doesn’t lose too much, although I imagine issue #39, for instance, loses something without color). The trades also include the two issues of Extended Family, the anthology issues in which several creators tackle the Nobles. I don’t own the second issue (so sad!), but the first one, while packed with good stuff (writers like Geoff Johns, Phil Hester, Brian K. Vaughan, John Layman, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, and Gail Simone; artists like Mike Hawthorne, Sean Murphy, and Mitch Breitweiser), isn’t necessarily needed to enjoy the rest of the series. Only Faerber’s story has any connection to the regular series, and he explains it in an issue of the ongoing. It’s a nice comic to track down, but if you buy the trades, you don’t have to worry about it! The trades are all in print, as far as I can discover, and they form a very nice narrative that you can read over and over again. So give them a look! And be sure to check out the archives for more Comics You Should Own!