Two-thirds of the way through the series, and only six super-powered characters remain come the end of “Deathmatch” #8, the latest issue of Paul Jenkins and Carlos Magno’s superhero answer to March Madness. While a series of forced battles between unfamiliar superheroes might sound about as exciting as, say, Valparaiso vs. Slippery Rock, Jenkins has managed to keep the tension pretty high as the story moves towards its own Final Four.
Jenkins had set a pretty tall order for himself when this title began, by having to create thirty-two brand new characters, giving each one a unique name and set of powers, and then expect readers to keep track of them all. But eight issues in, as the character count dwindles and readers now have a sense of familiarity with the ones that remain, the series has only gotten easier to follow and more enjoyable, and less of a chore as constantly referencing the character bios provided at the end of each issue is no longer necessary. And as events approach the final buzzer, the excitement is naturally heightened. Caution should be taken if referring to the info contained in the back pages, though, as the Deathmatch “brackets” are updated to reflect the outcome of the issue’s battles, so an inadvertent glance could spoil the outcome.
One of the heroes created by Jenkins that has lasted this far is Meridian, the Superman archetype who also borrows heavily from Jenkins’ own character The Sentry, whom he created for Marvel. Circumstances with Meridian in this issue are interesting enough to overlook the similarities, but it remains puzzling why such a derivative character was given such a prominent role. Other characters evoke comparisons to mainstream heroes; it’s practically in every comic fan’s nature to look for these comparisons; but not to the same degree as Meridian. Regardless, it’s not a grievous offense, as the intent of the series wasn’t to create thirty-two groundbreaking new superheroes.
Instead, the intent has always been abundantly clear: to have thirty-plus super-powered individuals fight each other to the death until only one remains. But such a remarkably simple premise has also presented Jenkins with a lot of challenges to overcome that still remain as recently as this issue. For example, Jenkins came up with the all-too-convenient but necessary device of the characters’ memory and motives; they have no recollection of how or why they got imprisoned, until they enter the arena where their memories are momentarily restored, complete with a renewed willingness to fight to the death. And upon victory, their memories are removed again. It’s an incredibly contrived notion and readers only suspend disbelief because these aren’t established characters with long histories. And, well, because the story wouldn’t work otherwise. But they’re asked to do this every issue, including this one, and it’s becoming akin to listening to the same song performed repeatedly where the band flubs the same note every time.
And in this issue, it’s largely forgivable, if for no other reason than the battles are pretty sweet. One of the fights this time around, between Omni-Engine and Sable, is especially emotional. And Meridian’s battle, opponent’s name withheld for spoiler reasons, is downright brutal. The series has reached the point where readers might have become attached to the characters, so there’s a heightened impact to knowing that only one of them will emerge from each deathmatch.
Magno’s illustrations are amazing, making the heroes look heroic, even as they battle each other to the death. He’s able to render any number of eclectic simulated battlefields, whether it’s a strange alien world or an urban landscape, with the same kind of exquisite detail that he used so effectively on BOOM! Studios’ late “Planet of the Apes” series. And Michael Garland continues to uses a subdued palette without any bright shades of primary colors that evoke the darker nature of the story.
As clues continue to slowly unfold and the story ramps up to its final trimester, “Deathmatch” #8 isn’t a slam-dunk, but it is an entertaining thrill that sells readers on picking up the remaining issues.