DC’s New Age of Heroes is an interesting, if slightly unclear, proposition. The Curse of Brimstone is the fifth book published as part of this new line, there doesn't appear to be a uniting personality, in the way that, say, Young Animal is an outlet for the weirder side of superhero stories.
There’s a strange undercurrent of Marvel pastiche running through most of the titles -- teen hero Sideways has a distinctly spidery look to his costume, Damage is a man who transforms into a hulking monster, and the Terrifics are a pretty direct reflection of the Fantastic Four, and there’s a touch of Ghost Rider to Brimstone. But it’s hard to say whether there’s any real intent there or just an indication that there are only so many superhero archetypes to play with.
Nevertheless, while it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly New Age of Heroes is, the imprint is a very welcome addition to DC’s line. It’s a rare and exciting thing to see a major superhero publisher putting out a whole line of comics that don’t star the same familiar faces, and even more so to see them putting artists first.
In the case of this book, that’s Philip Tan, who is co-credited as "storyteller" with writer Justin Jordan. Tan experiments with a slightly looser, moodier style than he normally works in -- and it results in the best work I’ve ever seen him produce. It fits the personal tone of the book, which is based on Jordan’s own experiences living in a rural area of Pennsylvania.
The book is set in York Hills, a small town that had the heart ripped out of it when the coal mines closed down. “It’s a forgotten place now,” says Joe Chamberlain, our star, a young man who feels trapped by the town. He doesn’t have the right education to be able to move away, and is tied to home by his father, who was injured in one of the now-closed factories.
It’s a distinctive setting for a superhero book, literally miles away from the usual metropolises, and we follow Joe’s slice-of-life troubles for the majority of the book -- until one night he meets a stranger on the road. The man, who calls himself The Salesman, offers Joe a deal. Become “our agent” -- whatever that means -- and he’ll help the town get back on its feet.
Inevitably, Joe says yes. And inevitably, this being a superhero-horror book, he’s immediately cursed with demonic powers, transforming into the fiery creature Brimstone. Which is where the issue ends.
Normally, I’d hesitate to describe an issue all the way to its last page, but that’s how long it takes to reach the basic premise of the book. It’s a standard origin story, but it’s a unique one. Making a deal with the devil is a well-worn trope -- and calls to mind again that Ghost Rider comparison -- but making that deal in order to help bring an ailing post-industrial town back to its former glory? That’s not something I think I’ve ever seen before.
Among the flames of the final pages, stoked beautifully by colorist Rain Beredo, we get glimpses of other scenes, most likely a taste of what’s yet to come. But, without stepping beyond Brimstone’s origin story, it’s hard to tell what kind of book this is going to become, or even what we can expect from issue #2. With the New Age of Heroes not having established a unified voice, there are no clues there either.
Taken on its own merits, though, Curse of Brimstone #1 is a scorching tale about people stuck in a part of the world that’s rarely shown in superhero comics. It might not be enough to set the world alight just yet, but if the developing story proves as distinctive as its setting, that could quickly change.