Industry powerhouses J. Michael Straczynski and Gordon Purcell team up for the debut of “Protectors Inc,” the third title to be released from Straczynski’s Studio JMS imprint with Image comics. “Protectors Inc.” #1 picks up in a contemporary world much akin to the Marvel and DC universes, in that it has known superheroes since the start of World War II. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, Straczynski delivers a rather heavy-handed commentary on today’s superhero culture while skillfully weaving in murder and intrigue; Purcell provides some solid if stiff figure work with some truly inventive homages to comic book history.
Like any introductory issue, “Protectors Inc.” #1 is largely an expository story; that is, with an exception of the opening and the very last pages, the plot focuses the dawn of the superhero. In doing so, Straczynski and Purcell inexorably link the Patriot to Captain America, from an origin rooted in World War II to a star-spangled outfit to the blond, strong-jawed figure work. However, with so much of the narration dedicated to this particular hero, the setup feels a little overbearing, as if the reader wouldn’t otherwise pick up on the reference without such heavy guidance. In a much more effective manner, the other superheroes that appear in the story are left to the reader’s imagination, with clues hidden in their monikers and costumes that point to their inspirations rather than spell it out directly.
On the other hand, Straczynski and Purcell cleverly weave in a commentary on superhero culture around protagonist Detective Riley. By juxtaposing meaningless superhero violence with a murder trial, Straczynski slaps Riley in a world that would much rather be distracted by staged fights than face reality. Purcell pays special attention to background characters, many of whom — including an entire jury and a waitress — stop whatever they may be doing to gape in wonder. In paying such close attention to detail, they subtly craft a society uncomfortably close to our own, one that values entertainment over real world concerns like homicide and war.
What’s more, they slip in an intriguing mystery around the exposition and the commentary. For an issue all about origin stories, the plot leaves a lot of room for speculation, whether it be where these mysterious powers came from and why they chose such a certain type of person or how the murders tie into the divide between superheroes and the common man. This wiggle room and sense of mystery are a refreshing spin on the classic origin story trope, which more often than not lays out all the minute details of how superpowers work. Although the murders that bookend the issue throw off the pacing a little, they heighten the stakes and keep the reader looking for more.
With equal credit to J. Michael Straczynski and Gordon Purcell, “Protectors Inc.” #1 is a prime showcase of exemplary collaboration in creating not only a fascinating world but a resonant social satire. Fans will delight in the little nods to comics’ history throughout the years, even if the references can be a little heavy-handed at times. This first issue will rope you into an all-too-familiar world that will captivate you and leave you feeling a little uncomfortable — as it well should.