“Protocol: Orphans” #1 by Michael Alan Nelson and Mariano Navarro introduces a talented team of young spies/special agents on their first real mission, but with a twist: the members are all orphans, trained since childhood to not disappoint their “Dad.” In its essentials, it’s a by-the-book action/espionage story, but the parent-orphan twist adds a creepy psychological element between the team members and their bosses.
The first very first panel and page set up this naming protocol and hybrid parent/boss dynamic and also the unrealistic expectations that these “orphans” have been held to since they were children. Then, after a double-page spread of the (classically high) stakes — a stadium-full of innocent citizens’ lives — Nelson and Navarro steer the story into an extended flashback that contains two smaller flashbacks.
The structure sounds a little complicated, but it comes off without a hitch. Nelson’s pacing never feels cramped despite the pace of all the world-building and character introductions, Navarro’s transitions are smooth and Gabriel Cassata’s colors assist with the storytelling. Cassata’s shift to a faded palette and Navarro’s successful de-aging of his characters’ faces make the flashbacks clear without textboxes, and this ease in temporal transitions is a testament to the creative team’s strong mechanics and restraint.
Nelson does an excellent job of introducing the cast gradually without ever resorting to information dumping through textboxes. The six orphans — Lewis, Lisa, Damon, Jamie, Parish and Tristan — are all given some stage time and character-revealing moments. There’s good variation in personalities and interpersonal dynamics, including hints of rebellion, jealousy and forbidden romance. The team is very Caucasian, which makes its one obvious minority character Lisa stick out even more, especially since she is also the most sexualized character. The scene in which Lisa changes in the elevator has some cheesecake that takes the reader out of the story, especially when the male character doesn’t disrobe in kind. I suppose the excuse could be made that Lisa is obviously interested in Damon, but that’s a stretch.
There isn’t time to give each orphan equal depth, so Nelson wisely sticks to giving only two characters a spotlight through a flashback to their childhood. Navarro makes Lisa and Lewis are undeniably cute, and the scenes do evoke sympathy, but the setup of children being threatened with terrible consequences is overly manipulative.
In a related vein, if there’s a villain, it’s “Dad” and the “Grandparents.” “Dad” himself is a role, and the man seems to only represent two-dimensional grim military authority. Even Dad’s chiding of Jamie for sibling rivalry is just good management, although the similarity to good parenting is just a little creepy. The problem is, the most interesting part of “Protocol: Orphans” #1 is the wobbly line between boss and parent, or how professional authority and personal authority shouldn’t mix. The whole parents-and-siblings terminology feels uncomfortable in an interesting way, but the rest of the story is derivative and by the book.
“Protocol: Orphans” #1 is a fun, smooth read due to the creative team’s strong technique, but it’s also deliberately shallow, guilty of taking too cursory a look at the dynamics it introduces just for kicks.