Assassin Nation #1 is a comic book with a tonal problem, but it might be by design. When flipping through the first few pages of the new series about a gaggle of assassins tasked with protecting a vaguely powerful former hitman-turned-crime boss, your attention is grabbed by scenes of graphic violence illustrated in a contrasting soft edge. Artist Erica Henderson, has made an award-winning career out of embracing those soft edges, which often evoke the feeling of watching a Saturday morning cartoon.
For books like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, her visual style makes complete sense. Now, that isn't to say, Squirrel Girl is a goofy character in a goofy comic, so the art should be goofy. Not at all. Just because characters aren't drawn as engorged gladiators or busty femme fatales in spandex doesn't mean they shouldn't be taken seriously. Comedy, after all, is serious business.
From a purely aesthetic point of view, some readers might be turned off by the disparate signals this issue broadcasts at surface level. There isn’t quite enough action to warrant the fun visual style, and the dialogue and stakes are not taken seriously enough within the narrative to make it all feel kitschy or absurd by comparison. The creative team is trying to create not only an inciting incident to get the plot rolling, but also an entire world populated with a massive cast of characters (there are twenty names and rankings on the inside cover, as if it were an X-Men comic), all in twenty-two short pages. Perhaps if this was a double-sized issue, the groundwork would feel a little more sturdy, but at standard length, it works as a fun and serviceable issue, but not much more.
Was that too harsh?
This is by no means a bad comic -- not by a long shot. Henderson’s work is always a joy to see, especially when it’s illustrating horrific acts of violence. The dichotomy between violent subject matter and bubbly artwork is intrinsically humorous, no matter the story. But the humor in writer Kyle Starks' dialogue doesn't hit as hard as probably intended. Several characters speak to each other in snarky cadences that are indistinguishable from one another, and the pacing meanders. However, once the reader reaches the final few pages, they'll be rewarded with the true premise behind the madness, and will be left with more questions than answers. And those questions are interesting enough to come back for future issues.
It's difficult to say who, exactly, Assassin Nation is aimed at, and I don't mean that in terms of demographics. The big questions is, what sort of personal tastes was this book designed to capture? It may not be quite funny enough to really gain the interest of comedy fans. The crime aspect might be too care-free with its art to entice fans of hard-boiled comics like Criminal. And, frankly, it's probably not light enough to grab gain fans of fun, spunky comics. Perhaps there's some cross section of the comic genre Venn Diagram out there filled with readers who have been aching for a book like Assassin Nation. I certainly hope there is, because overall, this issue is solid, despite some of its shortcomings.
There is an argument to be made that Assassin Nation #1 might be for everyone, in a weird sort of way. It's a hybrid genre book with a potentially fun premise that will definitely need a handful of issue to see if it will work. With such a massive cast of characters, it would be nigh impossible to give everyone a solid introduction in a single issue. So it's easy to feel like there just isn't a long enough page count to do this book justice. I'm excited to see where Starks and Henderson take things, but hopefully they find better footing along the way.