Comic Fodder

Checkmate: Best DC Comic You Aren't Reading

If the internet has taught us anything, it's that someone, somewhere is still not over the trauma of having their favorite comic book cancelled. Unlike television programs, which rely upon the mysterious Nielsen ratings to determine readership, most comics rely upon cold, hard sales numbers vis-a-vis the cost of production (plus or minus a creator's continued interest) to determine if a comic book will continue.

In years to come, Greg Rucka's Checkmate may wind up as one of the great comics which never managed to find an audience.

As is well publicized, Greg Rucka is the author of both the Queen & Country political thriller comics and the Atticus Kodiak novels. His non-DC work has traditionally been smart, leaning towards researched books involving machiavellian international intrigue.

This reader had read some Queen & Country, but first really found Rucka during his run on Batman, which included the Bruce Wayne: Murderer? storyline. Later, teamed with Ed Brubaker (one of Marvel's current Golden Boys) and artists Michael Lark, Rucka and company launched Gotham Central. Criminally under-read during it's run, the series didn't follow the cape and tights crowd, but gave a straight-faced account of what must happen in a Gotham police precint, and silmultaneously (though it wasn't necessarilly the focus) managed to put a more realistic face on the criminal element of Gotham City.

Rucka's run on Wonder Woman and Adventures of Superman similarly managed to look at the two DCU icons from a pragmatic standpoint, especially Rucka's Wonder Woman run which created an excellent supporting cast at the Themysciran embassy and saw Wonder Woman's mission as clearly as any previous writer, battling her roles as ambassador and belabored warrior.

Checkmate spins out of the events of Wonder Woman, The OMAC Project, Superman: Sacrifice and Infinite Crisis. Of the books that makes sense occuring "One Year Later", Checkmate certainly needed the breathing room in order to give Rucka a chance to get his organization established without five months of thrilling issues featuring the processing of paperwork.

In the wake of the Maxwell Lord incident, as well as the OMAC crisis, Checkmate has been brought under the watchful eye of the United Nations, where it has been given a one-year provisional status. Rucka's structure of the Checkmate organization continues to follow the chessboard motif (Black and White Kings and Queens, etc..), but his Checkmate no longer consists of masked agents and electric lances.

Rucka sets the comic in a corner of the DCU which more closely resembles our own, with very real countries working out their very real grievances against one another through the brinksmanship of international politics. Checkmate's charter is a token to be used for political one-upmanship, and seats at the Checkmate table are all a part of international negotiation.

The comic abounds with familiar DCU faces, from the JSA's Mr. Terriffic, to the DCU's resident political mastermind, Amanda Waller. From the pages of Batman and OMAC Project, Sasha Bordeaux is the compentent field leader, dancing as fast as she can in order to keep the organization honest in the wake of the Max Lord scandal.

The comic is oftentimes frustrating as Rucka moves the pieces around the board with Deep Blue-like precision, putting some players in places that probably reflect real world political maneuvering, and which do not mete out comic book justice to give the reader a satisfying ending. The action, when it occurs, is a dirtier level of fighting, where bullets can kill people and the injured are a liability to the mission. Further, no code of superhero justice is of much value, as even former JLA'ers such as Fire/Green Flame are under direct orders to accomplish goals, no matter what the cost.

Art in the comic is by OMAC Project artist Jesus Saiz. While the characters are still by-and-large of heroic proportions, Saiz is able to convey a believable quality to his characters through relaxed posturing, folded clothing and refusing to go for "over-the-top", even in action packed situations. Coloring remains realistically muted, and, for the most part, people don't tend to wander into a firefight wearing a bathing suit. Saiz's work is well suited to this more grounded format of storytelling. Should he depart, his replacement will have a tough pair of shoes to fill.

Rucka is telling an adult story, fit for the readers of Clancy-type espionage and paramilitary thrillers. Here, the action leading up to a vote can be more dramatic than the inevitable carnage from a shoot-out. The answer to problems is not to chage out of street clothes and fly in, demand a surrender and then punch out the villain of the week while dropping a quick one-liner. Here, agents are embedded in terrorist cells, ripe for extraction. Deals with the devil are made in gambles for the greater good. And every decision can have international political consequences.

Unsurprisingly, the sales are not clocking in terribly high.

As of December, Checkmate clocked in at #100 on the sales chart with 23,436 copies sold, on far less than a quarter of the #1 comic. This reader isn't clear where the cut off mark is for DC to start thinking cancellation, but it can't be too far off from the top 100. As months go, with current industry trends, it's more likely the numbers will continue to fall.

Readers continue to ask for realism and grittiness in their comics, and Rucka has provided both. Perhaps, however, not in the package that readers were seeking. Although the comic is certainly energetic and delivers stories far more complex than the average spandex-clad tussle, the book lacks the black and white perspective of most DC and Marvel output. It may be that level of gray, mixed with the all-too believable bureaucratic frustrations of the characters that can't be solved with a punch that readers don't feel that they have time for in an escapist medium.

Solicits show no sign of Rucka's pet project coming to an end. And the current Shadowpact cross-over, and a planned Outsiders cross-over may assist in visibility for all of the series.

This may be the best DCU comic you aren't reading.

Available as a Trade Paperback in February.

Questions? Comments? Did I get it all wrong? Come on, I can take it.