It's been a long time since I wrote a review of a new single issue, but after reading Terminal Hero #1, I felt compelled to unpack my feelings about it. I like the concept and creators so much, and everything that happens in this debut is pretty great, but...it rushes through all of its ideas so quickly that the whole thing almost feels like a teaser or trailer of a different, slower comic that might be what I really want to read. On the other hand, excessive decompression is a trend I'm less than wild about, so there is something semi-refreshing about an issue that moves at such a fast pace. On the third hand, I'm not crazy about any of the characters yet, because we don't see much of them, and what we do see is mostly negative, shallow, damaged, idiotic behavior.
After an opening page where a glowing man fires beams of some kind of energy out of most of the holes in his face and then gets shot by people in radiation suits, Terminal Hero #1 jumps to "five years later" where junior doctor Roy Fletcher is in the middle of learning he has an inoperable brain tumor. While Rory wrestles with accepting his impending demise, his best friend and fellow young doctor Raz does some illegal digging and uncovers details of a project called Treatment Q. Led by Professor Matthew Quigley, Treatment Q was an experimental and supposedly successful solution to tumors like Rory's, but was shut down due to some nasty, top-secret side effects. At this point, one can pretty safely assume the issue's first page was a depiction of those side effects, so there's an immediate sense of how bad things might get when Raz forcefully convinces Rory to try the treatment. Raz claims to have improved upon it somehow, but things go sour fast, with Rory developing weird reality-warping, wish-fulfilling superpowers. Basically anything he imagines happens, and being a fucked up young guy with depression, Rory does not handle it well.
Doesn't that already seem like it could be a whole issue? I've only described the first half of it, and I even left out a scene where Emma, another doctor, throws herself aggressively at Rory after hearing about his illness, but he turns her down, not wanting to take advantage of the situation. Later, once he's realized the extent of his new abilities, Rory goes to Emma's place and almost rapes her, going so far as to mentally shred her clothes before stopping himself. Even then, he wonders if the instinct to attack her is his true self, and the guy who rejected her before is just who he pretends to be.
The notion that Rory's powers might make him a worse person or bring out a bad side of him is one of several interesting nuggets in Terminal Issue #1 that feel like they don't get their due. It only comes up at the very end, shoehorned in a bit, like it was something Peter Milligan wanted to make sure was included but he didn't leave enough room. Most of the issue is made up of such details:
1. Rory has a dead sister he's clearly still hung up on, and we get a one-panel flashback worth of history, but his sadness still feels superficial because the topic of his sister comes and goes so quickly.
2. Raz's motivations turn out to be more selfish than they seemed at first—Rory was a test subject, and now Raz is lying to other people about the results of that test so he can have even more human guinea pigs. But then Rory finds out, confronts Raz, and kills him, so that thread is snipped before it has a decent chance time to unspool.
3. Rory's doctor is weirdly pleased/aroused by the rarity of his tumor. This is discussed for like a total of three or four non-consecutive panels, but it's still the only interesting thing about the character so far, who seems poised to be a major player and possibly even the primary villain.
4. The fake science behind Rory's powers has to do with where in his brain the tumor is located, but the explanation Raz gives is extremely basic and not totally satisfactory. I'm not sure if it's because we're not told enough about the brain, about Treatment Q, or both, but there's just too little info for me to really have a grasp on Rory's powers yet or how the treatment caused them.
I know probably all of these points are going to be developed in future issues, so my own impatience factors into my reading of this debut as hurried, I'm sure. But I think if any one of them had been fleshed out more here at the start, having the others be so thin wouldn't bug me as much. The trouble is that everything is thin right now, so I'm not sure which pieces I should be latching onto. On top of that, Rory is a half-schmuck right away, who becomes a full-on psychotic once the powers kick in, so it's not clear who I'm meant to be rooting for, either. Raz is terrible, Rory's doctor and the Treatment Q people he ends up working with seem like a typical gang of cold intellectual villains...the only likable character is Emma, but the first thing she does is rip her shirt off in the street, and her only role thus far is to be a sex object in Rory's twisted mind, so I'm not exactly optimistic that Milligan is going to use her well moving forward. Terminal Hero #1 contains a cast of asses, each bigger than the last, and a plot made up of undercooked but cool ideas.
The best aspect of the comic is Piotr Kowalski's art, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick. I only know Kowalski's work from Sex, where he's colored by Brad Simpson in neon washes and heavy shadow. Fitzpatrick is more earth-toned in her palette and softer in her lighting, though she can be brash when the story gets more extreme. The subtlety of Kowalski's acting comes out more powerfully with Fitzpatrick on board to ground things, which helps strengthen the somewhat flimsy characters.
When Rory goes nuts and his powers wig out, the art becomes a real spectacle, piercing the more understated feel of the other pages. This is where Fitzpatrick's colors are brightest, some panels overpowered by hot orange and red. When Rory is in this mode, he looks like he has thick, wet fire flowing upward from his head, easily the strongest image in the comic, and one we see many times from many angles. He's a cool-looking super-being, reminiscent of Firestorm but less controlled, less familiar. If nothing else, that seems like reason enough to see what the future of Terminal Hero has in store.
Because the thing about having a debut that moves through so much story material in so little time is it means, in the long run, this title could cover a ton of ground. And who knows if this will be the normal pace? Milligan is a versatile writer, and I bet there'll be a few deep-breath, contemplative chapters if this series gets to last a while. (I'm assuming it's an ongoing...?) He wanted to get to a certain place in this issue, or he wanted to make sure the audience was fully tuned into the concept, or some other thing that made him cram this much into the first script. Whatever the reason, nothing was confusing, it all looked great, and while the cast hasn't won me over yet, the intense, unpredictable superhero medical drama has. There are a bunch of strange ideas in there already, and I'm hoping later issues will circle back and beef them up.