Justin Jordan is a writer that I typically associate with a “style over substance” approach. It can certainly be entertaining, as he showed with artist Tradd Moore in the “Luther Strode” series. Other times it can just be tiring: See “Dead Body Road” with Matteo Scalera. “Reaver,” when it was announced had a description that made it sound like the writer was trying to stretch in comparison to past works. As fantasy-based take on “The Dirty Dozen” about six unsavory individuals who wind up being forced together on a mission to save an empire, it sounded like the writer would be devoting more time to fleshing out his cast than showing their flesh getting chopped by the action. This is true of the first volume, even though it takes longer than it should to really get going.
The Empire of Madras has been having a rough go of things as of late. A rebellion led by the combined forces of the industrious Escalene and the feral Rael has been pushing the Empire’s forces back with surprising ease. While their leaders are stumped as to how they’re doing it, a wizard named Marris claims to have the answer. The rebels have knowledge of a ritual that allows them to see the future at the cost of much blood. Marris knows that a prison camp known as the Anvil has been the staging ground for this ritual and he has a plan to take it out: Get some condemned criminals to do it.
There’s Ash Mahan, born Escalene but a faithful servant of the Empire. He was imprisoned for deserting his commander who was bludgeoned to death in front of him on the field of battle. Styrian Eddos is the son of nobles, a top-flight intelligencer, and a serial killer whose victims of choice are kids. Rekala is a Rael whose viciousness is matched only by her cunning. There’s also Essen Breaker, an unstoppable goliath berserker in battle who was imprisoned because he did the bludgeoning to Ash’s superior officer. Also along for the ride are notable thief Tonk Pils and Thes, Marris’ bald, scarred, and mute bodyguard.
Sounds like a nice, diverse bunch of psychopaths and scum, right? Yet while reading the first volume of “Reaver,” I couldn’t help but wish some of them were more interesting than they were. Ash is your bog-standard protagonist for these kinds of stories: He’s not the hardened criminal his comrades are, and he’s the only one with a working moral compass. This is his whole character. He’s at least easier to take than Styrian, whose overtly witty and florid dialogue makes it feel like he was a lot of fun for Jordan to write, but who comes off as utterly insufferable to the reader.
Rekala’s brand of pint-size murder machine isn’t exactly new, but it works well enough here. Essen arguably gets the most interesting arc of the cast as he’s revealed to be tired of being a remorseless murder machine. Not in a cliched, “I’M A MAN OF PEACE! I’M DONE KILLING!” kind of way. He’s just realized that his life is not what he thought it was and is ready to be done with it. As for Tonk and Thes, well… they have their moments.
“Hell’s Half-Dozen” follows these characters as they make their way from the Empire’s prison, through an Escalene town that has the resources they need, all the way to the Anvil itself. It’s all predictably straightforward as you’d expect. We get to know the group better as they fight to the town, see them deal with the complications presented by the quest, and watch them pursue their own individual agendas. There’s even a Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal once everyone gets to the Anvil and it looks like they’re on the cusp of victory. None of this is bad, it’s just solidly fine for a good portion of the volume.
What saves it is a really clever twist that Jordan springs on the reader near the end of the volume. It’s a twist that completely upends how you’ll see one character, but in a way that makes sense and will change how you view them on a second read. That it’s also imaginatively gruesome doesn’t hurt it one bit either.
This twist also kicks off a finale that’s action-packed and entertaining in a way that much of the story wasn’t up to this point. It’s fittingly chaotic as the title’s influences move from “The Dirty Dozen” to “Suicide Squad.” That last bit may seem like a spoiler, but I didn’t tell you who dies. It’s a shift that works since it allows the series to drum up a more interesting cast next time while we watch the survivors deal with the drama that they’re left with.
Checking in to see who makes up the cast of the next volume is also an attractive prospect because it’ll be illustrated by Niko Henrichon, who always does good work. Not that co-creator Rebekah Isaacs doesn’t to bad work here. It’s just… fine. Isaacs’ art gets the job done as her storytelling is clear and easy to follow, with her characters being expressive enough. It just lacks real energy and excitement, ultimately coming off as competent as much of the main story did. I guess if the artist is guilty of anything here, then it would be failing to rise above her material.
The more I think about it, the more this first volume of “Reaver” comes off like the kind of story that would’ve been better served if it was told in a condensed fashion. Scale it down into two issues, or a 48-page first issue and all the formulaic stuff gets cut or drastically condensed while we get that great twist sooner. As it is, “Hell’s Half-Dozen” has a good setup, a great finish and is let down by a lot of stolid mediocrity in the middle. Here’s hoping Jordan and Henrichon deliver something better in vol. 2.