THE ORDER #1 wasn't originally on my pull list for this week, mostly because time hasn't softened my opinion of CIVIL WAR and I prefer to avoid bad-crossover fallout when I can. On the other hand, there are occasions when keeping an open mind leads to unexpected surprises. This was one such occasion.
Matt Fraction has delivered a first issue that is, in a way, the antithesis of Dan Slott's AVENGERS: THE INITIATIVE. Slott's biggest hurdle, right at the start, was that none of his characters came off as appealing or intriguing; his interpretation of the Initiative is based on forced conscription into an organization with sinister undertones. THE ORDER, by contrast, seems to have been built around the concept of brave men and women volunteering to receive superpowers for a year (and occasionally slipping up). There's a sort of everyman idealism there that isn't too common in today's Marvel Universe, and you can see it even more clearly in the first few pages, which establish Henry Hellrung as a likeable guy who wants to do "the next right thing". This is crucial for a book with an original cast, there has to be at least one sympathetic protagonist with whom the reader can identify. More than any plot twist or gimmick, the protagonists will determine the average reader's reaction to the story. That's why the Runaways, X-23 and the Young Avengers have endured the test of time where so many of their peers (Arana, Freedom Ring, the latest Ant-Man, etc.) have vanished into obscurity.
Using new characters also allows a degree of freedom, and Fraction uses that to set up a surprising twist halfway through the issue. I've always been fond of books that shake up their rosters on a regular basis, and while this tactic has a downside - Fraction basically has to introduce the Order twice in about thirty pages, so there's no room to explore any character except Henry - a fluid and dynamic cast has its advantages.
As Jog noted, the use of media awareness echoes Peter Milligan's X-STATIX (or, more recently, Ellis' THUNDERBOLTS), in that the Order is clearly part superhero team and part PR stunt, and that actually has a hand in how the story plays out. I expected Fraction to use this angle as a way of juxtaposing the Order's pristine public image with their genuine personalities off-camera, but that's not what happens. In fact, it's the public image that gets tarnished, and there's no evidence that the media is either exploiting or being exploited by the Order. So I'm not sure where we're going with that, though I'm certainly interested in finding out.
And now it's time for Starkwatch! Ever since CIVIL WAR ended, Tony Stark has been one of the most erratic characters at Marvel. Some writers see him as a megalomaniacal douche who keeps a heart-encircled picture of Dr. Doom on his nightstand; some insist he's just trying to do the right thing in a crazy world; and some (well, just Adam Warren, really) simply have him going about his superhero tech business. Fraction's version of Stark is a little too close to Company Mouthpiece (ie: "It's what the Fifty-State Initiative is all about - and it's why THE WAR was fought") but overall, he comes off as a relatively balanced figure, quite possibly because he's at a distance from the heart of the story so the issue isn't overwhelmed by The Moral and Ethical Dilemmas of Mister Anthony Stark (or, to put it another way, "TONY IZ IN UR SHIELD, ENSLAVING UR POWURZ"). That might be the wisest way to use Iron Man in any comic that doesn't directly concern Iron Man, as he's become a very unpleasant figure and no amount of FRONTLINE damage control can fix that in one shot.
A GOOD debut, then. I had zero expectations going in, but I like what I've seen and I want to see more.