The Great Gen13 Re-Read, Parts 9A and 9B: Gen13 - Ordinary Heroes 1 & 2 (February 1996 & July 1996)
In case you missed the announcement, I'm undertaking a goal of re-reading every issue of Gen13 for the purpose of blogging about it now that we're celebrating the 25th anniversary of its publication! Yes, I am crazy. No, I am not going to share--dig up your own insanity.
Oh man. This one.
This two-parter right here.
Last year I wrote a post about the half-dozen best Gen13 stories from the classic era, and Ordinary Heroes wound up right on top, numero uno, number one with a bullet. In that post, I wrote that Ordinary Heroes isn't just the best Gen13 story of all time, but simply one of the best comic book stories of all time.
Because of that, I've actually been dreading getting to it in this series. I mean, I knew I'd get there sooner or later, but as I was looking through the upcoming stories to establish a chronology, I realized that like The Unreal World, there's really only so many places this story could take place. For spoiler-y reasons I won't get into here, it had to be prior to the 'Fire From Heaven' mega crossover event which cuts through issues 10 and 11 of the regular series. But as I started going back further, I realized the options for where to slot it kept getting pared down:
- Issues 8 and 9 form a small arc of their own, but at the start of issue 8, Grunge gets a haircut; Ordinary Heroes has him with long hair, which means this has to be prior to issue 8.
- Issues 6 and 7 for another small story arc, but that story arc leads directly into the events of issue 8 (not to mention a swerve into Deathblow issues 20 and 21). Since there's no room between 7 and 8 for this story to take place, it has to be prior to issue 6.
- Issues 3 - 5 all form another small story arc, but once again, the conclusion of issue 5 leads right into the start of issue 6, meaning Ordinary Heroes has to get bumped back again. The closest place for it to go where it still fits now is after issue 2 but before issue 3. Rainmaker enjoying the eye candy of Fairchild changing clothes allows it to fit in here quite handily, given the revelation of her sexual orientation in issue 2, where the only one who knows about it is Freefall (Fairchild is completely oblivious during the whole thing, which makes it all the more amusing).
Ergo, this entry.
The reason I've been dreading talking about Ordinary Heroes is that I love it so much I can't stand to spoil it for unfamiliar readers. I mean, sure, the story's twenty-three years old which means its probably fresh out of college and carrying an enormous load of student debt by now, but you deserve to be gut-punched as hard as I was by this book's conclusion.
I'm not sure how I'll handle this, so I'm just going to start and see what happens along the way.
Wish me luck. By the way, this is a double-sized entry, so expect a longer-than-normal read.
Ordinary Heroes opens the last way you would expect a Gen13 story to open: with a death on the streets of a rain-soaked city.
Before you can ask yourself "WT actual F?" too many times, we flash back to the day before, where everything seems perfectly normal. Fairchild is back at Princeton, though not to attend classes. If you recall, Caitlin had to leave without so much as packing or telling anyone goodbye when I/O grabbed her in the middle of the night. Now she's returned to pack up the remainder of her belongings and get them back to the house in La Jolla.
While waiting for her ride to the airport, she runs into one of her hyper-slut roommate's old boyfriends, a mullet-sporting behemoth of testosterone named Tank. While he never would have given her the time of day before, the fact she's turned into She-Hulk courtesy of her Gen-Factor manifestation means Tank's got plenty to say to her now:
Realizing this guy's nothing more than a walking hard-on, Caitlin decides to mess with him a little bit. When he asks if she needs help, she points to the trunk into which she's stuffed all her belongings and says he could carry it for her, and hilarity ensues:
Having thus successfully ended his burgeoning sports career, she hoists the trunk into the air like it weighs nothing in preparation for her cab's arrival. Unfortunately it's not a cab that drops by to pick her up...it's a military-grade NX-2000 VTOL landing craft which sets down right on the quad. The pilot bellows instructions for everyone to clear the landing zone and for Fairchild to prepare for emergency extraction. This, Caitlin notes as she approaches the opening hatch, goes contrary to everything Lynch has taught them about keeping a low profile, but since he's the one flying the craft and giving the orders, she's got little opportunity to complain.
Once aboard the VTOL, she's met by Rainmaker. Fairchild asks for an explanation, but Rainmaker replies she's asking the wrong person: Lynch hasn't told them anything except to sit down, strap in, and shut up. She takes Caitlin into the back cargo area of the VTOL, where a spare costume awaits, and as Caitlin suits up, Rainmaker explains what she knows.
In the middle of the night, Lynch received a strange phone call on a line that's never rung before. Whatever the person on the other end told him had to have been bad news:
He bugged out immediately after telling Rainmaker and Anna to wake everyone else up and get them prepared for an operation. A short time later, he got back to the house with the VTOL, loaded everyone into it, and headed off on a four-hour flight to Princeton to collect Caitlin. Where they're headed to now, or what they're supposed to do when they get there, is anybody's guess, and when Caitlin tries to pump Lynch for info, he makes it clear he's not telling them a damn thing.
Time passes as they continue their flight to parts unknown. After a while, the five teenagers come to a consensus: they're going to order Lynch to park the plane somewhere and explain to them what the hell is going on, or they won't continue the mission. Before they can put their plan into action, however, the ship comes under attack...by Black Hammer combat units from I/O. They peel the plane's armor like a can-opener, depressurizing the interior and blowing the five kids out into the sky. Caitlin comes to a grim realization:
Fortunately for her (and us) the answer turns out to be yes, since the alternative would, of course, take a giant dump all over series continuity, and Caitlin's our narrator after all. After staggering to her feet, she's pounced on by a Black Hammer mech, who crushes her back into the asphalt and reporting they've executed a Level 2 containment operation on the city. Level 1 containment is a basic quarantine and capture under I/O parameters; Level 2 is 'terminate with extreme prejudice'.
Fairchild fights back, throwing the Hammer around like a toy while the operators try to blow her away using standard ordnance. This works about as well as you'd imagine against someone who's basically Supergirl without the ability to fly, and only succeeds in pissing Fairchild off even more. She finally rips open the Hammer's cockpit and threatens to beat the pilot senseless unless he explains what's going on, but the issue closes with Fairchild meeting the menace up close and personal:
Issue 2 picks up right where Issue 1 left off, with Caitlin running in fear from the creature, dragging the hapless Black Hammer pilot behind her. "Hapless?" you ask.
"Hapless," I reply:
Normally, little scares Fairchild. After all, when you're six feet tall, virtually invulnerable, and can juggle trains, there's little reason to fear much of anything. But this monstrous, pulsating, tentacled reject from a pornographic Japanese cartoon is so fast, so awe-inspiring in its destructive capabilities, and so beyond caring about what it devours that Caitlin's brain jams in neutral. The creature not only makes contact with her but begins snacking on one of her super-powered thighs before Freefall comes to the rescue and levitates her out of harm's way to the top of a nearby skyscraper.
Fairchild, thankful to be alive after feeling true pain for the first time in weeks, goes green and barfs up a superheroine's stomach's worth of whatever she had for her last meal.
After reacquainting herself with not only breakfast but Grunge's insane vocabulary of synonyms for vomiting, the group realizes the creature down below must be what Lynch was taking them to fight. However, without Lynch, they have no idea what they're up against. And while the creature has wiped the floor with the rest of the Black Hammer team, there's one survivor who happens to be a familiar face: Rebecca Hawkins, who you might remember from Issue #5 of the limited series as having saved their butts once before:
Still angry that Lynch didn't trust them enough to tell them about the creature, Hawkins tries to put things in perspective for the group. Just like you don't tell a kid about the Holocaust or the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, Lynch isn't interested in divulging everything he knows to his wards. "There are some things man was not meant to know," Hawkins said. "Jack Lynch knows."
Fairchild (and presumably everybody else) realizes that Lynch wasn't infantilizing them by withholding information, he was merely trying to protect them from a fraction of the skeletons he's carrying around in his closet. As a former high-level member of International Operations, there's little of the group's work Lynch didn't know about. This creature appears to be one of those things. Unfortunately, Hawkins is just a grunt. Her orders were to quarantine the monster within the city and destroy it. With the destruction of her Black Hammer squadron, she's at a loss for what to do. That means they need to find Lynch as soon as possible, which means locating their downed craft and hoping Lynch survived the crash.
As they walk, Hawkins explains what she knows about the creature: it's a metamorph, capable of re-writing its DNA and RNA on the fly. It eats by directly ingesting living matter, but can also assimilate bits of technology as well. If the titular Thing from John Carpenter's film wasn't concerned with hiding itself but rather wanted to take over the planet as quickly and completely as possible, you'd get something akin to this creature.
Thankfully, despite night falling and the onset of a storm, they manage to locate what's left of the VTOL. Unfortunately...
Proving what a stone-cold badass he still is, Lynch shows up, having hobbled his way seventeen blocks back to the landing site on a shattered ankle. As Hawkins suspected, he had a contingency plan in place. Unfortunately, when Burnout rummages through the wreckage, he finds it a melted, ruined mess. Realizing their fates are all tied to figuring out a way to kill the creature, Fairchild convinces Lynch to square with them and explain just what it is they're fighting.
The story Lynch tells is utterly horrifying:
The Black Hammers, Lynch, and the Gen13 kids were all dispatched to kill a baby.
What's worse is what will happen if they fail. International Operations has a fallback option involving Atomic Vector Cannons, which Lynch is convinced will not work to either immobilize or kill the child. When that fails, I/O will adopt a scorched Earth policy that will obliterate the creature, but at the cost of at least fifty percent of the state's population (not to mention the seven of them). We aren't told where this takes place, but it's safe to assume the city is a major metropolis like Chicago or New York City. A 50% casualty rate is millions of innocent lives.
The alternative, of course, is that the creature continues to grow and devour everything it touches, endangering the entire world.
Anybody else having Kobayashi Maru flashbacks from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?
Don't worry, it gets better:
Rainmaker's no idiot. She's reasoned that, just like the rest of them, the creature they're fighting is Gen-Active. Only instead of manifesting through tempering by I/O, it manifested from the trauma of its own birth. It's Gen13, just like they are.
Burnout doesn't understand what the problem is: it's a creature that has already killed, and will continue to do so unless stopped itself, a sentiment likely shared by a certain percentage of readers at this point. But once again, Rainmaker's the group's conscience and she lays into Burnout (and, by proxy, any reader who sympathizes):
Lynch gets Hawkins to spill the plan for the Black Hammer assault. With this intel in the open, Fairchild and the rest of the kids decide the first order of business is to spoil International Operations's part of the plan involving the Atomic Vector Cannons. The hour-long fight with the Hammers is condensed into a single two-page spread, with Fairchild delivering a beautiful soliloquy on the way her team deals with situations:
You know, I can't ever remember performing an act of aggression before my manifestation. I never made a fist or caused anybody any harm, ever. But now, it's all I do. All I ever seem to do is punch and kick and destroy. Why couldn't I have been given a better gift; something that could add to the human condition, make some sort of difference. Why is my only gift a marked capacity for wanton violence and destruction?
Unfortunately, while Gen13 is pounding on the Hammers, the creature arrives on the scene. Grabbing the closest Hammer, it absorbs it in seconds: the pilot, the gunner, and the atomic vector cannon. Now armed with a ranged weapon, it frags the sole remaining Hammer with its newest power, and now Rainmaker's at a complete loss. How do you communicate "we don't want to hurt you" to something that has no idea what that gesture looks like? For all her words earlier, Rainmaker doesn't have the answer. Fairchild doesn't know. Freefall and Burnout are likewise clueless.
It thus falls to Grunge to find a solution...though it's the last thing anyone expects:
I will not spoil the last three pages of this story.
I will not do it.
I categorically refuse.
This ending ravages the fuck out of me emotionally every time I read it, and you deserve to experience the same.
Maybe @cryplectibles, or @blewitt, or someone else here on the blockchain has a copy that they'll sell you. There's also a collected edition if graphic novels are more your thing. It's inexpensive online, a couple dollars at most. It's well worth the price of admission. Just bring your tissues--this is one story where you're allowed to cry at the end.
(No, you aren't seeing things -- that's six @blewitt faces out of five).
Ordinary Heroes was written and penciled by Adam Hughes. In fact, this is the first book Hughes ever worked on. This book has no right to be as good as it is, but damn it if Hughes didn't walk up to his first time at bat and swat a game-winning, bases-clearing Grand Slam. Mark Farmer's inks are superb, and Homer Reyes's colors are on point as well, but this is absolutely the Adam Hughes show from start to finish, from script to page layouts. This guy gets comics, and there isn't an out-of-place panel in the bunch.
Ordinary Heroes may not be the type of story we started reading comics for, but it's the sort of story that only the medium can tell. I can pretty much count on one hand the number of times a funny book has reduced me to tears, but Ordinary Heroes ticks that box every time I crack the covers. Despite never having written for these characters, Hughes possessed an intuitive understanding of just what made Fairchild, Rainmaker, Grunge, Burnout, and Lynch tick.
If there's any criticism to be leveled at the story, it's that Freefall and Burnout are massively underused compared to the other kids, but honestly it flows so well you won't notice. It's interesting to note that while Grunge winds up being the team's savior in both this and The Unreal World, it's a different type of heroics that result in saving the team both times. In The Unreal World, Grunge wins the fight due to Lynch's tactics. Here, Grunge comes up with and executes the plan entirely on his own. Considering it's only been a short time between both of these adventures (and how Grunge's first appearance in this story involves an absurd number of armpit fart noises), that's damn impressive.
That's it. I'm out of words. Ordinary Heroes is so good it beat out even my own fanboyish love for Adam Warren in my list of best Gen13 stories. If you read only one Gen13 book in your entire life, for gawd's sake, make it this one.