By Fred Van Lente, Francis Portela, Andrew Dalhouse
The Generation Zero team is in the midst of a chess game in the aptly named town of Rook. With one more book left in this arc, the drama is building as the players make their moves, but the ultimate mystery is the identity of Gen Zero’s true opponent.
Writer Fred Van Lente gifts us with a multilayered story. It can be enjoyably read at the superficial level, but those familiar with Van Lente’s penchant for greater meaning and symbolism will be scampering to Wikipedia as they follow the clues themselves. “Crazy theory time” is a beloved tradition for Valiant fans, and Van Lente gives us plenty to work with.
Take the choice of names, for instance. “Rook” is a chess piece, previously referred to as the “tower” and informally called the “castle”. The name of the mascot of the high school where so much of the intrigue plays out is “The Castlemen”. Even the mysterious bad guys are nicknamed the “Cornermen”, which fits the description of a rook.
These nuances aside, one of the appealing aspects of this story is the Generation Zero team themselves. Former child soldiers enslaved to PRS (Project Rising Spirit of Bloodshot fame), these gifted psiots escaped the system and are finding their own way in the world. Having been denied a traditional childhood, their worldview is understandably skewed, having lacked an upbringing emphasizing humanistic morals and empathy. Through their teamwork, they formed their own family, bolstered by their leader Christian. Witnessing their interplay and sibling-like roles, along with their sense of loyalty, strikes an emotional chord, humanizing them. With their amazing powers and strategic moves, it’s easy to see this group as a machine, but this time out Van Lente shows more of their interpersonal relationships in a non-mission role. This allows readers to become emotionally invested in the characters rather than merely supporting their cause.
Van Lente reveals more secrets about Rook, and we discover how deep the conspiracy runs. Some visible clues are laid out as well, including the last panel of the book. Significant character building takes place among the main characters. Telic in particular loses her aloof mystique as we learn the depth of her devotion. Other team members such as Animalia are depicted behaving more true-to-age. Keisha, the most understandingly relatable character, has a spotlight thrown on her true character through comparison to the lives of the Gen Zero team. Van Lente has Keisha pegged appropriately – a teenager striving to be unique, who doesn’t consider herself “normal”, but who is exceedingly normal in her quest to be singular. From her commercialized gothic clothes to her misguided belief that she is too independent to be manipulated, Keisha is the very definition of a normal teenager. Furthering this notion is her brother Kwame’s recollections of conversations with her – every single one taking place while her true focus is on texting her boyfriend. Her take on other characters’ intentions – namely Telic – affirm her smaller world view. Keisha’s reaction in any given situation is so different from that of the Gen Zero team’s, emphasizing just how different the team is from their peers.
Speaking of Kwame, we’re treated to his worldview. Brilliant and autistic, Kwame has a unique understanding of and approach to his environment. Artist Francis Portela allows us to see Rook through Kwame’s eyes, and the appearance of those around him is curiously different. The eyes of each character is abnormally large, and this speaks to how autism affects Kwame and how it feels to be him. Even his thought bubbles are different from other characters’ – the background imagery on Kwame’s thought bubbles look like puzzle pieces. While these depictions are telling, what’s most notable is that we aren’t allowed to see the Cornermen’s faces through Kwame’s eyes, focusing instead on their garb rather than their visage. Whether this is intentional or not remains to be seen, but it may be yet another clue seeded by Van Lente and team.
Artist Francis Portela and colorist Andrew Dalhouse round out the creative team. Portela is a fine storyteller. He maintains an even flow on the story with panel work that emphasizes details. An excellent example of this is the sequence where Telic is speaking with Keisha. Each panel focuses tighter on their faces until we reach the pinnacle moment, which drives home the emotion behind the words. He makes good use of space, employing larger panels to emphasize action or openness alongside smaller panels that focus on the details of a scene. Colorist Andrew Dalhouse’s palette is rich and broad. His coloring adds depth and movement to the art. He does an excellent job portraying the psiot power set in use, making it almost tangible yet still translucent. Particularly effective is his work depicting high-tech. One panel in particular will catch your eye with its nod to sci-fi roots.
Generation Zero #4 is a solid book and a good addition to your shelf. Van Lente and team have crafted a multi-layered story with an underlying mystery that feels almost too large to be contained to one arc. The drama is building up to a large confrontation in the next book. Will it end in a checkmate or a draw, and is this just a single game within a larger match?