"What if the villains won?" is a popular theme in comics. It was the plot of many an issue of "What If...?" from Marvel, numerous "imaginary stories," and even the centerpiece of Mark Waid and Barry Kitson's "Empire." With "Edison Rex," the new digital-exclusive series from Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver, some aspects will seem quite familiar, but it also feels just different enough that it should grab readers' attention.
First and foremost, the conflict between Valiant, Protector of Earth and Edison Rex, Criminal Genius is one that almost anyone will recognize. I suspect Roberson and Culver would be the first to admit that it's based off of the classic Superman/Lex Luthor rivalry. There's nothing wrong with that; it takes something familiar and recasts it just enough that while they aren't carbon copies of those other characters, there's enough that we can jump right into what is their final battle. Roberson still hands us a few flashbacks and a brief history of the years of Valiant vs. Edison Rex, just enough to help set the tone, but not so much that it ever grows stale.
What makes "Edison Rex" #1 different from most other "What if the villains won?" stories is the way that Edison defeats Valiant and how it then leaps to the set-up for the rest of the series. Edison's unveiling of the secret origin of Valiant is the sort of thing that you could never get away with in "Superman," but here is a fun (if nasty) twist on the character archetype. It's in many ways the turning point for "Edison Rex," where Roberson pivots the series into a direction all of its own. It's also a nice form of reinforcement to let the reader know that Edison is supposed to be immensely smart; this is, after all, someone who defeats Valiant through wits, not brute force.
"What next?" is the big question asked within "Edison Rex," and I think that's where Roberson and Culver are doing their best job. The idea for the remainder of the series needs to be strong and the pair sells it. Edison's dazed expression courtesy Culver feels just right and the determined look that follows flows naturally. Likewise, Roberson uses just the right amount of dialogue, both in those scenes as well as the ones preceding it so that it can be set up just so. There's a lot of story potential in "Edison Rex" and right now it feels like that's being realized.
Culver's art in "Edison Rex" is strong; this is Culver's highest profile work to date and it's by far his best. It's a clean style that reminds me of what we're seeing from artists like Jamie McKelvie or from animators that have taken the jump into comics. Each line is placed for a reason, giving us expressive characters and easy-to-follow action.
One thing that jumped out at me upon re-reading "Edison Rex" was how great Culver's page layouts are. Maybe it was because of the digital delivery but it felt especially clear on how much care and thought went into them. Every page is balanced; a large panel takes up exactly half of a page while the other have is divided into fourths, or a series of two-panel/one-panel rows. Even the pages where Edison Rex explains to Valiant what's really going on are great; characters in the upper left and lower right with the presentation taking the other two thirds of the page. The layouts are smart and intelligently placed on the page, but at the same time also incredibly easy to follow without resorting to trickery or mind-twisters. I feel like Culver thinks about each page as a single unit, not just a collection of individual panels, and it pays off in spades here.
"Edison Rex" #1 is a great debut; I'm already ready to read the next issue, and if the series stays as strong as this opening is, I can see a series of "Edison Rex" collections gracing my bookshelf before very long. Monkeybrain Comics caught everyone's attention with its announcement, and now that the first wave of titles are out, I think they'll be catching even more attention with the actual product being so good. Definitely check it out.