Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Alex Maleev
DC Comics, August 2021
Writer Brian Michael Bendis catches a lot of grief from online readers of superhero comics. The snappy and colloquial dialogue, the in-depth knowledge of American superhero continuity, and the character-driven storylines seem to irritate as much as please the obsessive readership. That readership, by reason of the longevity of the two big American publishers’ characters, are a clutch of possessive and jealous stakeholders. The carte blanche that Mr Bendis has had over DC Comics’ pool of obscure characters since moving to the publisher in 2018 has enabled him to take dusty fan favourites and use them at liberty. Here, Mr Bendis and his long-time collaborator Alex Maleev drag back into the spotlight some very obscure characters indeed. (The colourist is long-time industry professional Dave Stewart, who shares his name with your reviewer.)
This latest (third) iteration of Checkmate reminds us somewhat of John Ostrander’s 1989 crossover event, The Janus Directive. This was a masterful espionage story involving the government-suborned supervillain team Suicide Squad, the nuclear-powered superheroes Firestorm and Captain Atom, a mercenary called Manhunter, and the first iteration of Checkmate. Aside from the appearance of President George Bush (the first one) at the conclusion, this story has not dated at all. Mr Bendis would be well-aware of The Janus Directive. Below is an extract of the promotional blurb for The Janus Directive:
We think it is no coincidence that Manhunter and Checkmate , who each appeared in The Janus Directive, appear together in this new limited series.
Checkmate is difficult to understand without having read a 2020 series called Event Leviathan. Your reviewer falls into that category, and trying to divine the backstory was an exercise in both patience and Googling. Here is DC Comics’ blurb for the first issue:
From the award-winning creative team behind last year’s Event Leviathan comes the next surprising chapter in DC Comics’ deadliest saga. Leviathan has agents and acolytes all over the world, but what is the secret behind its power? The planet’s last, best hope to infiltrate Leviathan may be this motley collection of spymasters, now teamed up to try to take back the world that was stolen from under us all! Green Arrow, the Question, Talia al Ghul and other unlikely allies converge to tackle Leviathan as members of the new Checkmate, but who is the surprise hero behind this team? Big clues to the future of the DC Universe start here!
This particular story follows on from Event Leviathan. (Readers of Joss Wheldon’s 2004 title Astonishing X-Men might smile at this, recalling that “Leviathan” was a pump-fake menace.) Manhunter – there are many Manhunters in DC’s panoply, but this one is a character named Mark Shaw – was revealed in that series as the person behind Leviathan, an organisation which brought down and subsumed DC Comics’ various spy agencies.
Mark Shaw is a character with a long history, once starring in his own series as a masked superhero armed with alien technology. In the climax of The Janus Directive, Mark Shaw was the superhero who fought and captured the cult mastermind Kobra. Another character who had his own series (in 1976), Kobra had successfully pitted DC Comics’ various spy agencies against each other. It seems that Shaw learned some tricks from Kobra – or rather, Mr Bendis learned some tricks from Mr Ostrander.
The title otherwise features stalwart superhero Green Arrow, Superman’s wife Lois Lane, Wonder Woman’s historical romance interest and now master spy Steve Trevor, Director Bones (a man with transparent flesh who first appeared in the title Infinity Inc in 1985), Manhunter (another version, Kate Spencer, who has a fan cult following arising from her own long-finished series intermittently running from 2004 to 2007), the original version of The Question (who had his own title in 1987 to 1990, and 2005), Batman’s son Robin, Robin’s mother and adversary Talia al Ghul, and a mysterious leader called The King. We wonder if The King is the shapeshifting Martian Manhunter.
Superman appears in issue 4, and a new villain called Daemon Rose kidnaps Lois Lane in issue 2.
What is our conclusion? We wish the title was more The Janus Directive espionage, with a genuine sense of dread and mystery, and less spy soap opera.