Last week, comiXology, the cross-platform digital comics subscription service, announced that the company’s 100 millionth download was issue 3 of Bill Willingham’s Pantheon, a comic book series that began publication in 1998 by Lone Star Press. While on the one hand, this news showcases the volume of sales that comiXology has managed since its founding in 2007, it also demonstrates one of the key assets of the service: the opportunity to delve into comics that were undersold, overlooked, or otherwise experienced limited availability.
While Willingham these days is best known for his DC/Vertigo series Fables, and many fans fondly recall Elementals, his groundbreaking series from Comico, Pantheon‘s independent publication and unsteady publishing schedule (13 issues took six years) may have contributed to its lack of impact. Which is a shame — because the book is really quite enjoyable. At 99 cents an issue on comiXology (which you can use on tablets, Kindle Fires, PCs, etc.), it’s worth at least a look.
In Pantheon, Willingham springboards off of the mythos of superheroes as readily as his Fables series does from storybook fantasy. The premise is fairly uncomplicated. The world’s superheroes, largely analogs of DC and Marvel mainstays, have jailed or otherwise taken care of the preponderance of the world’s villains. Now it’s time for the infighting to start. The heroes of the Freedom Machine; the U.S. government and its agents; a former ally; and newly jail-broken enemies are the primary players contending to see what the landscape of the world will be.
Several comics series have tried to answer what will happen when the world is ready to move past its superheroic era; The Dark Knight, Kingdom Come, and Watchmen to name a few. But it’s Willingham’s execution and extrapolation that make it highly different from anything with a related premise. His stories tend to zig when you expect a zag, something he established in Elementals way back when. Another difference is that this is unapologetically a tale of superhumans, and keeps one foot in the standard tropes, even uses them to explore non-standard paths. What would, say, the Silver Surfer be like is he stopped giving a crap about the world, having moved past mortal concerns? And what would the Supergirl analog do if he begged her to run away with him to another galaxy, even as the Earth is about to perish? High drama, sure, but delicious little moments too, with team interrelations, teen heroes finding themselves in the big leagues when it matters most, and clever, non-standard, and unusually violent ways that they defeat their foes.
The art throughout most of the series is good, though the artist-switch-ups in the middle may throw you for a touch of a loop. Mike Leeke’s stuff in particular is outstanding. The original issues were black & white; these digital reprints seem to be in color — which, in my opinion, takes something away from the original pencils and inks, but by no means ruins them.
This series is worth a look — and if you end up enjoying it, the Pantheon Complete Script Book — sadly not available digitally — makes a lovely complement.