It’s not hard to love Teddy Roosevelt. I mean, the man’s life sounds like a string of Chuck Norris jokes. But it runs deeper than that. He’s a noted conservationist, the overseer of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the last of the progressive Republicans. The man had a pet hyena in the White House and was a pugnacious boxer who switched to judo after a spar knocked out one of his eyes! And yet, despite his reputation as the manliest of the manly, he was an outspoken feminist, read a book a day while serving as President, and is the only U.S. President to receive the world’s highest honors for both peace and war. So when Aftershock Comics announced a steampunk action comic staring Roosevelt I took notice.
Now that it’s here, I have mixed feelings about Rough Riders and, at times, it seems like the book does too. As entertaining as the premise is, one can’t deny that Theodore Roosevelt leading a misfit team of turn of the century celebrities into a secret steampunk war is a pretty good competitor for the most efficient use of current action movie trends. This thing was designed to drive the internet wild, but, one has to wonder if the concept has what it takes to support an ongoing series, and how seriously it wants to be taken.
This issue focuses heavily on Teddy himself. Readers excited by Annie Oakley or Thomas Edison will have to wait for now, but, as the core of the team, it makes a certain sense for TR to take the spotlight. Adam Glass does a fine job of introducing Teddy to the audience as well as to the world of superheroics. I mean, if one were so inclined, it would be easy to view the opening scene as an old-timey caricature of a memorable scene from Watchmen. Whether it’s an actual parody or an honest but similarly motivated creation, it does bring a solid dose of pathos into the book nice and early. Glass’ Teddy feels grand but human. This is someone who’s undeniably heroic but stays a little more grounded than Batman and quite a bit more reserved than Spider-Man. A big part of this is the degree to which Roosevelt’s confidence is only skin-deep. Though he certainly has the skills, it’s refreshing to see a manly action hero who’s not only thoughtful but somewhat anxious, an appropriate representation of the future president’s character.
But while the characterization is effective, it is occasionally shallow. Our heroes’ tempers feels less a part of their character and more a way to establish the story’s need for conflict. The narration is also more than a bit overwritten at times, though it may be an intentional attempt to represent the verbosity of the characters. Regardless of the reasons, the melodrama of Glass’ narration is simply too much and bogs down the story.
Glass is able to lay down track quite effortlessly in this issue. One would think that Teddy’s team would be turning to Edison for their weaponry or obtaining it from their mysterious employers, but he seems to already be in possession of some surprisingly effective ordinance. The scene between Teddy and ‘The Board’ is also interesting, sowing seeds of mystery and antagonism, however it’s made very awkward by the script’s insistence on naming them all immediately. First of all it’s very stilted writing, but, more importantly, it draws attention to the fact that nearly every character is a notable historical figure and how distracting that can be. It also hints at an uncomfortable relationship with the audience. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be in on a joke or if Glass didn’t trust us with greater subtlety.
This latter problem rears its head again in the final scene of the issue. Though Teddy and Jack Johnson already make a great pair, his critique of Johnson feels like it’s claiming an insight and intelligence that it doesn’t necessarily have. I mean, surely Johnson understands the danger of telegraphing his punches and letting opponents inside his head? It’s also uncomfortable to have a well dressed white man shaming a legendary black boxer by ‘feigning’ racist sympathies.
Still, as I said, Teddy’s populist spirit makes him a natural partner for Johnson and their interaction is one of the best parts of the book as long as you can overlook the aforementioned issues. I’ll also say that Glass writes Johnson’s anger very well.
The art comes from Patrick Olliffe. Olliffe doesn’t seem to care for tricks, offering strong, impressively fine linework without any bells or whistles. Some readers may be unmoved by this straightforward approach, but I would warn against underestimating him. His shading is a formidable asset and the sense of scale gives these historical legends a suitably larger than life feeling.
Admittedly, some panels, especially early on, lack movement and any rare oddities in anatomy or perspective are rather noticeable in Olliffe’s stark draftsmanship, but you can’t deny that, especially once Teddy’s wardrobe becomes more traditional, Olliffe is beautifully suited to the time period.
- It’s funny that Glass came to my attention with DC’s Suicide Squad as he’s effectively writing their opposites now. The Suicide Squad was chosen because they’re b-list villains, all expendable. But these characters’ lives are already mapped out, they can’t die without some sort of clever shenanigans. I wonder how that will affect the series…
Rough Riders is not as bold as many of its Aftershock brethren and it suffers from a lack of a clear identity. If it’s a send up, it lacks the extremity to say that parody stands alongside action, but, if it’s sincere, it’s leaning a little too hard into action movie tropes and overblown writing. Nevertheless, Adam Glass has ably captured one of the most magnetic personalities in American history and thrown him into some mysterious circumstances that will make it hard not to come back and find out more.
There’s a solid adventure comic here and the historical trappings are engaging and respected. The art is a big part of the draw. Patrick Olliffe is obviously up to drawing this era and these legends of American history an his sharp, detailed linework brings a great deal to the table. This first issue does have problems and it won’t finish telling its story for at least an issue or two, but the strength of the premise bears out and, at a paltry two dollars, you can afford to try it and the second issue for little more than Marvel asks for their debuts. It’s a lukewarm launch for the series, but one suspects that there’s some heat yet in this series.