Static Shock: Trial by Fire

Virgil Hawkins tries to manage going to class, holding down a job, hanging with his friends, and getting over a crush on his best friend Frieda, all while fighting bad guys as Static, the electrically-powered teen superhero. This collection reprints the first four issues of the Milestone series, in which Virgil saves Frieda from a wannabe gangster with heat and speed powers, flashes back to how he got his abilities, and gets offered a deal to be a superpowered enforcer.

Although Leon was a somewhat new artist at the time, he draws a great range of bodies, faces, and expressions (with the exception of the occasionally over-built Static — he is just a teenager, supposedly). His art is more than capable of carrying both dynamic action and character interaction, and he’s created a fully populated, complete world. His style is rough-edged, as suits the setting, but still readable.

Static Shock: Trial by Fire cover
Static Shock: Trial by Fire
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The colors also look great. Milestone was understandably proud of developing a method that better allowed them to capture a gamut of skin tones (among other things). At times that process could overwhelm the material, but here the palette is sunny and bright, thanks to colorist Noelle C. Giddings handpainting the pages.

Aside from the witty dialogue that doesn’t seem artificial or overdone, Washington and McDuffie also play around with established conventions of the superhero genre. For example, face-to-face with the villain Hotstreak, Virgil crumbles, his posturing gone. Even in his secret ID, he still thinks of himself as a geek who’s been publicly beaten up by bullies like this. As a result, Frieda finds out his secret, and it’s treated casually the rest of the book, as it should be. (Too much emphasis on such things makes the artificiality of the superhero genre overly apparent.) Similarly, Virgil loses his job because he keeps running out to play hero, although he never questions using his abilities to help others.

Virgil is a smart-aleck kid, with emphasis on the smart. He comes up with a lot of variations on his powers beyond simply zapping people, like electrostatic force fields. The origin flashback makes sense, if it is a little too Afterschool Special. (Hassled by bullies, Virgil gets a gun to end the problem once and for all, but can’t go through with it.) I appreciate not dragging the story out but wrapping it up quickly. The last story in the book is the best with its multiple levels of interpretation about selling out. Holocaust, a fire-powered villain, is a devilish tempter in more ways than one. He twists the truth just enough so it still sounds plausible and then tries to use the result to justify his evil.

When we first meet her, Frieda Goren is set up to be a trophy for a gang leader, but we haven’t even reached the bottom of the first page before she’s standing up for herself. Virgil’s friendship with her is very understandable, especially when she wants to be just friends while he’s got a crush on her. She knows what’s best for Virgil, she’s not afraid to tell him what she thinks, she makes him laugh, and she doesn’t have to get rescued. It’s rare in superhero comics to see competent female characters who aren’t reduced to being simply girlfriends, and this book is full of them.

It’s also full of great characterization and wonderful writing. The supporting cast is often as or more important than the superheroics, and they seem like real kids, not some demographically and multiculturally matched teen team (although there’s a good mix of types as well). Virgil’s family is very real as well, especially the way he and his sister Sharon are snotty to each other.

At its best, Static was often favorably compared to Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, and with good reason — it’s a classic setup with a modern twist. The genre basics are covered without seeming cliched or derivative, and Virgil is definitely up-to-date. Overall, the book has a lot of excitement; obviously, with all that crackling electricity, but more importantly, with the thrill of being young and gifted and able to do things other people can’t.

Beyond this book, there were another 41 issues. (The series ran to #45.) There was also a four-issue miniseries called Rebirth of the Cool that guest-starred many of the rest of the Milestone characters. Dwayne McDuffie maintains a page of Static information at his website.

3 Responses to “Static Shock: Trial by Fire”

  1. James Mathurin Says:

    A great and very thourough review. I collected the series when it first came out, and you hit all the significant points here. It’s also worth mentioning that McDuffie’s introduction gives a very interesting view of how Static originated and developed.

  2. Johanna Says:

    Thank you! And thanks for the reminder about the introduction.

  3. Coming Up: Books Due in February 2010 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] promising they’re going to “complete the tales told in the original runs of Static Shock, Icon, Hardware, Shadow Cabinet, and Blood Syndicate“, which I’d love to see. (Even […]




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