Regardless of whether it is comic books or feature films, sequels can be difficult things to pull off. The ideal is a second act which surpasses the first without deviating too far from what made the original work in the first place. The risk of failure is high, which is often why many sequels tend to play things safe and merely recreate the original work, albeit bigger and louder. Considering that the original “Absolution” was created and written by a scribe who has worked on both feature films and weekly TV series alongside comic book work – Christos Gage – it is easy to consider its second volume by Avatar Press akin to a sequel. The troubled masked anti-hero John Dusk as well as the rest of his cast are back in “Absolution: Rubicon” and they all fare a threat far more dangerous than any have faced before.
Taking place six months after the previous installment, “Rubicon” picks up right where the narrative left off in the opening volume. The super powered “enhancile” John Dusk is an ex-cop and an escaped fugitive, wanted for a series of vigilante murders as well as fleeing from prison. However, since his targets are criminals often too vicious or sneaky for the law to permanently stifle, John enjoys popular support by the masses, and has gained new allies to replace his peers within the NYPD. Faced with few options but plenty of zeal, Dusk has joined forces with the mysterious Yakuza assassin Happy Kitty and the battle hardened human vigilante Urban Legend to continue his personal (and brutal) war on crime. Detective Karen Leeves and her friend Alice Symanski (a.k.a. Alpha) are doing their best to move on with their lives amid all of their tragedies as well as ultimately seek to apprehend Dusk once and for all. While Alpha seems to share some of John’s views and owes him for saving her children, Karen’s own feelings of betrayal and resentment for her ex fuel her drive to see him rearrested. Unfortunately, the mayor feels that the efforts of police liaison Gordon Bradley is progressing too slowly, and decides to take matters into his own hands. Figuring that only another “enhancile” can possibly stop John Dusk, he makes a devil’s bargain with a maniac who is practically a demigod named “Polymath”. Too powerful to be trusted, the Polymath quickly carves a path of destruction which requires John, Alpha, and the rest of his former peers (such as the Servant) to put aside their differences one last time.
Much like the initial volume, this is not a story which patiently starts from zero and builds up every little detail piece by piece. With only five issues to tell a story that many Marvel or DC Comics superhero franchises would take a year to tell, “Rubicon” once again hits the ground running and fills in many critical narrative gaps as it needs to. The end result, once again, is a comic book which has the feel of an episodic TV series which has to entertain both longtime viewers and newcomers on a weekly basis. Rather than seek to reinvent the previous arc, Christos Gage progresses the stories of John Dusk and the rest of the cast, taking their paths towards logical conclusions while setting up a massive threat for them to fight. To a degree this sequel, like many in the film industry, relies more on cranking the action levels up from the previous installment. Thirty to forty percent of the story seem focused exclusively on the battle against Polymath, who is clearly set up as an ultimate villain who can physically challenge the entire cast at once. This would be a problem if the resulting battle wasn’t exciting and brilliantly paced; however, both Gage and artist Daniel Gete (and colorist Digikore Studios) produce an epic and very violent spectacle which is a sight to behold.
While the story of John Dusk’s descent doesn’t need to be retold, following his path into a different direction remains just as fascinating. John has moments where the enormity of the choices he’s made weigh on him, but without many options he often has to run with whatever allies he can find or whatever home base he can settle in. Having once been a cop, John ultimately finds himself embraced by a troubled community in the Bronx, which he will do anything to protect. However, this also means that his methodology also evolves beyond simple crime fighting, but on doing his part to strike back at the guilty in higher places. Happy Kitty also gets some development both in “Rubicon” and in her own one shot story drawn by Paul Duffield.
One of the challenges and dilemmas with creating a brand new superhero universe which is both unique yet familiar is that it relies on recreating some of the broad strokes of character creation that Marvel and DC Comics have long relied on. Most superheroes not based in New York or California, for instance, tend to be themed around obvious stereotypes. This also comes into play with many non white characters, and this is something Happy Kitty deals with head on. Obviously inspired by “J-pop” (Japanese pop) as well as some anime character designs, she straddles a line between being a stereotype as well as being a unique and damaged character all her own. Artist Paul Duffield teams with Gage to further flesh out the life of young swords-woman. Possibly autistic (or seeming to be due to the nature of her powers), her life has been intertwined with the Yakuza since they murdered her parents and then took her in to become a trained assassin. Seeing violence as little more than a game, efforts to control her ultimately fail as she eventually slashes to the tune of her own blade. Considering she is is a teenage girl, it can become glaring how often every artist who has drawn her has made sure to reveal her panties while she is in motion (a practice known in manga and anime circles as “fan service”). It can become distracting to the overall narrative told about her, which is that she is a dangerous but possibly traumatized warrior whose morality is quite ambiguous. The fact that she’s become loyal to John Dusk is both a sign of how rarely anyone treated her well in addition to how far the former policeman has fallen in his pursuit of justice.
Both “Rubicon” and the “Happy Kitty Special” were collected into a second “Absolution” trade paperback last year, and are available online, in shops, and at any convention where Avatar Press has a booth. Facing the difficulty of sequels or second volumes head on, “Rubicon” ultimately delivers on everything that fans of the previous volume enjoyed about it. The stakes for the cast all become higher with a gloriously violent climax which is to be read to be believed. Free to travel to ultimate conclusions that few superhero operas can, the “Absolution” saga has etched out its own place within the long gallery of costumed superhero universes in comic books. Fans of Christos Gage’s work as well as gritty costumed antics should add both volumes to their collections post haste.