New To You Comics #79: Boy’s Life Meets MI6 In ‘Black Badge’ Vol. 1
by Brendan M. Allen
Tony and Brendan have very different tastes in comics. Tony loves his capes, super powers, and sci-fi. Brendan tends to stick to horror, noir, and weird indies. Occasionally, their paths cross, but like most readers, they tend to stay in their own lanes.
New To You Comics is here to break up the pattern a little. Tony will throw some of his favorites at Brendan, and Brendan will hit Tony with some of his. Every NTYC title is brand new to one of them. Every once in a while a title will land with both of them. Most of the time they can find some common ground, but even when they don’t, it’s fun to watch them go at it. Brendan fights dirty. Tony kicks like a mule.
This week, Brendan introduces Tony to BOOM! Studios’ Black Badge Vol. 1, by Matt Kindt, Tyler Jenkins, and Hilary Jenkins. Here’s what BOOM! says about the book:
‘Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins, the Eisner Award-nominated team behind Grass Kings, reunite for a new ongoing series about a top-secret, elite branch of boy scouts tasked by the government to take on covert missions.
Among their organization, the Black Badges are the elite; the best of the best. They are feared even by the other badges. The missions they take are dangerous, and they will only get worse as their leader’s attention is split between their mission and tracking down a lost team member. A member who disappeared years ago, presumed dead.
A haunting look at foreign policy, culture wars and isolationism through the lens of kids who know they must fix the world that adults have broken.’
Brendan Allen: We’ve already covered Grass Kings Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. When I saw the same team would be doing Black Badge, it went into my review queue before I even read the full description. Kindt and the Jenkins have an amazing creative synergy, and I’d buy just about anything with those three names on the cover.
In the opening pages of Black Badge Vol.1 , we meet a small troop of Scouts as they tag along on an American high school trip to Seoul. It doesn’t take long for the four kids to get “lost,” wander into the DPRK, and potentially change the course of a certain unitary one-party socialist republic.
Kindt delivers some amazing natural exposition in that opening sequence. We get acquainted with the kids not by heavy-handed commentary, but rather through the half-cocked taunts of the trip bully. It’s a funny (and brilliant) use of that weird stage kids find themselves in when they aren’t quite children, but also can’t be taken seriously as adults. Adolescent logic and antagonistic banter moves the story along at a nice little clip and cleverly orients the reader.
Tony Thornley: I know I read the first issue of this when it came out and I thought I’d read more. But I was a Boy Scout as a kid, and the idea of taking Venture Scout aged kids and turning them into a black ops squad? That’s golden. Add the strong sense of world building that Kindt includes, characters that feel fully formed from the jump and some genuine thrills? It’s one of those series that clicks. It’s quirky and weird but it’s successful because of that, not in spite of it.
Brendan: The Jenkins roll their brilliant artistic style back out for this one. Tyler Jenkins nails the awkwardness of puberty with his linework. We’ve talked about kids being drawn like little adults almost ad nauseum. It’s just not right. Kids are not perfectly proportioned miniature adults. Jenkins’ kids are gawky, skinny, fat, long and short in weird places. Yes! Thank you!
There’s a lot more detail in these faces than we saw in Grass Kings, but I think much of that is owing to Hilary Jenkins’ paint job. Gouache? I think it’s gouache. That’s a word, yeah?
Tony: Yeah, they did some great things here. Tyler did a fantastic job at layout out the pages, designing the characters, and so on. Hilary just brought it to life. Hilary is the superstar here, without a doubt. In Grass Kings she made the Kingdom seem wistful while still grounded. Here she takes Tyler’s pencils and adds grit, blood and a harsh world around the characters.
This is the perfect book to give to someone to illustrate what a good color artist adds to a comic.
Brendan: Fun little Easter Egg hidden in this one, by the way. In chapter three, when the troop gets sent back to camp to refine their murder muscles, Los Jenkins slipped in a visual nod to their personal history.
Camp Wayward’s geography is loosely based on Hilary’s hometown, and if you look closely, you can even spot the tiny cape where the pair exchanged their wedding vows (north of the dock, behind the Theoretical Training Centre).
Another fun little nod comes later, when they tie Black Badge into the same world as Grass Kings. Not entirely necessary, but kinda cool anyway.
Tony: Those are great examples of one of my favorite things about this book- there is so much detail to this world, both in the art and the writing. Whether it’s Easter eggs like those, or all the supplemental material…
I would love to see a merit badge pamphlet from this world. Were you ever a Boy Scout?
Brendan: Close. I was a Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Operations Specialist in the Army. Never did Scouts. I did get to attend the 1997 Boys Scouts Jamboree at Ft. A.P. Hill, VA. The Army does a bunch of demonstrations and 5k runs and stuff at those things.
The Scouts wanted to trade us for our unit patches and pieces of our uniforms. We had a Brigadier General’s headgear stolen right out of his HMMWV. Some thirty year old former Scout is out there with a BG’s maroon beret in a shoe box.
I went to a Scout camp when I was a kid, too. Made a wallet.
Tony: So Mormons and the BSA were closely linked until the last couple years. That means pretty much every boy between 8 and 16 was in Scouting for at least a little while.
Brendan: Do you still have your badges? Are you wearing them right now?
Tony: …I’m not going to respond to that.
Brendan: Ha! You do! It’s cool. I still have my beret and my marksmanship badges laying around somewhere. Shoebox full of challenge coins in the closet, I think.
Tony: Anyways, the merit badge books were just full of information about the topic and there were a ton of different badges. Everything from Orienteering to Drama, Watersports to literal Rocket Science. Really, the only bit of supplemental material this book is missing is a merit badge pamphlet.
The diagrams that Kindt and the Jenkins put together feel like they’re right out of the Boy Scout Handbook. The talk about their history and badges are pretty genuine to the scouting experience. This is wholly realized world centered around Scouting. And when you really think about it, those kids are perfectly suited to become black ops operatives, with their various skills and training.
It really feels like one of those “world next door” sorts of spy-fi concepts. You can see a lot of shared DNA between this and the Kindt book we talked about last week- Ninjak.
Brendan: I can see that. I like this one better, though. It doesn’t feel like you need any pre-requisite reading to get into Black Badge, whereas Ninjak is a much better read with a basic understanding of the Valiant-verse. Even if you’ve never Scouted or had your beret stolen by a Scout, there’s enough BSA influence in the world that most folks have at least a casual knowledge of the organization.
Tony: Yeah, I wouldn’t say I like one more than the other, but I definitely think this is a lot of fun. It would make for a great double feature with our friend David Pepose’s recent Aftershock book, Scout’s Honor.
Brendan: That one’s on queue.
Tony: That’ll be fun. But really, I enjoyed this book. My only disappointment was where the volume broke off. I think it needed another issue really before it ended (though I do understand that it is because the series is only 12 issues). It’s far from accurate to a real BSA experience, but it’s surprisingly relatable for a former Scout.
Brendan: Fair. This one hits a lot of the same chords for me as 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank. It’s a little bit Stand by Me, with some Goonies and James Bond, mashed up with Boy’s Life and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. It’s all awkward and weird and awesome, but, you know, clandestine and dangerous.
What’s up next week?
Tony: We’re going to dive into one I’ve wanted to look at for a while (and is surprisingly timely considering all the news this week)- James Tynion IV, Alvaro Martinez, and Eddy Barrow’s Detective Comics V1!