Confession time: I haven't played much of EA Montreal's Army of Two series to form an opinion about the games' overall quality. The co-op focused third-person shooter, about U.S. soldiers Salem and Rios, who go from serving their country to a private military contractor with nefarious intentions to spinning off on their own, has received decidedly mixed reviews, despite the interesting concept and execution.
Salem and Rios are mercenaries, but Rios, at least, is a moral man who wants to use Trans World Operations to so some good in the world, or as he puts it early on in the story, the company "has to be clean." The affects that a PMC has on the wider world is a good idea to use the Army of Two concept for- can the pair really do the right thing, in a lawless land, where the only real loyalty is to whomever has the power?
Across the Border isn't
even the first Army of Two comic;
that honor goes to an out-of-print, difficult to find graphic novel from Prima
that was written by Captain America writer
John Ney Reiber and drawn video game concept artist Brandon McKinney. I haven't
read it, but then again, I don't know anyone who has. As part of their inaugural
line of EA Comics, and to tie in with The 40th Day, IDW published an Army of Two tie-in comic with a surprising writer: Peter
Milligan. The cerebral creator of such works as the sci-fi war satire Bad
Company and the chilling post-apocalyptic gangster
epic Skreemer, among many other
memorable works, is no stranger to licensed or superhero work- he's had long
runs on X-Men and currently
working his magic on DC's Red Lanterns, Justice League Dark, and Hellblazer. Still, the gung-ho militarism of the games would seem an odd fit for
the writer, especially since he plays Across the Border as pretty straight. At first I thought the game would
tie in directly to The 40th Day- the Marxist lunatic terrorist of that game, Jonah, is the sort of
warped idealist that has served as a villain in several Milligan works. Across
the Border takes place shortly after the
end of the first game, where the wounds of Salem and Rios' time in SSC haven't
fully healed and the pair and Alice are just beginning the career of Trans
Salem and Rios, along with a new recruit named Edberg, are sent down to Mexico to help the Mexican police quell the violent alliance between the local drug cartels and the Maras street gang. The team's time in Mexico is paralleled with the story of a Maras gang member named Jaime, whose brother is killed by a rival gang in the opening scene. When TWO tries to defuse a Maras driven hostage situation, Jaime winds up killing Edberg. As Salem and Rios find themselves devoured by the cartels and criminal culture of Mexico, Jaime's fear and grief drives him to become the leader of the Maras and eventually a narcoterrorist bent on collapsing the entire Mexican government.
It's a compelling setup, but Milligan's story makes some
missteps. The first proiblem is with the characterization of Salem and Rios.
Rios is a decent protagonist who's clearly trying to live up to the ideals he
held when he served his country. Salem, by contrast, is an insecure meathead
given to petty jealousy and bouts of paranoia that render him extremely
unlikable. Milligan's attempt to drive a wedge between the characters comes off
as hamfisted and weak. One wonders why Rios doesn't slug him in the fact and
stuff him in a locker before the next mission. By the end of the arc, there's
quite a bit unresolved. Army of Two was
originally announced as an ongoing series, and suspect that Millgian had planned
to explore their relationship further, but the series did not get past issue
#6. There are also strange plot holes, such as when Rios is seemingly killed in
an escape attempt from a prison and Salem is too busy to go back and double check
the prison, even though Rios is still alive and in there. The story's actions
sequences are skillfully written but are hampered Dexter Soy's pencil work,
which I'll get to in a bit.
More successful is the story of Jamie, a young boy who looks up to his brother, because his brother is "tough", but that toughness gets him killed. Jaime has to be hard to survive on the city streets, and finds the "family" that the Maras provide isn't the safe haven he thought it was. Jaime goes to increasingly bloody lengths to secure a place for himself, but to what end? He's a big badass, but there's always a bigger badass waiting in the wings, and men like Rios and Salem looking to settle the score. Is Jamie causing all this chaos simply because he's afraid? It's a good look at how a child's mentality given power can have a negative effect. In that respect, he's a memorable Milligan villain.
Unfortunately, Across the Border is crippled by the artwork. Dexter Soy's only other published work is the prequel comic to Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and like that book, the action in Across the Border is hyperkinetic... but also somewhat incoherent. There's never any sense that the characters are in Mexico: the bombed out, bullet riddled city Salem and Rios find themselves in look so generic they might as well be in, well, a video game. In one scene the characters are on the desert border, and that's as scene specific as Soy gets. Soy's clearly influenced by Image era artists like Marc Silvestri, and Ultimate Hulk Vs. Wolverine and Avengers artist Leinil yuand the characters are constantly striking poses and looking BADASS even when it's clear the script doesn't call for it. Alice is always boobs akimbo, hips outthrust. In one truly strange scene, Salem appears in his T.W.O hockey mask garb, even though both of them were locked up in a prison and had no access to their supplies. I'm not entirely certain if Soy was even following Milligan's script correctly. The presence of veteran inker Jose Marzan Jr. would seem to be a help, but the work is showered in shadows and blacks that don't enhance the work. Chester Ocampo's nifty covers are closer to the game's style. Overall, Soy's artwork is so terrible and so atonal to the story I can't really recommend Across the Border.
If you're a fan of the games and the characters, Across the Border should provide some decent action, but the shaky artwork and uneven story made it difficult for this Milligan fan. Milligan and IDW deserve credit, though, for bringing a little depth and thought to what's seen as a somewhat shallow franchise.