The Old 52: Xer0

If you haven't read it, it's new to you. Every month I try to supplement the New 52 with a series from the Old 52. Series I've never read, but have always meant to.
When it was new: Xer0 was a monthly series published by DC starting in 1997 by Christopher Priest, and for most of the run, ChrisCross and Tom Simmons. It lasted only 12 issues.

Premise: Xer0 is a Closer, a cyborg super-assassin working for an unnamed agency, a black man disguised as a white man, who risks it all to perhaps regain his humanity.

Xer0ing in: What seems one of those gun-totting anti-hero books of the 90s proves to be a surprisingly involving read. However, it's easy to see why mainstream readers either never gave it a chance or were frustrated by it. The book is presented as a running novel about Xer0 written 25 years after his death by his brother Trent Walker, a self-destructive Tony Stark type, a narrative that makes for a dense read that approaches noir. The spy jargon is always explained in footnotes, and adds an air of authenticity to the over-the-top spy thriller stuff. The action is balanced by a just-as-unusual soap opera element about Trent and his brother's pro basketball team. Yeah, in real life, Xer0 is the Michael Jordan of the DC Universe, Trane Walker, playing for the National City Vipers. The set-up is shaken by a number of things: Xer0 starting to get a twinge of conscience, a mysterious spook appears to know all of Xer0's secrets, and a cop gets in Trane Walker's face about making a difference to the neighborhood kids.

Christopher Priest layers his story with a racial metaphor too. Xer0's cover is as a costumed white man, something he resents. Is it meant to be an image of a successful black man feeling like he has betrayed his roots? Been whitewashed? Or more universally, a man who has lost his connection with his own identity by working for the Man? It's also a fun irony that one of the most famous men in the world is also its most secret metahuman. His genius brother Trent is a womanizing, boozing, suicidal, amoral mess and fascinates in the same way a character like Vril Dox might, though he is much more damaged. From the beginning, we know there is an end because Trent tells us, and it's just a matter of getting there. We're thrown into the action without a parachute in issue 1, but do get an origin story in issues 7 and 8. Though canceled due to low sales, Priest still managed to tie up most of the plots and subplots, though the last issue feels rushed, revelations and deaths piling up most unsatisfactorily. Another 6 issues might have done the trick. Just one or two if we don't need the Roswell/cloned kids connection resolved.
And the art! I should really mention ChrisCross here who gave the book a stylized look that worked well with the running narration, with slick anime/manga tricks like speed lines and well-choreographed action. The comic has a LOT of text, but the action beats are strong and exciting, so it's not all played on a single note. ChrisCross did all but three issues, but one can hardly complain about Eduardo Barreto's 9 and 10. It's a shame Eric Battle draws the last issue, because he's not up to it, interpreting the script confusingly, and several continuity problems crop up. In the final analysis though, Xer0 has a unique look and feel, a varied and credible minority ensemble cast, and was ABOUT something. No, it didn't connect too much with the rest of the DCU (Xer0 was forced to meet Doctor Polaris in a Genesis tie-in, and Priest makes it work very well), but that makes all the better as a self-contained "novel". Too bad it was never collected.

Trade in for one of the New52? In a heartbeat. If you want to go anti-hero for anti-hero, drop it into Deathstroke's slot.


De said...

Never even knew about this book. Looks like it's time to scour the discount bins.

Michael Hoskin said...

I've been interested in picking this one up, though I know from Priest's essays that it was a troubled production behind-the-scenes.

Siskoid said...

I wouldn't be surprised. It feels like Priest started wrapping things up as early as issue 9, so the signs of cancellation must've come early.

I also imagine a series heavy with text, that needed a spycraft glossary at times, about racial identity, and that made use of the N-word once, would have encountered editorial problems.

Does anyone know if Xer0 was meant to be a Milestone book before that line was canceled?


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