“Dogs are animals – and all animals are afraid of fire, right? Right! Okay, I’ve soaked him with the best burning fuel there is – gasoline! Now to ‘Flick my Bic’!”
Dawn blooms the day after the adventures of the last two issues. Steve’s van arrives at his Auto Repair shop and he and Brandy quickly sneak Rom into the garage. The humans, exhausted by events, quickly eat a few burgers while Rom recharges his circuits through a light socket, then shuts down into Rest Mode so as to repair. Steve walks Brandy to her job, and both briefly encounter Artie Packer, a local officer who spins a wild story about what the cops saw on the road the night before.
At Project Safeguard, Archie Stryker rages against the Dire Wraiths who hold him prisoner, bitter about their tricks and the way his body is continuing to fuse to the Firefall armor. Dr. Sweet knocks him out and makes plans for his termination, but S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Kraller is hesitant to cut the project loose so soon. The two meet with the Wraith supervisors, who praise Sweet while tearing Kraller a new one for incompetence in the field. They open a portal to Death Wing, the cosmic force once defeated by the Spaceknights, and feed the screaming Kraller to it.
In the field where once stood a living house, the Hellhounds of the Dark Nebula continue following the telepathic trail of Rom and his companions. They shift from their dog form to humanoid bodies, clad it purple biosuits and red hoods, and take on a non-corporeal state, flying and passing through matter as they close in on their target.
Rom is awakened by their telepathic scans as the Hellhounds phase into the garage. They pass in and out of him, scrambling his circuitry. They fling tires and smash him with a truck on a hydraulic lift. They separate him from his Neutralizer and use a spell to cast a shield around it to prevent recovery. Rom does get a few hits in whenever they temporarily solidify for each attack and his systems do eventually adjust to prevent them from passing through his armor. When they attack him with a power line, he pounces on one, crashing it through the wall and surging the cable’s power into it through his armor.
Steve comes back just in time to become the target of the second Hellhound. He quickly douses it with gasoline and sets it on fire. The Hellhound is killed and the remaining beast shares the same fate when Rom tosses it into a water barrel with the still live power line. Rom suddenly collapses. The amount of electricity passing through his system was so great that it’s shutting down, leaving Steve with a lifeless Rom lying right outside of his smashed shop.
And we have our first major death of the series! You’d expect, being an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and all, that Kraller would continue playing a very prominent role in things, but he’s suddenly fed to the giant space pterodactyl in another dimension. It’s certainly an unexpected twist as the accusations about his impulsiveness and lack of subtlety come a bit out of nowhere, but it shows that the Dire Wraiths don’t fuck around. To the credit of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s clearly stated that the jig is up at the espionage agency and internal investigations had been launched against Kraller. It would have been nice to see this in some way, to fully appreciate the pressure breathing down his neck, but it’s nice to see they aren’t short-selling Nick Fury’s branch of secret intelligence. And it’s interesting that he’s the one who wants to keep Archie alive as an additional resource, whereas Dr. Sweet shows her full ruthlessness by wanting to just kill the man, scoop out the armor, and start over fresh. Leave it to the Wraiths to fall on the side of the nastier of two evils.
Which brings us to Archie Stryker. Poor Archie Stryker. What a huge character arc in just a few issue, eh? A disillusioned veteran turned thief turned enraged humanity sympathizer turned blazing armored warrior turned disillusioned fool in a broken suit he can’t remove, impotently yelling at the aliens who want to flush him down the toilet now that he fully understands how they’ve manipulated him. He’s still alive by story’s end, but there’s little hope for him as he’s now in the hands of the dreaded Dr. Sweet.
In the land of the good guys, we once again explore Rom’s mechanical nature as he has to recharge and go into a rest mode to repair. We know, at his core, that Rom is still organic, so it surprises me when he turns down food. Sure, his mechanical components would need energy to function, but wouldn’t he still need to ingest nutrition just to stay alive within those mechanical components? It’s a small point, though, and I love how he continues dreaming of Rayna, and the cliffhanger twist of him thunking to the ground after overloading on the power line. So far, we’ve seen him as a near perfect, undefeatable warrior, but we’re starting to see the chinks in the armor, the vulnerability, and it gives the climactic battle with the Hellhounds some added threat. Especially when they steal his Neutralizer and us their non-corporeal states to mess with his circuitry from within. However, this is the second time they’ve played the card of Rom’s armor adjusting to eventually neutralize an enemies’ attack, which is just a bit too convenient of a recurring rescue tactic for my taste.
As for the Hellhounds themselves, I’m a little iffy. I love their introduction in the last issue and their initial appearance here, as massive, eyeless doberman pinschers, racing through the woods, following their prey by the trail of mere thought. We even get a great backstory that they were real Terran dogs warped into their present state by the science and sorcery of the Wraiths, which had me looking forward to a huge battle where they’re pouncing and gnashing at Rom and his vulnerable human friends. But then there’s the change. We go from the great image of ferocious dogs to blank faced humanoids in purple spandex with little red riding hoods on their noggins. No gnashing teeth. They suddenly have eyes. They can suddenly fly and pass through physical matter and what the hell just happened to the great threat? They took frightening monsters and turned them into boring esper ninjas. I don’t understand this. At all. The climactic fight is fun and well staged and I love how the old standards of fire and electricity are used against them, but so much of their menace was lost the moment they took on a bipedal form. Where they too scary originally? Did the editors force them to tone it down? I don’t understand!
On the plus side, Steve finally steps up in his role as Rom’s newest sidekick. There’s no more shouty face and sexist rants, no more displays of disgusting macho Americanism, he’s now The Guy, the down-to-Earth everyman who finds his garage inhabited – and, soon after, wrecked – by a seven foot tall man of metal he can’t understand. I love his disbelief that Rom could dream, his worry about Rom charging up a massive electrical bill, the big hole in his wall, his quick thinking when a Hellhound suddenly dives his way, his shameless plug of a Bic lighter, and the final moment as he’s looking down at the motionless slab of Spaceknight, lying right outside his shop for anyone to see, and wondering what the hell he’s supposed to do now.
And Brandy! Brandy goes to work in this issue…… Because after spending her entire night wide awake, being kidnapped and tossed in the middle of a massive alien battle on a desert road, your first thought isn’t to call in sick for a day? Really?
And, wait, when Steve and Brandy run into their cop friend Artie (an Artie and an Archie in the same comic? Gah!), why are there no questions about the night before? Most of the cops who were out on that road recognized Steve and Brandy as Rom took off into the air with them under each arm, and not a single officer is checking up on their whereabouts the next day? Could Artie be *dramatic sting* a Wraith!? Or did the creators simply forget to pay off something they were oh so careful to setup? I guess the next few issues will tell.
This is an uneven issue. There’s great interaction between the main characters, the Wraith angle takes an interesting turn as they take out one of their own, I feel invested in the doomed fate of Archie, the climactic battle is rousing and clever, our heroes get some actual blood on their hands as they full on kill their foes, and it ends on one hell of a fun cliffhanger. But the Hellhounds, man. Why did they have to stop being actual hounds? Why are they suddenly ghost guys in spandex? It doesn’t make sense to shoot your big threat in the knee like that.
And did Rom ever get his Neutralizer back, or is it still stuck in a bubble of dark Ecto Cooler energy?