Mark Millar experienced a renaissance in 2014. Starlight revealed a writer who was still passionate and earnest in his work. It suffered from none of the cynicism or mercenary motivations that have plagued his work for years. Then the long-awaited release of Jupiter’s Legacy #5 reinforced that notion, embracing the superhero genre like it was Bane on a bad night. Everything about Millarworld comics in 2014 marked a vast improvement upon, well, everything that had come before.
Chrononauts #1 makes 2015 appear to be the year Millar relapses into his old ways.
The issue centers around two scientists who have invented time travel suits together: Corbin Quinn, a workaholic without a wife or home to return to, and Danny Reilly, a good looking, fast-talking badboy. Those sparse descriptions provide every bit as much depth as all 24 pages of Chrononauts #1. Corbin and Danny aren’t characters; they’re archetypes designed for a casting director. It’s from this lack of depth that all of the other flaws in Millar’s script become apparent.
Danny is a startlingly superficial pretty boy focused purely on his appearance and attitude. When on national television preparing for the first manned space travel mission, he flexes and poses the entire time. While the comic is marketed as being focused on a bromance, his friendship with Corbin is without definition. Besides some friendly banter, they do not appear to be invested in one another’s lives or share any significant history outside of their work. Danny is Johnny Storm, if Johnny Storm were without redemptive qualities.
Whereas Danny can be written off as shallow comic relief, Corbin is written to be a source of pathos and drama, but is every bit as shallow. The sole significant detail about Corbin’s life, repeated throughout the first issue, is his relationship with his estranged wife. There is no more detail to their relationship beyond it having existed, her having left due to Corbin’s work, and Corbin’s inability to move past it. As a result the focal character of Chrononauts #1 is a roughly sketched outline instead of a realized individual.
With no reason to invest in either of the leading men, readers are cast adrift to look for other reasons to care about Chrononauts. The premise of time travel itself is hardly revolutionary and Millar provides no new twists to make it seem fresh. In fact, the premise of adventurers struggling to get home from another epoch in time is one of the most basic and hackneyed stories within the sub-genre. Quickly perusing the Wikipedia page for time travel stories reveals dozens of films and novels that are almost identical to what is provided in the first issue. There’s nothing wrong with using a classic trope of science fiction, but Millar provides nothing new to compel readers beyond this issue.
There are elements within Chrononauts #1 that almost seem interesting. Jets and cars have been randomly lost in time, only to be redscovered amongst the ruins of ancient civilizations. The discovery of time travel is publically broadcast. Yet these plot points, along with any character besides Danny or Corbin, are brushed over as quickly as possible. They are distractions from the generic action storyline that is setup and begins to unfold here.
This is all the more tragic because Sean Murphy just received a much-deserved Eisner Award for The Wake and is continuing to create work at that same exceedingly high level. Murphy seems to be elevated by high adventure concepts. Joe the Barbarian and The Wake provided him with scale and concepts that pushed his work to new heights. Whether it was in the form of global cataclysms or those of a more personal nature, both comics reveal dynamic, visceral art from a modern great. Chrononauts #1 provides the same high-level concepts and Murphy takes full advantage of that.
The settings of Chrononauts #1 are all wide in scope. Interior scenes occur in enormous laboratories spotted with cranes and a dozen scientists in white lab coats or within old world architecture designed to contain truly incredible artifacts. Exteriors are placed throughout history, primarily in fields of battle. Murphy reveals the Union marching into the Battle of Gettysburg. It is instantly recognizable and made to feel real, as if we are sitting alongside other characters watching it on an HD television set. He provides character to faces in the first several rows although they only exist for a single panel. It is this level of concern that sets Murphy apart from many of his peers.
For as excellent as his settings may be, the most thrilling panels are those detailing time travel. When the first satellite is launched back in time, it is clear that Murphy has spent a great deal of time designing how time travel ought to appear. When traveling through time, objects are given the thrust and fire of a rocket turned sideways. There is a clear sense of force and propulsion involved in each of Murphy’s drawings, but it is against a force besides gravity. This not only draws a connection to the early stages of the space race (a connection made bluntly in the script as well), but builds a sense of tension and power around this discovery. The visual metaphor of spiraling roman numerals within the very first panel lands more than a little on the nose, but it looks too good to be annoying.
Matt Hollingsworth, who also worked with Murphy on The Wake, brings a vibrant set of colors to these panels. The electricity that whorls around time travel seems to glow, pushing the boundaries of CMYK coloring. He uses a black background to create a stark contrast with the light and energy of these panels, centering every movement upon the action of time travel.
Murphy and Hollingsworth’s stunning followup to their artistic partnership isn’t enough to save Chrononauts #1 from itself. Despite the intensity and majesty brought to many of these pages, the comic never manages to feel truly exciting. Millar’s script reads like a first draft, like a comic made specifically to be optioned by Hollywood. It’s another cold, cynical story with artistic chops that far outpace the writing in the same tradition of Kick-Ass, The Secret Service, Nemesis, Supercrooks, and Wanted. An artist’s’ edition focusing on Murphy and Hollingsworth’s achievements or a film adaptation by Matthew Vaughn may be worth checking out, but Chrononauts #1 is barely a passable first issue by itself.