“Man is born free but is everywhere in chains”
The Wonder Twins are a fun bunch. Holding a special place in pop culture as figures of nostalgia, they’re broadly defined, loosely understood characters everyone has some degree of familiarity with. Mark Russell, Stephen Byrne and Dave Sharpe’s revamp of the classic duo takes full advantage of this fact and uses the surface level familiarity and pre-conceived notions to surprise, subvert and even charm the reader. But even if the audience has no context for the Wonder Twins, the book still very much works as a look into a brand new superhero duo.
Setting up the duo with Jayna as the quick-witted and shy introvert and Zan as the more foolish and overcompensating extrovert, the book is a classic comedy series. That is, on the surface. What could easily just be a few amusing gags and funny bits is a whole lot more. Russell’s known for his biting social commentary and regardless of the property, the man will find something to say about it. And thus, the Wonder Twins becomes a vehicle for exploring social ills through a unique lens: that of young immigrants from a better culture.
If #1 dealt with how much the adults and the generation in charge has messed things up and risked the very future of all those set to come after them, #2 builds on that. The debut issue established how desperately in need of a fresh perspective, especially that of youth, society really is. They can solve the problems we seemingly endlessly argue over, risking our very existence. And they can make it look easy. Here, Zan and Jayna get to visit prisons and get the earthly prison system. Lacking in funds for a proper school trip, their school takes them to a private prison facility–Lexicon. It’s a depressing place where in many who needn’t even be imprisoned are kept locked in, while those who ought to be walk freely on a consistent basis with relative ease due to how poorly everything works. And thus the topic of this installment of Wonder Twins: Prison Systems.
Prison systems is a fairly heavy topic and Byrne manages to craft an entire issue that doesn’t undercut the heavier moments of weight while delivering on all the humor and satire one expects from a book like this. The exaggerated moments of cartoonish fun and ridiculous expression are all there, but so are the more solemn moments. When a beat intends to land, it does. Byrne’s handle on tone is impressive and displays a fantastic mastery of storytelling. The book can go from Zan’s goofy excitement at a field trip to a horrific crime scene with a desperate addict and it all somehow fits and works, feeling meaningful and never tone-deaf. Dave Sharpe’s work here is also key, as every lean-looking swirly yell or punchline is used to great effect through his lettering. Without his keen sense for presentation and storytelling, the careful tonal balance that the book manages and achieves would be hard to pull off.
We begin with The Scrambler, a supervillain with the ability to transfer consciousnesses. Making way for his careful escape from a poorly managed private prison, the foe makes his way to the smaller leagues of supervillainy, the team where people go to prove themselves before they get a fair shake: The League of Annoyance. And its there in the league that we meet Baron Nightblood, a vampire who’s been clean and sober for a good month now, having gotten better. Mockingly nicknamed ‘Drunkula’, a title he loathes, he no longer wishes to harm people by sucking away their blood and thus murdering them, but is told he’s useless if he doesn’t do precisely that.
On the other hand, as the young Wonder Twins explore the prison systems, they see how truly broken things really are. People get thrown in. They break out. People go after them again and throw them in. They break out once more. Rinse repeat. It’s a tired pattern. But it’s also a superhero staple, being a key convention of the whole thing. It’s very much a tool and mechanism to keep a long-running, never-ending universe and story going, but if you pause for a moment and think about the horror of that, it’s dreadful. And Wonder Twins knows. Simultaneously a social commentary and a superhero deconstruction, it’s a book that laughs with us at the absurdity and then pauses to take in the pain and sadness that accompany the laugh.
“Is that all justice is on this planet? A euphemism for cheap labor?” and it’s a question worth pondering. Prisoners are exploited to serve people in people and the entire system is set up in such a way that it’s almost an ouroboros. There’s no end and it’s this cyclical trap that drags down everyone. Those who wish to be better aren’t truly allowed to be, because the system doesn’t care and puts other interests ahead of such things. And those who are better or might not even need prison are used as a cheap work force. It’s the kind of depressing but relevant commentary Russell made great use of in works like Prez and Flintstones and once more, it shines brightly.
Wonder Twins #2 is another remarkably clever, fun and sobering issue from the creative crew of Russell, Byrne and Sharpe. It pokes fun at things but never in a mean fashion, it often comes from an earnest place, a heart full of genuine care and it’s what makes the issue work. Recasting the classic young heroes as fallible heroes still making mistakes and learning, Russell brings an interesting perspective on the entire conceit of the superhero, while also making the work about something more. Ultimately, the fundamental appeal of the series is that Jayne and Zan aren’t Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. They’re us. We are all the Wonder Twins and it’s why it’s both amusing and tragic and also, strangely, beautiful. It means the future is in our hands and we can learn in order to make it better. Despite its deconstructionist core, there’s a thread of hope and optimism that runs through the work that gives it its lovely potency.