A paramedic who needs to fight every twenty-four hours to live! A blind artist with power over the fires of creation! A viking princess! An orck warrior older than humanity! A chthonic cowboy! Hawkman! These are just some of the cast members of The Unexpected, a short-lived ongoing comic from DC Comics written by Steve Orlando with art by Ryan Sook, Cary Nord and Ronan Cliquet as part of “The New Age of Heroes” initiative which span out of Dark Nights: Metal. One of the highest concept superhero comics of the 2010s, The Unexpected went largely overlooked at the time and is in many ways a flawed comic, but it incorporates new concepts into the larger shared DC Universe in ways that I really loved.
“The New Age of Heroes” was a good idea on paper, but perhaps not as successful as the creative forces behind it wanted it to be. The idea was to launch a slate of brand new comics and characters out of Dark Nights: Metal as a way to bring some fresh blood into the DC Universe. Titles like Silencer, Damage and Sideways introduced brand new characters to the DCU while others like The Terrifics and New Challengers reinvented established DC characters and concepts in new ways.
The Unexpected was somewhat a combination of both approaches. The title of the comic had already been used by DC in the late-sixties and early-seventies for a horror and mystery anthology series. The most notable character from the original volume, which was retitled as from Tales of the Unexpected from #105, would likely be Madame Xanadu but she doesn’t make an appearance in this new series. Instead, 2018’s revival of The Unexpected was ostensibly a team book; the series was advertised as being about a group of people who stop crossover event sized threats from happening before they spread out to every other title but in practice the comic turned out to be something quite different.
At the heart — no pun intended, though you won’t know why that’s a pun yet — of The Unexpected is Janet Fals aka Firebrand. There have been several Firebrands throughout DC’s history, but Janet was a brand new character unrelated to any of them. Janet was a paramedic working in Gotham City during Dark Nights: Metal and ended up dying in the attack by the Dark Multiverse. However, her military father gave her body to the shady contractors “Civil Solutions” who replaced her heart with something called The Conflict Engine. Now, Janet needs to get into a fight every twenty four hours in order to feed The Conflict Engine while trying to maintain as much of a civilian life as she can outside of metahuman brawls.
The other main character of The Unexpected is Neon The Unknown, formerly a celebrity artist by the name of Colin Nomi. Seeking inspiration, Nomi performed a rite which gave him brief access to The World Forge — a concept introduced in Dark Nights: Metal, where new worlds are born and either ascend into the larger multiversal structure or are cast down into the Dark Multiverse to die. That brief moment cost Colin his sight but granted him control of The Fires of Creation, which allowed him to bend mortal materials to his will. Along with his allies Viking Judge and Ascendent, Neon The Unknown set out to defend the multiverse from threats the regular hero set didn’t even know were a problem.
Neon’s dark counterpart is Alden Quench, a drifter known as The Bad Samaritan who is empowered by The Fires of Creation’s opposing force; The Fires of Destruction. Similarly to Neon The Unknown, The Bad Samaritan tried to witness the source of creation and was cursed by his hubris. Now, he is driven by a nagging pain in his mind inflicted by a dark master — who we’ll get to shortly — and that regularly brings him into contact with Neon The Unknown and The Unexpected. It’s his desire to acquire The Conflict Engine that leads him to find Firebrand in the first place and brings all of these characters together, kicking off a mad scramble to save the multiverse.
The driving story force of The Unexpected is a radioactive Nth Metal isotope that could go off at any moment and puncture the multiverse like a water balloon and Neon’s team’s journey to render it inert takes them all across the DC Universe from Gotham City to Blackhawk Island to Castle Frankenstein, all while being hunted by the Thanagarian monster, Onimar Synn. The world-hopping nature of The Unexpected’s story allows each issue to kind of serve as a one-shot set in different parts of the larger DC Universe, just as the original The Unexpected volume was an anthology highlighting different characters and genres. One issue they’re teaming with The Huntress and The Signal in Gotham City, another they’re off to Monster Valley on the advice of June Robbins of the Challengers of the Unknown.
The Unexpected really leans into the high concept areas of the DC Universe in ways I really enjoy, but I think that might ultimately be the downfall of the series. It’s already kind of handicapped by being about all-new characters, which can be a tough sell to a wary reader, but then when it starts dealing with multiversal structures and stuff like that, it can be a bit alienating. The concept of The World Forge plays a big part in The Unexpected’s story and I’d hazard a guess that it wasn’t high up on many readers lists of “things from Dark Nights: Metal we want to see more of.”
Then, there’s the Final Crisis of it all. It’s seeded throughout the first half of The Unexpected’s eight issue run but the big threat of the final few issues is Mandrakk, the Dark Monitor who turns out to be the final threat of Final Crisis. I love Mandrakk and I was super stoked to see him show up again but again, it’s not a radio-friendly unit shifter of a concept. I love the ways that The Unexpected plays with the larger DC Universe but I think ultimately it might have been its downfall and if you compare it with Steve Orlando’s most recent superhero work, it’s a great example of why you should save your best ideas for creator owned titles.
Orlando is now working on a new superhero title which very much feels in the vein of The Unexpected but without the constraints of a work-for-hire shared universe. Commanders in Crisis by Orlando, Francesco Carotenuto and Fabio Amelia is a similarly high concept superhero title with inventive takes on new heroes like Originator, whose powers depend on new words she invents or Prizefighter, a Superman analogue that’s only as strong as he believes himself to be. Commanders in Crisis feels like a vehicle for Orlando to cut loose with every stray idea he’s ever had for superhero comics and as he’s one of my favourite superhero comic creators of the last five years, it’s been a joy to read.
The area where I find The Unexpected most lacking is unfortunately in the art department; The New Age of Heroes was touted as being an art-first initiative with big names like John Romita Jr, Jim Lee and Ivan Reis recruited for the titles and given top billing on the covers over their writer colleagues, which hadn’t really been done as standard since the Image Comics heyday of the early-90s. While these A-List artists helped kickstart these new titles, very quickly, you start to see those artists leave the books for “more important” comics and The Unexpected is no different.
Originally announced as being by Orland and Ryan Sook, Sook only pencils a handful of pages in the first issue with Cary Nord picking up the slack. I’ve been a fan of Nord’s work before on titles like Ultimate Human and X-O Manowar but here it just feels rushed and uninspired. The majority of the art on The Unexpected whether it be by Nord, Ronan Cliquet or Yvel Guichet feels like the ultimate example of “DC House Style” and it unfortunately drags down the high concept ideas playing out on the page.
The Unexpected is a good comic and I do recommend it, but you should go into it wary that it might not be for you. It’s rare that a comic hits my buttons as accurately as The Unexpected does in its best moments, but your buttons might be located in different places than my buttons. The metaphor is getting away from me. If you’re a Morrisonian devotee willing to give some new characters a chance, then The Unexpected is an absolute treat. I wish it got a fairer shake and fifty more issues, but that’s not the comic industry we’re all faithlessly shackled to unfortunately.