Christos Gage takes over the writing duties on the title with a one-shot story about a new class of Initiative recruits, and one cadet in particular.
As the bus rolls into Camp Hammond, we meet the new class. I guess the Initiative has already run through the promising candidates, because this bunch is looks bottom-of-the-barrel to me. We have this issue's protagonist, Boulder, a star-struck kid with the power of invulnerability, and Gorilla Girl, a girl who can turn herself into... wait for it... a gorilla. Along with them we've got four third-string supervillains: Prodigy, Annex, Batwing, and Sunstreak. Boulder has got a bad case of celebrity fever, seeing all these notorious supervillain badasses, but for my part I'm not even vaguely familiar with these guys.
Boulder may be enthusiastic, but he's also morbidly obese and has a poor grasp of tact. Neither quality endears him to the camp's staff, whom he manages to antagonize in record time. He interrupts Yellowjacket's welcome speech to ask him what it was like to pull Captain America out of the ice. Yellowjacket ignores the question, which everyone understands to be a civilized reaction to a display of poor taste, though readers of Secret Invasion #1 may suspect a different motive. The Taskmaster, disgusted by Boulder's weight problem, begins picking on him because of his weight, and gives him a new code name—"Butterball".
Names may be the only way to hurt the kid, because sticks and stones won't. He seems to be totally invulnerable, immune to every form of conventional damage. That's as much a hindrance as a help, though. His invulnerability also makes it impossible for him to train his body: he came to the camp fat, clumsy, weak, and slow, and it seems he'll always be that way. His tactlessness is unbearable, but he can't be punished with calisthenics or physical deprivation, and he's so used to social isolation he can't be punished with that either. What's a drill instructor to do?
Matters come to a head one evening when the cadets, desperate to blow off some steam, sneak off base to hold an impromptu beach party. Boulder goes along with it at first, but he quickly becomes uncomfortable. He can't swim; he can't drink (his powers keep him from getting drunk); and he can't even make out. Sunstreak, who can't turn her powers off, is desperate to make time with man whom she won't burn by touching, but Boulder, uncomfortable, refuses to participate. Is this because his invulnerable body can't be stimulated? Because he's unwilling to be used by Sunstreak, who's willing to gratify herself with his body but holds him in contempt? Because he's just a kid who's scared of older, aggressive women, or of sex in general? His reasons are left intriguingly ambiguous. Whatever his motives, he gives Sunstreak the brushoff, departs with the jeep, and runs smack into the Initiative search party sent after the AWOL cadets.
The search party consists of Yellowjacket, War Machine, Constrictor, and Taskmaster. That last one shouldn't have left the base: his former comrades in the supervillain community have a contract out on him for switching sides, and by leaving the base he's provided some would-be assassins a perfect chance to take him out. As the other cadets, hiding in the trees, watch, the killers—King Cobra, Mr. Hyde, Mauler, and Firebrand—make their move.
King Cobra and Firebrand? versus War Machine? Don't make me laugh. Indeed, the fight would be over quickly, except the AWOL recruits, eager for action, blunder into the battle, getting into their instructors' way. The supervillains, now aware they're outmatched, have one chance to make their escape... but man, do they blow it. Mauler grabs Boulder and threatens to murder him if the heroes make any attempt to stop them from killing Taskmaster and departing. Unintimidated, the heroes take the chance to, ahem, seize the initiative, and down the villains go.
Boulder saved the day, but inadvertently. The instructors make up their minds: while Emery's powers are undoubtedly useful, he himself is useless in a fight, and has no prospect of getting better. Dismissed from the Initiative, he packs his bags and prepares to leave. Yellowjacket and War Machine think they've done him a favour; he has a great future ahead in search-and-rescue work, or in hostile-environment exploration. Constrictor and Taskmaster, the former supervillains, know better: being taken out by losers like the New Warriors... or Ant-Man... or, in this case, the Mauler is hard on the ego. Knowing what the kid is going through, the two men repay Boulder for his help in a surprising and touching way: they pick a fight with him, which they deliberately lose. Boulder goes home, finally convinced he's got what it takes. He's got a photo—of himself, in costume, standing over a kayoed Taskmaster and Constrictor—to prove it.
I'm a big fan of done-in-ones. This issue demonstrates why. It tells a whole story, with new and interesting characters, about which it tells us everything that matters. It makes everything we need to know explicit, but leaves the things we don't need to know thought-provokingly ambiguous. And it also manages to move the larger story forward, but in such a way that it doesn't intrude on the foreground: after reading this issue we know to keep an eye on Prodigy, and that the relations between Stamford and Camp Hammond are going to come to a head soon.
I had some harsh words for Christos Gage based on last issue's hamfisted interventions in the storyline, but I take them all back. With this issue, Gage has earned the benefit of the doubt. I'm looking forward to see where we're going next.
This is as good as it gets, folks. Pick this one up if you can.
So... is Dan Slott off this title permanently? Inquiring minds want to know.