The world of fiction is full of hyper-competent scouting organizations. The Junior Woodchucks in Donald Duck comics are probably the gold standard of fake scouts — the Junior Woodchuck Handbook is filled with more practical information than even the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy — but fictionalized Boy and Girl Scouts are everywhere in popular culture. It's easy to see why the idea would be so pervasive: scouting offers a compelling combination of peril and competency. It at once gets innocent children into trouble and provides them with the tools to get out of trouble. That's practically the definition of a story.
Earlier this year, Boom! Studios published a gorgeous hardcover collection of the first volume of Black Badge, a comic by writer Matt Kindt, artist Tyler Jenkins, colorist Hilary Jenkins, and lettered by Jim Campbell. The premise is a clever twist on the idea of scouts in fiction: it's about a team of covert kid scouts who do black ops work that adults can't do.
When we first meet the team of Black Badge, they're sneaking into North Korea for an undercover mission. "They send us because we're kids," one of the scouts says, his eyes wide open as he tries and fails to get comfortable in his sleeping bag at night. He continues...
...Because it's the perfect cover....I mean, we're kids. We get lost all the time. We can't be tried as adults. We blend in. Who pays attention to a bunch of sight-seeing kids? But we're breaking like ten different laws. And not all countries take it easy on kids.
It's a credit to Tyler Jenkins that he can make this idea not feel sadistic. These aren't cute Precious Moments-style children. That monologue I quoted from above is delivered with the perfect ten-thousand-yard stare. The way the kids' jaws are set as they pass a sign warning, in Korean, that "Trespassers will be killed," indicates that these are not innocents. These kids have seen some shit.
Not that the kids deserve to be swept up into a world of violence. Kindt's dialogue feels ripped from films about new recruits swept into war — even though the kids talk like extras in Full Metal Jacket, there's an absurdity, and a darkness, to the fact that their lines are delivered with such callousness. Hard-bitten or not, they're still kids.
Hilary Jenkins's coloring is the secret weapon. The scouts often head into the wilderness, and Jenkins gives the surroundings a rich, watercolor feel. Without all the violence and the endangered children, these backgrounds could easily be postcards.
You get the sense by the end of Black Badge Volume 1 that the story is just getting started. (In fact, the second volume was just released yesterday.) We've barely scratched the surface of the organization's lore and legend — a huge part of any scouting experience — and someone in the scouting organization is racking up some serious payback for putting generations of kids in the line of fire. Not every serialized comic has a premise that feels both durable and promising, but Black Badge has the feel of a book that will only improve and deepen as the story continues. I can't wait to follow these kids further into the darkness.