If I ever were to read a comic book, it might be this one.
--Sarah Michelle Gellar, on Freshmen
Hugh Sterbakov and Seth Green conceived of Freshmen, and Top Cow/Image Comics published six issues as a mini-series between August 2005 and March 2006. A trade paperback was released in April, and second series, some time later.
Created by Hugh Sterbakov and Seth Green
Writer: Hugh Sterbakov
Artists: Leonard Kirk, Andrew Pepoy, Tyson Wengler
Various artists worked on the covers.
A group of university frosh and the school mascot receive superpowers as a result of one of those accidents of comic book science. They must deal with their new abilities—- and the inevitable world-threatening menace. Superheroes have always been about wish-fulfillment, and the Freshmen's new powers relate to what each member happened to be thinking when the accident occured.
Their attempts to learn more about their origins bring them into contact with a brilliant but slightly deranged science professor, who built a device which he hoped would cure all diseases. Despite his altruistic goals, he hides secrets of his own, and these provide the impetus for our group to begin acting like a team of superheroes.
We’ve seen this before: second-banana heroes get played for laughs, but finally come together and save the day. The college campus setting provides an interesting twist. We’re always aware of the parodic and satiric elements, but they’ve been drawn from reality. Aspects of campus life look like this, and so do many of the students. I think every frosh class has a braniac-turned-party-animal like Elwood. Many students will recognize the unregistered boy- or girlfriend who might as well be taking classes. Some, unfortunately, will be familiar with the likes of the AXP Boys, sadistic jerks who still haven’t outgrown their high school freshman perceptions of the world. The artists also do a fine job of depicting a slightly skewered college experience.
Top Cow's take on goofball heroes is not original in the way Supersnipe and the Red Tornado were, it lacks the heart and class awareness of Mystery Men, and it isn't as off-the-wall as Howard the Duck or as funny as Great Lakes Avengers. Despite some awkward handling-- a few of the characters, obviously intended for future issues, only clutter the plot-- the Freshmen tells its story with wit and affection. This mix of silliness, social commentary (well, sort of), and superheroics won't likely make your best-of-the-year list, but it's an entertaining comic.
One girl hasn’t arrived yet. I already like her best.
Much of Freshmen's tone, appeal, and flaws can be discovered by examining the team members:
Kenneth "Norrin" Weismeyer aka Wannabe
The comic book fanboy of the group, and the only one who seriously dreams about being a super hero, he wanders out for pizza just before the fateful accident, and receives no heightened abilities. He makes himself into a kind of tenth-rate Batman, and takes it upon himself to lead the team. Initially, he brings himself only grief. The others don't take him seriously, and find the fact that he already has a costume slightly disturbing.
To the writer's credit Norrin hasn’t been written entirely over the top, and as a result he’s both funnier and more interesting than he might have been. The character is this comic's audience; the older reader who obsesses over four-color lore and trivia. He perhaps was not the most popular kid in school, but has social skills, and he finds laudable values and inspiration alongside the pure escapism of his heroes' adventures.
Annalee Rogers aka The Puppeteer
An American of Russian ancestry, beautiful, intelligent Annalee narrates the first issue, and frequently becomes the point-of-view character. She's an attractive outsider, an intellectual mystified by typical human behaviour, and baffled by the attitudes she finds among her fellow undergraduates. She desires insight into human behaviour and gains the ability to do so; her superpower allows her to enter another's thoughts and control their actions.
She actually works as a serious character in a deliberately goofy series, and the story’s most powerful scenes, where she enters Paula "the Seductress" Pophouse’s mind, ring true.
Freese College's animal mascot was dumped into the future Freshmen's rooms as one of a series of pranks. He gains the intelligence he always wanted, and quickly becomes the intellect of the group. Despite a mind that now grasps the most complex intricacies of quantum physics, he remains obsessed with dam-building.
Liam Adams aka The Quaker
Liam is the story's fish out of water. The first member of his Amish family to leave their small Pennsylvania village, he finds modern technology surprising and more than a little frightening. The machine which gives him the power to start tremors with his belly is just one more technological wonder. Despite the story's humorous nature, and the many amusing moments which befall this character, Freshmen never mocks his faith. Liam's belief in the Bible guides him. He initially avoids using his power, because he does not want to harm others, and because he believes that power must be handled responsibly. In the end, those same principles lead him to take decisive action when his friends most need his help.
Paula Pophouse aka The Seductress
A lovelorn, romantic teen, Paula tries to remain happy despite weight issues that have made her the target of abuse. She has never dated, though that has as much to do with her low self-esteem as her lack of conventional beauty. She gains what she has always wanted: the ability to make others fall in love with her. She quickly learns to be careful about wishes.
The story's most serious scenes occur in the final two issues. Paula has lapsed into a coma after being injured in battle, and the Puppeteer enters her mind to try to wake her. We realize that, deep inside, Paula no longer wants to face a world that rejects her. While the story never entirely leaves the humor behind, Sterbakov writes this section with sensitivity, and it prepares us for the final issue's message of friendship and tolerance.
Elwood Johns aka The Intoxicator
Most university graduates knew someone like this; he's the high school nerd who cuts loose and becomes a party animal once he leaves home. Johns, seriously drunk when the accident occurs, develops the ability to transfer his altered states of consciousness to others by burping at them. Since he has to be drunk or hungover in order to use his abilities, his grades slide precipitously.
Renee Bellochio aka the Puller and Brady Lee aka the Pusher, collectively known as The Drama Twins, prove invaluable to the team-- when they manage to work together. Jersey Party Girl Renee aspires to rise above her environment, and has the intellectual ability to do so. Her boyfriend, Brady, shows few signs of intellect. He's not even a student at Freese; he just followed Renee there. Their volatile relationship has them alternatively fighting and making out. They develop telekinesis: he can push objects, and she can pull them. However, they have to be in physical contact with each other for their powers to work.
Charles Levy aka Green Thumb
A vegan member of Greenpeace, Levy longs to hear the language of nature. He gets his wish, and discovers that he can hear the--endless-- chatter of plants. This provides for a number of humorous moments, but it also occasionally helps the group. It turns out that house plants can be quite informative.
His powers pose a problem for his survival. Levy doesn't eat animal products. He now doesn't want to eat plants, either.
Jacques Lalleaux aka The Squirrel
Lallaeaux, a French exchange student, exhibits the womanizing and snobbery American stereotype associates with his nation. For fairly arbitrary reasons he was obsessing on a squirrel when the accident occurred. Slowly, he becomes more like the rodent. The character mostly functions as a bad joke and a plot device. He adds very little to the group itself.
Three characters serve no purpose. The angry girl, Lisa, aka Cacophony, at least exits quickly. An aspiring musician, she gains the ability to mimic any sound she hears. She leaves college and appears on American Idol, using her abilities to become a celebrity.
Two others pose a problem. Jimmy aka Post-It gains the ability to attract things, magnet-like. He gets written out of the story for no really good reason until the final issue. Ray aka Long Dong, brutally harassed by frat boys and self-conscious about his masculine shortcomings, finds a particular masculine part of his anatomy enhanced after the accident. He gets used as a running joke for the remainder of the story. The member in question remains off-panel and we don't learn exactly how long it gets, but you can guess how long this particular joke remains funny. Particularly given the memorable and disturbing role the character plays in the first issue, he needed to become something other than an overextended and strained gag.
A second series has since appeared. It will be interesting to see if the Freshmen graduate to become a memorable part of the comic-book landscape.