I was attracted to "Rebels" because I generally feel like the opportunity to relive history through comic books is woefully underused. (Why do I have to play "Assassin's Creed" to get my French Revolution fix?) Plus, "Rebels" isn't even an alternate history (the most commonly used way to explore the past in comic books), like Vertigo's excellent "The Royals: Masters of War" was. Instead, Wood uses a fictional character, Seth, as our POV on the early days of the American Revolution. Now, Wood makes it clear from the outset that he doesn't exactly want students taking their history exams based on the narrative that he creates here. But, that said, I learned a lot about the Revolution that I didn't know in just these five issues. In that way, it does exactly what I wanted it to do, making history come alive in a way that comic books seem ideal as a medium to facilitate.
In terms of the story itself, It's important to establish from the outset that Seth is an odd character. My main problem with him is that both Wood and Mutti conspire to make him appear twice his age. Wood establishes in the first issue that he's a 17-year-old (I believe that he turns 18 years old in issue #2), despite the fact that Mutti frequently draws him as a full grown man, full beard and all.
However, it's not just an art problem; the fact that Seth is a teenager makes it difficult to believe at times that he can do what he does over the course of these five issues. I think Wood means to use Seth's remarkable capabilities as a way of showing how mature and tough backwoods boys are compared to their weaker city equivalents. (Henry Knox is portrayed as a fey and nervous Boston twit in issue #5.) But, as a backwood boy myself, I'd say that Wood is probably overselling that. In fact, he's falling into a trap that I was hoping that he'd avoid, where Seth has essentially become the Revolutionary War's equivalent of Forrest Gump: he's secretly determining the direction of the war with his actions. He's the one that clears the way for Allen and Arnold to take Fort Ticonderoga with his bravery at Grand Isle. He's the one that got Ticonderoga's guns to Boston. Instead of getting a bird's-eye view of the war from an infantryman, we're getting something close to an alternate history.
Now, it's not to say that regular soldiers don't affect the outcome of a war. After all, Knox didn't carry the guns over the mountains by himself. But, my point is that it's questionable if Seth can be considered a "regular soldier" at this point. After all, he's the one that sneaks into the enemy camp to steal their plans and then destroys the barge that scuttles these plans (to build a new fort at Button Mould Bay). He's pretty much the Batman of 1775.
Complicating matters, it's also not clear what his motivations are. He's married to Mercy by the end of the first issue, but then immediately abandons her for grand adventure. Is it really just about the adventure? He twice declines to spend time with her, immediately traveling with Allen after the events at Grand Isle at the end of issue #3 and declining to visit her when the going gets slow over the mountains in issue #5. Again, it's hard to believe that he's just doing it for the adventure? Seth seems excited throughout the series so far about the prospect of the Colonies seceding from Great Britain, but the downside of his well established laconicism is that we don't really know that for sure. He seems willing to sacrifice a lot, but Wood hasn't really told us why.
Something complicated my ability to get to know Seth is that I often feel like I'm missing clues that Wood is hiding in his script. For example, in issue #1, Seth gets back the grant papers that Mercy's father had signed over to the sheriff from Albany, but Wood never makes it clear how he accomplished that. After all, Seth merely convinces the locals that have taken over a courthouse to abandon it after the British soldiers killed a few of them trying to reclaim it. We learn that the sheriff was later arrested on murder charges, but Wood never actually makes it clear whether he (the sheriff) was actually on the scene (as far as I can tell). In other words, we never see a conversation that would result in Seth saying to the sheriff, "Hey, since I managed to help you, could you hand over a grant that someone signed over to you?" Even if we had seen that conversation, I still don't see why the sheriff would've done so. Similarly, in issue #5, we learn that George Washington had secretly put Seth in charge of the expedition to bring Ticonderoga's guns to Boston, despite the fact that he had specifically banned Ethan Allen from sending him on the mission in issue #4. Are we supposed to believe that Washington knew that Allen would defy him? If so, why go with the ruse in the first place? I don't know if Wood is being too subtle in conveying the hints that he wants me to understand or if I'm just too literal, but, either way, I've wound up scratching my head a few times.
In other words, so far, "Rebels" is a mixed bag. I'm seriously enjoying the tour through history that Wood is providing and, other than drawing Seth as a 34-year-old, Mutti does an amazing job of conveying the beauty of the Green Mountains, almost like they're a character in and of themselves. But, we've still got some kinks in the story-telling technique that made it difficult for me to engage as fully as I want to engage. I'm hoping that Wood can iron out those problems in upcoming issue, because I really want this series to work.
*** (three of five stars)