Weighing in at a whopping 137 pages, this sweeping book outlines an entire world history for an Earth populated by metahumans. It’s really the only product of its kind for ICONS. The first part of the book presents a timeline of metahuman activity in the world. It’s a lush, detailed history, although there are some inexplicable (even by comic book logic), such as Menagerie’s use of electronics in 14,000 BCE; this isn’t just an issue of knowledge (which can somewhat be waved away using superpowers) but of manufacturing infrastructure. Even so, the timeline is a fun read and a great background for a superhero campaign set in the players’ present or near future. I especially enjoyed the incorporation of developments on other planets and the way they are drawn into contact with Earth events. Naturally, the timeline incorporates material from Vigilance Press’s “Amazing Stories of World War II” series (but not its Cold War “Wargames” series), and even incorporates Jason Tondro, author of Vigilance Press’s “Field Guide to Superheroes” series, as a character within the storyline. The timeline ends in 2007, two years after the world’s known superheroes have driven off a briefly-successful alien invasion. That timeline, by the way, occupies over half of the entire book.
The second part of the book surveys a number of organizations composed of and/or relevant to metahumans. Naturally, USHER receives the most attention, and is pretty thoroughly explored.
Time travel and parallel dimensions have become standard tropes of superhero comics, and the USHER setting book includes a list and discussion of “known alternate timelines.” This does not, of course, preclude the existence of “unknown alternate timelines” for the GM to create!
The last 25 pages or so present character stats and stories for significant metahumans in the USHER setting. For some reason, this part of the book indulges—quite unnecessarily—in an abundance of profanity. The sudden explosion of expletives in this section really turned me off to the product. I can see no good reason why Old Glory and the Savant, two very important characters in the setting, should drop almost a dozen F-bombs between them over the course of half that many pages. With the turn of a page, the book goes from typical comic book fare to a Lewis Black routine. As the parent of two sons (ages fourteen and eight, as of this writing) who want to take turns GMing ICONS, I wish publishers would put some sort of warning label on products that go this direction, in sort of the same vein as the Marvel/MAX and DC/Vertigo distinctions, or like the voluntary “explicit” labels on music and podcasts. This isn’t enough of an issue to impact the star rating below, but a “heads up” to parents (and prudes) would be helpful.
Occasional glitches mar the production values here and there, or seem to. The note “Pic -- two b/w hero pics (photo style)” on p. 4 (of the PDF; the pages aren’t actually numbered) is confusing, and seems to be an editorial instruction to insert a picture—an instruction that wasn’t actually followed and ended up in the final edition. Such a long work presents many opportunities for grammatical errors and such; sure enough, it’s hard to go a page without encountering a misplaced comma, an appositional phrase lacking its final comma, an adjective used where an adverb is needed, a dangling modifier, inconsistent or incorrect capitalization, an anomalous line break (or missing blank line between paragraphs), an incomplete sentence, misspellings (even of proper nouns unique to the setting), and that sort of thing. Probably the most embarrassing mistake in the book appears in the organizations chapter, where USHER’s name is given in the relevant page title as the “United Headquarters for Emergency Response”—leaving out the “S” for “States.” On the other hand, Dan Houser’s artwork is excellent, as always, and other artists contribute some good material to the book as well.