Tuesday, May 11, 2010

avant-garde superheroics

The comic book medium made its name with the superhero genre. As such, even "artistic" or "avant-garde" comics owe history and cache to the superhero. One strategy for paying homage to the genre and developing the expressive power at the same time, is to apply cutting-edge narrative and artistic techniques to the superhero genre. Here are three examples.

Eightball #23: The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes

Clowes' The Death Ray follows on the heels of a long (postmodern) tradition of asking what would happen if there were superheroes in the "real" world? Miller's The Dark Knight Returns allowed a famous franchise property to age. Moore's Watchmen allowed a variety of typical superhero-types to influence the course of twentieth century politics and technology. More recently (and certainly undeserved of a mention in the same breath as the previous two monoliths) Millar's Kick-Ass updates the "bring superheroes into reality" strategy by depicting their appearance on youtube and facebook.

Each of these works touches on the moral ambiguity of the superheroic vigilante, the topic which drives Clowes' contribution to the genre. However, in The Death Ray superheroics constitute a brief incident in the lifetime of a man who discovers he possess super powers. More than heroic deeds, we see awkward familial relationships and a potent fable of the dangers of absolute mortal power in the hands of a petty and alienated teenage misfit.

In a surreal commentary on the moral ambiguity inherent in super power itself, the protagonist's powers are triggered by nicotine, imbuing him with superhuman strength (and ultimate power over the existence of objects around him) whenever he smokes a cigarette.

In fact, despite the superhero imagery, its somewhat unclear whether the "hero" Andy ever actually dresses in a costume more than once or twice. Many inserts of superheroics depict his fantasies rather than the actuality of his actions. Significantly, however, Andy wears his Death Ray costume during one of the most morally ambiguous incidents of all, when he uses his powers to zap out of existence the subject of an acquaintance's petty squabble (ostensibly "for America").

Super F*ckers by James Kolchaka

Kolchaka's Super F*ckers undermines the purity of the superhero mythos from an entirely different direction, layering superhero tropes with obscenity, abuse, and moral depravity of a bold and unabashed variety.

Kolchaka's primitive style and dayglow colors radiate drug abuse, sex, and gory violence at the hands of costumed heroes characterized by selfishness, vanity, and cruelty. The universe-saving adventures of this team are referenced but never depicted. Instead, while their leader SUPERDAN is trapped in "Dimension Zero," we witness the drug-addled antics of Jack Krak as he curses at, pisses on, dismembers, and snorts everything around him.

The most significant plot thread throughout the rambling story is the discovery by Jack and his buddies that the slime secreted by their teammate Grotus (who looks like a two pound lump of snot) has hallucinogenic properties. The ensuing orgy of substance abuse accelerates throughout the ups and downs of team politics.

Despite the revolting subject matter, the psychedelic excess of Super F*ckers elevates its humor to the sublime, with the whole panorama of deadbeat teenage cruelty refracted through the funhouse mirror of superheroics.

Powr Mastrs by C.F.

Powr Mastrs is a surreal epic which takes superpowers, secret identities, and the bizarre pseudo-science of which most origin stories are made and transports them to a fantastical environment of conflict and discovery.

A vast cast of characters wander through awkward encounters, psychedelic imagery, and uncomfortable revelations. Sometimes the conversations veer toward mumblecore, at other times we see iconic battles between good and evil. The art ranges from primitive scratches to precise landscapes.

In the second volume, occasional watercolors imbue some scenes with a vivid beauty which contrasts sharply with the stark linework of the rest of the story.

Unlike The Death Ray and Super F*ckers which extend and comment upon the superhero mythos, Powr Mastrs takes the excess of superheroic stories past as license to create an entire world of the superpowered. But within this environment of power and novelty, customs, drama, and flirtations suitable for superbeings emerge as well as the complex familial dramas which characterize any society.

The shifting tone of the emotional landscape in Powr Mastrs is illustrated by a shifting style. Sometimes C.F.'s line borders on the scribbling of a child, just as some characters' interactions are naive and confused. Whenever powers emerge, however, his line coalesces into a smooth, almost moebius-esque, elegance. Consequently, the use of superpowers literally changes the environment and the world these violent urchins inhabit oozes magic and fragility.

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