by Matthew Peckham
This week Matt takes the reboot of Brian Michael Bendis's award-winning Powers series to the mat, and gives
American Splendor artist Josh Neufeld's The Vagabonds a belated look.
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Let me get something off my chest. Powers has always been a tough buy for me. I missed the early hype, the rock star buzz, critical acclaim, awards ceremonies, etc., and found my way to it through the first trade collection last summer. Oh, it was well written, smartly drawn, a dash of noir, a dollop of comedy, the occasional "didn't see that coming" twist, but after polishing off "Who Killed Retro Girl?" I had one of those all too familiar "so... this was big and hyped and award-winning because?" moments, set it aside not a little sadly, and moved on to other things (at the time, Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell's Murder Mysteries, absolutely stunning by comparison).
Enter Icon, Marvel's new "projects outside the Marvel universe" line. You mix a little Marvel market share and advertising clout with a lesser known title written by an otherwise well-known elsewhere writer, and presto, it's a beautiful thing. Except unfortunately the first issue of Brian Michael Bendis's reboot of his crime-noir darling, about a couple of hard-boiled detectives covering the "powers" beat ("powers" refer to humans with, you guessed it, super powers) is starting off like another same-old-same-old saga about the "real, human" drama behind the traditional capes and tights.
Powers is a superhero tale about ordinary humans acting, well, ordinary, posed against a world of superhuman "powers" engaged in the various things superheroes do. The main characters are homicide detectives Christian Walker (a former "power" himself) and Deena Pilgrim. Inexhaustibly uncomfortable around each other, this unlikely, not-so-dynamic duo make their way through murky alleyways, gritty cityscapes, and endless repartee as the mysteries unfold and the bodies pile up. The debut Icon issue picks up six months after Deena Pilgrim was nearly killed in an encounter "with a once great superhero turned genocidal maniac" (hey, that never happens!). The political powers... err... governments of the world react by uniting behind a declaration outlawing the use of all powers, good or ill. The potential for intriguing friction is excellent: Will they or won't they? What happens if they do? Who's going to stop them? Will they blow us all to Kingdom Come? Who watches the Watchmen???
The story in the first issue is mid-grade setup, complete with "cliffhanger" ending, printed on a caliber of paper that makes most indie books look sharp. Everything is very dark, often grainy (not in a good way), and occasionally blurred (again, not intentionally, and certainly not happily). The net effect is something that resembles the look and feel of those old WB television comic tie-ins, Batman Beyond and the like. Out: the slick noir feel of the Image line; in: murky color-copy quality pages for $2.95 a pop. Houston, we have a problem. Still, Bendis is a highly reliable scribe, and while there are plenty of moments here you could charge as being a bit empty, a tad existentially unnecessary, you can never accuse the guy of writing poorly. Bendis's great knack, aside from a superhuman ability to juggle a jillion books and stories a month, is to get inside the little nonsense moments of our lives through pitter-patter dialogue and those infamous Bendis repeat frames, where the cinematic element of sequential silence says more than a posed expression or a tortured phrase ever could. Nice as these moments are here (Kutter's exchange with his girlfriend, Walker and Pilgrim's car talk, and an incredible Ellisian -- as in Warren -- visual montage of a decapitation that uses cinematic foreground and background focus techniques to slam home the point), the overall feel of this one is lackluster.
So, in case you're wondering, I'm disappointed with Icon's Powers #1, but just so you don't mistake me for one of these anti-mister-popularity-is-hip critics, know that I consider Bendis's work on Daredevil to be not only hands-down the stuff he's going to be remembered for, but quite possibly some of the best writing on any tights book (for any publisher), ever. It's largely because of my experience with Bendis on that book, that I'm taking the hard line on this one, and crossing my fingers that he'll hit a pop-fly and startle me back into line in an issue or two.
Put it another way, the new Powers is an edgy book for the average comic reader who hasn't bothered to dig into the cool underground, alternative, indie stuff that's been out there for years, sort of a way of saying "it's okay to read this, because the guy writing Ultimate Spider-Man is behind it so it must be cool and not some lame-o postmodern deconstructionist smack." It's also, now that I think about it, a nice stepping stone for those weaned on the Ultimate-whatever club, looking for something a little deeper, a little more nuanced, as long as it doesn't scare them away with its downturn in publishing quality and mediocre opening salvo.
Vagabond, n. One who wanders from place to place, having no fixed dwelling, or not abiding in it, and usually without the means of honest livelihood; a vagrant; a tramp; hence, a worthless person; a rascal.Josh Neufeld, sometime illustrator for Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, and an accomplished writer in his own right, has pulled together a collection of autobiographical stories in a few dozen pages that are riveting, handsomely illustrated, and experientially fascinating. The Vagabonds is a solo sequel to Keyhole (which I have not yet read, but looks to be collected in the forthcoming A Few Perfect Hours), a collection of shorts detailing the international exploits of Neufeld and his girlfriend Sari. In "Tribal Rituals, Part I: On a Mission," the couple are backpacking their way through Thailand and, with a month left on their visas, read about something called Loy Krathong (loy, meaning "to send adrift," and krathong, meaning "a little basket-like boat containing small flowers and other offerings,") described in their travel guide as a "Buddhist Full Moon Festival." Curiosity piqued (and looking for something less touristy), the two aim for northeast Thailand and an "authentic" cultural experience. When they arrive, they're shunned by the locals, and quickly whisked off to a local mission run by a family of Baptist fundamentalists. Uncomfortable and conflicted, Josh and Sari manage to acquiesce long enough to see the Loy Krathong festival, discovering like so many travelers abroad, that the destination is never quite what it appears to be in travel guides and glossy pamphlets.
Neufeld seems at first to be doing what a lot of auto-biographical writers resort to in an attempt to maintain a kind of "life unscripted" fidelity; that is, they string together relatively uninteresting events and insights -- often boringly honest. But after just a few pages of The Vagabonds, Neufeld's story slips into an intriguing rhythm. It begins around the time Josh and Sari first encounter the missionary family, and continues to the Thai karaoke singer covering "We Are the World" at the end. Using cream paper washed in ink tones of light and dark green, Neufeld moves the first story along at a relatively brisk pace, pausing briefly in panels here and there to meditate on something uncomfortable or humorous. There are no real profundities or cathartic plot-twists, but by the end, it's as if Neufeld has managed to reach out from some dog-eared copy of a Lonely Planet travel guide, and gently conveyed a paradoxical experience without the usual prickly, acidulous textures you'll find in other subtle indictments of American zealotry abroad.
Complimenting the first story are a few flash tales, like "From the Asylum" which endearingly chronicles one of Neufeld's obsessive-compulsive teenage habits (not the universal one you're thinking of), and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is a clever piece of autobiographical pulp fiction (or is it?). There's a funny tribute to Neufeld's childhood adoration of Belgian cartoonist George Remi (creator of the infamous comic strip Tintin) and "Song for September 11th" plays a familiar Broadway tune over Neufeld's personal experience of 9/11 that works almost as well in two-dimension sequence as Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World" in the movie Good Morning, Vietnam.
It is too bad that the technical definition, no doubt invoked with relish and irony, of the word vagabond applies so fittingly to the status of alternative comics creators. It is precisely this sort of storytelling the medium needs more of, as it continues (like so-called "genre" fiction in prose, or jazz in music before it) to struggle to escape the iron grip of a culture that equates comics with the opposite "of honest livelihood." In the meantime, it is artists in the cultural margins like Neufeld who will be remembered for their contributions and tenacity, when the long climb into the light of recognition concludes.
You can read more about Josh and his work, or order this book and others on his web site.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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