Derek Mainhart: Friends, mutants and aliens, lend me your ears! Join us as we travel back to the future, to a time when heroes roamed the sky and science paved the way for a better tomorrow! A time of ancient robots and futuristic gladiators! Atomic monkeys and electric guitars! Beckoned by the spark of a holographic welder’s torch, we hurtle forward into history to meet our retro-destiny! Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Future Past…
A 1930s pulp hero created in the 1980s and revived in the 2000s? Who better to exemplify nostalgia for an innocent era that never was than The Rocketeer? Like his contemporary Depression-era adventurer, Indiana Jones, Dave Stevens’ legendary creation peddled in, and paid homage to, the wanton exuberance of classic B-movie serials. Stevens’ buoyant, uncynical cliffhangers (hell, the lead character’s name is Cliff) combined with his lush illustration (its classic draftsmenship itself like a relic from a bygone era) to inspire a devoted cult following. And let’s not forget his masterstroke; making pin-up queen, Betty Page, Cliff’s girlfriend. Stevens’ work was so accomplished, it seemed superfluous for anyone else to try their hand at the character, even after his untimely death in 2008.
Some characters however, are simply too good to fade away. Happily IDW has relaunched The Rocketeer, giving the hero his due: first in an anthology series featuring top-flight creators, then in a four-issue mini by creative team par excellence, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. Now we have Roger Langridge and J Bone on The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror. Folks, this may be the best new Rocketeer yarn yet. The previous stories tried (and succeeded to various degrees) to recapture the inherent nostalgia of the character via an innocent, never-say-die tone indicative of 1930s and ’40s Americana, perhaps casting it against a major historical backdrop like, say, WWII. Well Langridge goes five steps further and fully immerses him in the era. This should perhaps come as no surprise from a writer whose past work has encompassed everything from the slapstick of early cinema (Fred the Clown, hysterical) to Carrollian nonsense (Snarked!, inspired) to his current work, the vaudevillian, high-seas adventures of Popeye (a gift to anyone with an appreciation for the history of the medium). For The Rocketeer, he’s not satisfied to present his tale in a typical one-size-fits-all B-movie slang; rather he seems conversant in a variety of era-specific patois and idiom. Further, he entangles our hero with fictional characters specific to that time: first, the minions of Doc Savage (that greatest of pulp heroes), and then, seemingly apropos of nothing, Nick and Nora (and Asta!) from the venerated Thin Man film series. Between this and the multitude of references to old movies and forgotten actors (the narrator himself seems to be one), this book is a dream for lovers of pulp and classic Hollywood. It would be right at home being introduced by Robert Osborne on TCM. And let’s not forget J Bone’s pitch-perfect art. His bold, cartoony rendering immediately cues dirigibles, De Soto’s and dames. His work stands well with Darwyn Cooke and Jeff Smith (one wishes he was handling the covers as well; nothing against the legendary Walt Simonson, but his style, all harsh angles and frenetic line, is simply a poor fit – my one quibble). All in all Langridge and Bone are crafting a Rocketeer comic that is not only worthy of its legacy, but builds on it. Somewhere, I daresay, Dave Stevens is smiling.
Scott Carney: Geez, yeah, all that and– OK, who am I kidding? I’m not as tuned into the history of The Rocketeer as you are. (Is anyone?) In fact, my first experience with the character was The Cargo of Doom.
DM: Oh, trust me; there are people who know way more about The Rocketeer than I do. What about the movie? Ring a bell?
SC: There was a movie?
DM: I can’t even.
SC: No, really, I liked what Waid and Samnee did in their mini. If I’m being honest, I bought the series for them; and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed; but I wasn’t all of a sudden a Rocketeer fan. As far as I was concerned, it was an act of loyalty–to the creators; and if they were to take on the character again, I’d be there. Wasn’t planning on ever following the further adventures of Cliff Secord. In fact, I passed on this one–initially, anyway. You recommended it–emphatically, if I’m remembering correctly–so I picked it up. Dude, you were so right. What a good time! Through two, I’m thinking, like you, that Hollywood Horror is at a whole other level, thanks to Langridge’s vision and Bone’s fleshing it all out.
DM: Next up in our Canyon of Heroes is Archer and Armstrong #8 (Valiant). Their centuries-spanning pseudo-epic is rich in taste but refreshingly light in calories. Part buddy-story, part sibling-rivalry, part worldwide-conspiracy, this frothy fable features improbable adventure and high satire. It’s like The Da Vicni Code as written by Terry Pratchett. Writer Fred Van Lente (with solid art by Emanuela Lupacchino and Guillermo Ortego) garnishes the high-octane action with Big Ideas and comedic flourish, never failing to entertain. His one misstep here though; in an attempt to counter the usual lighthearted tone with some emotional heft, he has the villain speak of his role in an event that is very like a recent national tragedy. My immediate reaction, for what it’s worth, was a discomfiting “too soon.” Again, this is a quibble, lasting as it does for all of one panel. Month in, month out, we write about the pleasures delivered by Van Lente & Co.’s work on this book. So pick the damn thing up, if you haven’t already.
Scott Carney: I know you’re glad I picked up Buddy Cops (Dark Horse) for you after your initial pass.
Buddy Cops #1
DM: Yeah it was all right I guess…
SC: “All right”? That’s quite an understatement, my friend! Sure, Buddy Cops–an hilarious one-shot from a publisher that has been making its name seem more and more ironic with each passing week–seemed to come out of nowhere. In fact, it was an “Oh, and by the way” recommendation from one of my shop guys. (That’s right: I have more than one.) There was room enough in my bag and a few bucks still smoldering in my pocket, so I went for it; and I was not disappointed. As promised, Nate Crosby and Evan Shaner deliver “da muthaf***in’ ruckus” in this crack-a-panel homage-slash-send up of the buddy cop genre. The ready-to-rumble, Wu-Tang spoutin’ Uranus and the electrode-in-the-mud T.A.Z.E.R. are on the case–three of ’em, in fact–and take on outrageous creatures (including, a ninety-foot-tall orangutan in a monk’s robe, who professes precariously, “da lord iss my sligshot,” while sitting atop a church) and social issues (Gay marriage! Arbortion!) in one giant “monsterswat!” They are Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon; they are Carter and Lee from Rush Hour; they are Hammond and Cates from 48 Hours; they are Starsky and Hutch from, well, Starsky & Hutch–the T.V. show, dammit! But despite their being so obviously and so proudly derivative, they’re the freshest pair to hit the funny pages in recent memory. I laughed out loud and profess my love for this book even louder! And, borrowing from George Costanza, I say this with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality: I hope this isn’t the last I’ll get to see of Uranus.
DM: Ok, ok, it was funny. Yeesh! Even so, it wasn’t even the funniest book this week, at least for my money.
SC: Keep your dirty money!
DM: Would that I could. But the biggest barrel o’ laffs this week was Bravest Warriors #6 (kaboom!). This time out, our future science heroes are knee-deep in bazookas, beauty pageants and brain transplants; and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. Joey Comeau’s story takes beloved sci-fi tropes and makes mincemeat out of them. And having his hysterically depraved scenarios drawn by Mike Holmes in the faux-naive, child-friendly style of Adventure Time (saturated in pretty, pretty colors by Lisa Moore) just makes the whole thing seem so, so wrong. (Ditto Ryan Pequin’s giggle-inducing back-up story). The absurdity in this book is so ridiculous, it’s almost profound.
Of course the book that did more than any to bring science adventurers to the modern era was Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four. Emphasis on mod. After fifty-plus years of history, it’s easy to forget that these staples of the spinner rack were once downright cutting edge. As Pop Art was breaking the boundaries between ‘fine’ and ‘low’ art, Kirby was exploding the restrictive design of the comics page. In the midst of the Space Race, the costumed quartet were frequent fliers. And at the height of the British Invasion, Lee and Kirby gave comics its own Fab Four. Those early issues still crackle with energy and freshness. As the years wore on however, FF inevitably transitioned from zeitgeist to nostalgia, revolutionary to venerable.
Now Eric Stephenson and Nate Bellegarde have dusted off the elements that made FF great and reconfigured them (along with a whole bunch of other stuff) to create Nowhere Men (Image), a decidedly 21st century comic. The story (with the tagline ‘Science is the New Rock-N-Roll’) concerns four celebrity scientists (bearing more than a passing resemblance to The Beatles) who banded together in the ’60s, forming a mega-conglomerate called World Corp dedicated to the betterment of mankind. In the present however, they’ve long since gone their separate ways, due to ego clashes, differing visions, (sound familiar?) as well as mysterious circumstances that haven’t been fully revealed yet. One or all of them are also somehow involved in the fate of a space crew whose mission has somehow gone seriously awry.
Here the comparison to FF is particularly instructive: where Kirby and Lee, reflective of their age, presented a utopian faith in scientific progress, Stephenson and Bellegarde present a view that is, not cynical exactly, but knowing, tempered by an awareness of human weakness and fallibility. The innocence of scientific discovery for its own sake has been replaced by the reality of serving corporate profit. Technological advancement is understood as at least as destructive as it is creative. For example, in FF the group is testing an experimental rocket when they are struck by ‘cosmic rays’ endowing them with superpowers, which they promptly use to protect humanity (with the monstrous Thing serving as tragic, though still noble, counterpoint). In Nowhere Men, we have a group of scientists quarantined in a space station due to a ‘sickness’ they’ve contracted under mysterious circumstances. The effects of the sickness affect each individual randomly, even capriciously, as some are granted ‘abilities’ (as opposed to ‘superpowers’) while others undergo grotesque transformations that make the Thing look like Michael Caine in comparison. And some are in between (one of the more appealing characters seems to combine the brute strength and appearance of the Thing with the intellectual remove of Mr. Fantastic). Where one offered limitless promise, the other deals in disillusionment; even the title seems to suggest it.
This is far from a hopeless affair however. For one, the sheer inventiveness of the storytelling will not allow it. In addition to alternating between the past and present, Stephenson’s elliptical narrative is fragmented amongst various viewpoints. Only now, in this fourth issue, are its non-linear elements beginning to coalesce (I didn’t even feel comfortable reviewing the thing ’til now). But that’s not all. The very presentation of information is unorthodox. In the current issue for example, Stephenson thinks nothing of inserting three pages of prose – an excerpted ‘chapter’ from a tell-all history of World Corp – right in the middle of the action. This not only serves as a clever transition, but adds visual depth to the story, as the chapter is presented in a specific graphic style that convincingly suggests the late ’70s / early ’80s. Where FF‘s brash, boundary-breaking style was in keeping with the modern sensibilities of its era, Nowhere Men‘s approach is distinctly postmodern, befitting our own fractured time.
Which brings us to perhaps the most notable aspect of the book: its design. FF had the kinetic genius of Kirby’s art. Nowhere Men instead employs the principles of sophisticated modern graphic presentation. The clean, cold concision of Bellegarde’s art is impressive enough. But it is packaged, along with the aforementioned textual pieces, faux ads and information graphics, in a carefully considered manner that takes into account the comic book as an object. The refined aesthetic has been compared, aptly, to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odessey. Fonografiks, the company responsible for the look of the book, is really to be commended; I only wish the name of the specific designer was credited. The inside covers, the selection of fonts, the credits; all act in concert to create a visually immersive experience that reinforces the incidents of the story. When was the last time the design of a comic played such a concerted, integral role in the narrative?
FF has had any number of interesting runs over the years (Jonathan Hickman just finished up a pretty good one at that). But the true successor to Kirby and Lee’s vision, innovation and cultural relevance is Nowhere Men. Book of the Week.
Derek & Scott