O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
by Lamar Abrams
AdHouse Books, 144 pages, $12.95.
Ace-Face: The Mod With the Metal Arms
by Mike Dawson
AdHouse Books, 96 pages, $6.95.
Johnny Hiro Vol. 1
by Fred Chao
AdHouse Books, 192 pages, $14.95.
The indie/alt-comix crowd can tend to dismiss the superhero genre, but it can be a solid jumping off point for exploring thematic alleys and byways that more traditional cape and tights publishers wouldn’t even consider. Three recent books from AdHouse – Remake, Ace-Face and Johnny Hiro — all use superheroes, or heroism at any rate, as their starting point but each end up with their own unique take on the subject matter.
Lamar Abrams’ Remake asks the question “What if Astro Boy didn’t just look like a 10-year-old boy but acted like one too. I mean, really acted like one. And a bratty one at that?”
The net result, apparently would be Max Guy, an ADD-addled, easily confused, super-powered robot who comes complete with a ray gun that can turn things into other things, like dogs into shoes. Max’s adventures rarely follow the typical slam-bang action. In fact, he’s just as likely to side with or completely ignore the villain as he is to battle him. And when he does fight, he’s just as likely to win by, say, threatening to spit, than with fisticuffs.
And, in case you can’t tell from the above description, Remake is a wildly surreal, absurdist book that ping-pongs from one segue to the next. The fourth wall is broken frequently. Nay, with abandon. In one story, for example, Max saves a truck driver from an accident with a mom and baby. But the baby turns out to be a robot. He fights Max to a stalemate. They go get ice cream. Meanwhile, the delivery guy has somehow turned into a skeleton. But then it turns out he’s not dead yet. Oh, and then you think the story’s over, but a loud voice intones that it’s not and Max screams “Oh No! This panel is full of As!”
The constant shifting of the narrative landscape gives the book a random, off-kilter feel, but there’s no denying it’s a funny book, with lots of laugh out loud moments (Man: “Leave! Did you hear me? I said split!” Max: “Liar! You never said ‘split’ before!”) What’s more, Abrams shows a good deal of verve and imagination. This is the kind of comic where Max eats a bowl of cereal, vomits, and then a monster cat forms out of the vomit. I’d like to see him try to maintain that kind of freewheeling nature, but within a more structured narrative.
Mike Dawson’s Ace-Face is also a superhero satire of sorts, though it’s much less coy and surreal with the concept than in Remake.
Ace-Face is Colin Turney, a British superhero with cybernetic metal arms. Dawson’s grand conceit is that he doesn’t spend any time focusing on Colin’s golden years as a beloved champion fighting crime, but instead chronicles his early and later years, when he was either a chubby, put-upon schlub or a retired, ineffectual teacher who doesn’t know how to connect with his son or students and constantly reliving past glories.
Dawson uses these moments to tentatively suggest the ineffectiveness and ruthlessness of comic-book violence in a real world. At the same time, he offers an opposing viewpoint by way of Colin’s grown son, Stuart, whose common decency and fear can’t allow him to handle a group of rowdy guys who hang outside his apartment stoop every night. Then, just for laughs, he intersperses these stories with the adventures of young Jack and Max, two super-powered brothers who just underscore all the reasons why kids shouldn’t ever have super powers.
I liked Ace-Face quite a bit more than Dawson’s other recent book, the surprisingly anemic Freddie and Me. It’s much funnier, smarter book and shows a deeper understanding of its characters. I wouldn’t mind seeing a second volume somewhere in the future.
Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro isn’t really a superhero at all. He doesn’t have any powers or a costume. That’s part of the joke really, because superhero stuff happens to him all the time. Giant monsters wreck his apartment and snatch his girlfriend. Knife wielding chefs attack him for snatching a fish. Celebrities like Akon and Gwen Stefani keep bumping into him. Businessmen turned samurai come after him because … well, it’s complicated.
Chao even narrates these tales in a overly melodramatic voice that’s straight out of DC Comics circa 1978. There’s a nice moment where the narrator breaks the fourth wall to express his own incredulity at Hiro’s dumb luck that made me laugh out loud.
Overall Hiro’s adventures serve as a nice analogy to the stress and perils of being young and trying to survive on your own in the big city. I liked him and his girlfriend Mayumi, and wanted to see them succeed. My only serious critique of the book has to do with Chao’s art chops. He really needs to do a better job with his facial features and expressions. His “two dots and a line” method gives the characters a sameness that no variation on hairstyle can cure. What’s more, it can cause problems when trying to rely on celebrities. It took me forever, for example, to suss out that one character was supposed to be Alton Brown. I thought he was just another generic white guy.