Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Fair Trade -- The Complete normalman
This is going to be a little convoluted, but I promise it has a point, so stick with me here. When I was a young lad of about the age of 12, there was a company starting up you may have heard of called Image Comics. They got all sorts of press and attention from Wizard and Comic Shop News -- the only sources of info on comics as 12 year old could get -- and us readers were bombarded with ads and hype for the new series. Spawn! Youngblood! WildC.A.T.s! To a lesser extent Savage Dragon and Cyberforce! And something called Wetworks which... well, I won't got there. But there was another title in there which didn't get as much play, and looked somewhat different from it's high-sheen and hatch-marked compatriots.
That series of course was ShadowHawk.
'Hawk was not the greatest comic book ever produced. And it generally gets saddled with the "dog" status of the Image launch titles (sales wise it was, at least). But as a 12 year old I ate it up. I adored ShadowHawk. This brutal, metal-shorn maniac had captured my attention, to the point where when Spawn guest-starred in the second issue, my brain read it as "Oh good, Spawn will get a rub from appearing in ShadowHawk." And we all know how that turned out. Heck, when I made that 12 year old attempt to become a comic book artist (who didn't have that dream?), I drew the cover to ShadowHawk #3. So obviously there was something about the character which appealed to my psuedo-adolescent mind.
But the other noteworthy aspect about ShadowHawk was (here it comes!) that it introduced me to the work of Jim Valentino, 'Hawk's creator. I knew who Todd MacFarlane and Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld and Erik Larsen (heck, I owned a few of their comics... well, except Liefeld. Honest!) were, and had at least heard of Jim Silvestri. But this Valentino guy? What did he ever do? Guardians of the Galaxy? Huh? I was intrigued with his new creation and sought out his older work.
Which (finally) leads me to The Complete normalman. Unlike his fellow Image Founders, Valentino was much more at home doing indy comics than working for the Big Two. And, I would soon discover, he was much more suited to doing his indy comics than he was doing superheroes in general. And then we have this little gem. What do you get when you combine those two dissimilar elements together?
You get the story of norm, put into a rocket as a baby by his CPA father, who is convinced that their planet Arnold will blow up in half an hour (it doesn't) only to drift in space for 20 years to land on the planet Levram (read it carefully), which is populated entirely by superheroes. In fact, no sooner does norm land there than he is brefriended by the inane Captain Everything (possessing the power to create a power for every plot twist) and dubbed "normalman." But would you want to live on a planet of high-powered lunatics who spend all their time brawling and causing general mayhem? Yeah, neither does norm, who desperately tries to return to Arnold. But along the way, he will face deadly peril, travel to other dimensions, overthrow a dictator, fight in a war, sire a race, fall in love, travel through time, run for president, get fall down drunk, meet a host of other indy comics stars, and just about anything else which could theoretically happen in a comic book.
What's even more impressive than the astounding amount of cliches is the way Valentino weaves them into an ongoing narrative; no matter what hackneyed device is in the crosshairs, the jokes come organically and flow into the story instead of standing out. Everything from the Silver Age of heroics to EC horror to Archie-style romance ("Love stinks!") to Elfquest and Asterix is lampooned, skewered, and roasted to a golden brown for our enjoyment. But then we take a moment and realize that we're part of the joke as well, and that none of Valentino's gags would mean a thing unless we loved the medium and the genre as much as he does, and recognized all of the potshots and guffawed at what we take for granted with "normal" (how peculiar a phrase!) comics. But it never veers into spite: though norm is typically very cynical, the naive and trusting Captain Everything happily glomps along with every development and twist, every shocking death and subsequent resurrection. Valentino has characters count the pages between fights scenes and declare that they are making "Kirby poses" or wielding "space vacuums," but it's good natured, the result of too many nights staying up late reading the latest 4 Color goodies, instead of having axes to grind. It leaves the reader smiling more often than anything else.
And it's funny as all get out. Witness: The Legion of Superfluous Heroes, whose rollcall lasts for several issues! See: The Unnecessary A-Men, the Tight Teens, and the Cloned Kids -- superpowered teens all, and all exactly the same! Cower Before: Sgt. Fluffy, Agent of S.C.H.M.U.C.K.*! (*Stands for nothing-in-particular.)
Collected here is literally everything normal: the first short entries from Cerebus and A-V in 3-D, the original series, a few other appearances, then covers and other art. One of the best reads in the volume is the normalman-Megaton Man Special which features two of comicdoms great lunkheads getting a whirlwind tour of the comics industry, as well as the normalman 20th Anniversary Special, which sees norm and Cap head to San Diego Comic Con!
As a genre, superheroes is taken entirely too seriously by its fans. If you have ever found yourself arguing about the best Green Lantern, or rationalizing how Psycho-Man couldn't possibly bypass Mr. Fantastic's energy-shield generator, then this trade is for you. You'll laugh, sure, but you might just gain a deeper appreciation of the characters whom we shell money out for each week, as well as the creators behind them.