I’ve been with “Madman” since the beginning, back in those wintry days of the monochromatic Tundra series. And although many readers focused on the whimsical strangeness and “ginchiness” of those early stories — myself included — I found the religious nature of the series to be much more prominent than I had remembered once I got a chance to sit down with the entire “Madman Gargantua” last summer. The series has always been religious in the sense that it establishes a line of metaphysical inquiry that asks the fundamental questions about life: who are we and why are we here?
Those are certainly the two essential questions asked by Frank Einstein — or the more personal, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” — and in this new incarnation of Madman, Mike Allred has shifted the focus away from the pop culture trappings and Silver Age-inspired whimsy to more directly pursue the deep and abiding questions around which all Madman adventures revolve. All of which makes “Madman Atomic Comics” seem more like an undergraduate philosophy paper than a superhero comic book, but Allred’s genius is his ability to frame essential questions within a familiar superhero structure. It’s an odd use of the conventions of the genre, but that’s exactly what makes this comic worth reading.
Issue #11 actually begins to answer some aspects of the questions Allred has posed for years. It’s not the first time Frank Einstein has discovered something about his origins, or his purpose, but Allred always seems to provide more mystery beneath the unrevealed layers. Here, Allred finally reveals the source of the black narrative captions that have appeared in previous issues. They belong to the ethereal Zacheous who says, to Madman, “We were the best of friends in preexistence.” Zacheous, an obscure Biblical name, has specific religious connotations, but here he acts more as a messenger from the spirit world. Perhaps Allred’s Mormonism directly informs this characterization — I don’t know enough about that specific belief system to comment upon it one way or the other — but I see this character, along with all the others, not as specific manifestations of a single doctrine, but as archetypal characters who represent aspects of the human spirit.
Allred explores these notions with his consistently vibrant artwork and centers the story as a quest for love. Frank Einstein has already learned that the two women in his life are two aspects of the same whole, and between that revelation and the strange narrative voice he hears in his head, he feels that he’s earning the “mad” part of his superhero moniker. But as Zacheous advises him, “Live well. Serve others, and be happy.” It’s as straightforward a statement of purpose as you’ll ever see, and the truth of the message may not have penetrated through the distracted mind of the protagonist, but as he rushes off to his beloved, he might consider Zacheous’s simple wisdom.
“Madman Atomic Comics” #11 doesn’t allow Frank Einstein a moment of reflection where he can realize how close he is to achieving his purpose, because this series is about the struggle of not knowing, even when the answer is right in front of you.