A lot could be said about the import of a crossover between the Rocketeer and the Spirit. IDW and DC Comics working together — a classic pulp hero and an ’80s homage given equal billing — IDW publishing a spin-off of a comic book property rather than a movie or TV show — an impossible argument between which hero has the more awesome, classic costume. But rather than any industry analysis, let’s focus on what really matters here: this is a great damn comic book.
From the very first page, Paul Smith’s art immediately jumps out as something special. The pulp inspiration is clear in every well-framed panel, and every body and face is expressive and evocative, but it’s Smith’s attention to detail that makes his work really stand out. He’s plainly having a blast designing and drawing everything from the snowy skyline of Central City to the vintage clothing that’s different on every character and in each scene. No two men even wear the same tie, let alone suit, and the bombshell ladies show off a great array of sassy hats and va-va-voom nighties in true toe-the-decency-line pulp fashion.
It’s not only the design, but the execution that shows Smith’s attention to detail. His inking, fine lines and heavy shadows are a Will Eisner homage to the point that the Spirit himself could almost be cut and pasted from forgotten Eisner panels. Meanwhile, Jordie Bellaire’s attentive colors bring the whole thing to life — the two heroes’ signature color palettes are captured perfectly, and the whole book has a look that’s simultaneously retro and modern. The only blemishes on the otherwise perfect art are a few frames with some strange perspective — that is, unless it’s established canon that the Rocketeer has really tiny hands.
As for Mark Waid’s writing, it’s also a perfect blend of old and new. The pacing is spot-on: slow enough that we get time to learn each character and his or her personality, but quick enough that the comic gets through the de rigeur “the heroes have to fight before they realize they’re on the same side and team up” sequence with time for more at the end. Page by page, the action and dialogue are equally snappy.
The story itself is a smart nod to the era of the pulps; it finds our heroes investigating the death of a Central City alderman who’s been murdered for his belief that the groundbreaking new technology of television should be kept free and open for the public. There’s even a resonance with the modern day, and our political arguments about net neutrality and the role of Internet service providers in defining what content is available online.
There’s something so fundamentally comic-booky about “The Rocketeer and the Spirit: Pulp Friction” #1, a heavy mass of talent that lives between the old and the new, that my mind remembered pixels on a screen as ink on dead trees, the virtual as the physical, the ephemeral as the real. This comic is an absolute blast, but it has a sense of love, care and history that raise it to the level of the truly great.