A review a day: <i>Love and Capes</i>

Two trades, no waiting!

Prior to picking these two trades up, I had read one issue of Love and Capes in my life, the FCBD one from a few years ago.

It was fun, but I didn't feel like tracking down individual issues because I'm lazy. I saw that IDW was going to be printing up some nice trade paperbacks, and I knew Thom Zahler would be at the con, so I figured that would be a good place to buy them. And you know what? It was! Love and Capes is, as the name implies, a romance starring a superhero, and these two trades (volume 1, "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" and volume 2, "Going to the Chapel") collect the first twelve issues of the series. (According to Zahler's store at the web site, issue #13 came out for FCBD this year, but I didn't see it at my shoppe.)

Zahler's story is simple: it's Clark Kent and Lois Lane, done right. Mark Spencer, the Crusader (and, in his civilian identity, mild-mannered accountant), meets and falls in love with book-store owner Abby Tennyson (yeah, a cute, well-read girl who owns a liberal-friendly business - it's comics, man, just roll with it!), and on page 5 of issue #1, he tells her his secret. Get it out of the way, say I! I wrote recently about The Maze Agency that it's a take on romance that we don't often see in comics (or popular entertainment, for that matter), and Love and Capes is very much like that, in that Zahler doesn't waste time with the courtship of these two people, he jumps right to the relationship and how it affects their lives. Zahler understands that the love story is not in the initial attraction, but in how the two people learn to live with each other, and that's what he does throughout this series.

The book is quite funny, as Zahler structures it almost like a webcomic (he mentions that he did this in case he had to move it to that venue).

Most of the pages are laid out in an eight-panel grid, two across and four down. The top four-panel square and the bottom one often function as a joke, moving the story along but still ending with a punchline in the last panel. Not every page is laid out this way, but many are. It works, because while it keeps the story moving, it also allows Zahler to throw in shorter jokes that punch up the humor in the title. If you read it on-line (which you can, at the link above), it works as well as it does in printed format, because of the way Zahler structures it. We get, usually, two jokes on every page, and even if it's not a "joke," it's still a punchline about the previous three panels, giving an ironic twist to them or simply summing something up. The story zips along as a result.

As the covers of the trades point out, it's the "heroically super situation comedy." I would argue that it's a bit more wry than your typical sitcom, but that's not a bad comparison. Zahler makes his leads interesting, as they go through the normal relationship stuff but never really have a serious fight (which is refreshing, don't get me wrong), but he also surrounds them with great characters. Abby's sister, Charlotte, also knows Mark's secret, and that allows Zahler to have two "normal" folk discuss the crazy goings-on that they deal with every day. Mark's best friend, Paul, is a Batman analog called Darkblade, which gives him an outlet.

Zahler adds an ex-girlfriend, Amazonia, against whom Abby is always comparing herself and thinking she comes up short, even though Amazonia herself understands how great Abby is. This is light-hearted stuff - Zahler never allows things to get too dark, so although there are some minor perils along the way, he never falls into the cliché of Mark returning to Amazonia, for instance. When he introduces a character in the form of Jason, a new worker at Abby's bookstore (Charlotte goes to Paris to study), we think maybe Zahler is going to be boring and create a love triangle, but it turns out that Jason is gay. Zahler does a very nice job subverting our stereotypical expectations, either in Abby and Mark's relationship or Amazonia's relationship with Abby or even Charlotte and Paul's relationship. He never relies on stock sitcom themes to invade the book, and so it's all about his sharp humor (given the subject matter, he sends up every superhero cliché you can think of) and keen observational eye. This feels like what a superhero romance would be like, if Marvel or DC had the guts to do it. Zahler also made a crucial decision about the series - all the action is off-panel. He breaks this rule rarely (when Abby gets superpowers for an issue, he has to show how she deals with it, although there's still not a lot of action), but for the most part, we see only the aftermath of the fighting or we're stuck outside a bank while Mark goes inside and saves the day. This allows Zahler to focus on the relationship, of course, but it also shows how completely different the superheroes are from "normal" people - even Abby, who's marrying one of them, is a bit on the outside.

It's an interesting approach, different from the "normal person perspective" we see in other books, where the regular folk are right in the center of the action quite often. Zahler understands that if superheroes existed, there would be plenty of other things going on even for those who are intimated involved with those heroes. It's a good point of view and helps us get more into the story.

Zahler has a nice, cartoony line that works well with the light-hearted tone. Mark is ridiculously lantern-jawed, which is of course the point, and Zahler makes sure that Abby and Charlotte look like actual people, especially in contrast to Amazonia, who is supposed to look like a pin-up model. The worst jokes in the series, actually, are when Zahler implies that Abby is fat - yes, she isn't stacked like Amazonia, but she's a petite young lady. I suppose it's funny because Zahler implies that women are catty, but those jokes fall a bit flat. Zahler creates a fully realized world, with real locations and real characters, and the fact that Zahler takes his time to dress his characters as they would dress (which sounds ridiculous that I praise it, but that's a sad statement about superhero comics) is kind of neat. In a sitcom-type comic, facial expressions are crucial, and Zahler does a wonderful job with Mark's relative naïveté (he's certainly worldly, but because of his strength, he often doesn't think too much about moving through the world) and Abby's brilliant squinty-eyed sour faces and her come-hither eyes.

Timing is so important in comedic comics, and Zahler does a very nice job with that.

Love and Capes is a fairly innocent comic (the couple often acts romantic, but there's hardly any implication that they have sex), and that allows Zahler to make it much more about two people who want to spend their lives together rather than two people who only lust after each other. It's a very funny, warm-hearted series with a lot of great jokes, both about relationships and about superheroes (Darkblade and the Crusader discuss that whether it's "Crisis season" in one panel, for instance). Each trade is $19.99, and for that you get six issues (per trade, of course) packed with excellent content. Give them a look!

Tomorrow: Another independent superhero book? Can't those losers just do emo stuff and leave the superheroes to the professionals?

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