Review time! with <i>Super!</i>

"Everyone's a superhero, everyone's a Captain Kirk"

Before I received this nice hardcover in the mail, I had read 4 of the 5 issues contained within (I hadn't read #4), and in re-reading my reviews, I realize that I may have been selling it a bit short. I liked the first issue but thought it was a bit busy (it's extra-long, and the creators use every danged page!), and the issues got progressively better, but I still think I was selling it a bit short.

Reading it all at once, it's much better, so I'll have to explain why it's so good! Super! is from Unlikely Heroes Studio, and it's primarily the effort of Zachary Dolan (who pencils and writes) and Justin Piatt (who writes and letters), but with plenty of assistance from Laurie Foster (who inks #2-5), Tara Keppel (who assists with pencils on every issue and inks #2-4), Everardo Orozco (who colors the comic), Estela Ýáñez (who assists on the coloring in issues #2-3), Ludwig Olimba (who assists on the coloring in #4), and Erek Foster (who assists on the coloring in #5). The hardcover costs $24.99, and the variant cover, which you see above, is actually Ms. Foster, who cosplays quite a bit.

When I first read Super!, I wrote that it was a good comic, but I was comparing it too much to the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League and Busiek's Astro City, which, to me, made it not as good as it might have been. After a few years, I have realized that's a stupid thing to think, because if people can do iterations on all sorts of genres, why can't more than one comic be a funny-but-straight superhero comic that takes a look at the lives of the people behind the masks?

I mean, we get deadly serious superhero comics all the time, and the market seems to bear them, so why not this one? While I still think the first issue is a bit frenetic, Piatt and Dolan do establish the premise quite well - this is the Marvel Universe New York (helpfully renamed Cosmopolis) taken to the logical extreme. Superheroes and supervillains abound, there's a pecking order of heroes and villains (Dolan and Piatt wisely don't focus on the A-listers, as they seem somewhat boring and far too competent, so they give us instead stories of the lesser heroes who are still quite good at what they do but are a bit more dysfunctional), the "normal" people get caught in the middle and have to deal with things as best as they can, and things get smashed. A lot. The book is both a parody of superhero comics and a straight-forward one, as well, which is refreshing - Piatt and Dolan obviously love superheroes, but they recognize that there's an element of goofiness in them, too, and there's nothing wrong with that. "Blood-Death," for instance, is a hyper-violent version of the Punisher or Batman, and he's ridiculous, but he provides nice comic relief in the story and isn't the focus at all. The Lone Wolf, the Wolverine analog, is similarly used sparingly, so that his ridiculousness doesn't interfere with the more straight-forward aspects of the comic.

But even the main characters can be funny, it's just that as the writers move closer to the core of the book, the characters become more "realistic" (as much as any character in the book is realistic) and the humor stems more from their dialogue and the situations they find themselves in and not because Dolan and Piatt are riffing off established characters. So while Blood-Death can destroy a douchebag's car because he has so many traffic violations (and the douchebag shows up later in the series, and I do hope he'll have a recurring cameo role) and it's funny, too much of him would be excessive. However, the ostensible main character, Blitz (whose real name is Paula), can be used a lot, because the humorous parts of her situations come from her own razor wit and the humorous but potentially catastrophic fact that she's living with a supervillain but doesn't know it (he doesn't know she's a superhero, either). Paula's relationship with Adam is excellently done by the writers, as it's clear they love each other, they have a lot of fun with each other, but the problem is constantly lurking and will, I assume, become a very big issue in the near future. The way that the writers construct the book, with "realistic" characters at the core who actually have some problems and yet are still funny, to the peripheral characters who are more stereotypical but hilarious in small doses, goes a long way to making the humor work.

Just when Paula's dilemma is getting a bit dark (at one point, she thinks she might die on a mission and she leaves a voice mail for Adam, who's out committing a crime at that very moment, so she never gets to talk to him), Piatt and Dolan make sure that there's a ridiculous character standing by to deflate the situation. They manage to walk that tightrope quite well, which is why the book works as both a parody and a non-ironic take on superheroes.

Dolan and Piatt have come up with some fun characters, and what's interesting about it is, again, the more ridiculous they are, the more they're relegated to the sidelines. The core group - who were put together by kajillionaire scientist Max Archer - consists of seven heroes - Blitz, the Streak, Fire-Ant (the Furious Fire-Ant, to be more specific), the Unquenchable Lush, Blood-Death, Adventure Man Zero (who might be a robot?), and Silhouette (Archer counts as one, I suppose, but he's more of a Maxwell Lord kind of character). Even in this group, there's a hierarchy - Blitz and Fire-Ant have gotten the most screen time, because they're the ones with the most generic powers and are therefore less goofy. The Streak is a douchebag who can run really fast ... but he always runs naked because his clothes aren't friction-resistant.

The Streak is the main character of issue #5 (well, he and his family are), and while his power is a bit silly, it's really just speed, so it's also a bit more generic and the writers can focus on other things about him. Silhouette, a Dr. Fate analog, is a mystery so far - we know her secret identity, but hardly anything about her. Blood-Death is goofy, as I noted, as so we know nothing about him, and the Unquenchable Lush, who's a Hulk analog, has super-strength when he gets drunk, and is a one-joke character that's funny, but because that's all he is, we also know nothing about him. Dolan and Piatt throw a bunch of weird characters into the mix that are hilarious (the Viking god of bowling comes to mind) but are just that - one-note jokes - and until they do something with them, it's best to keep them in the background. The same holds true on the villain side - Adam and his group are the most well-developed, and Piatt and Dolan even make it clear that almost all of them were somewhat forced into villainy. Superhero comics for years have tried to make supervillains more relatable so that they're not cardboard bad guys, but it's still not too often that we get to see them in their down time, so the fact that Adam likes watching Arsenic and Old Lace is keen. Dolan and Piatt think about what the world of superheroes would look like - there's a villain fetishist in one issue, who collects artifacts from the years of superpowered battles, because why wouldn't people like that exist?

And why wouldn't one of them think that all he needs is a costume to actually be a supervillain? Why wouldn't there be a superhero retirement home? Why wouldn't the manager of a casino be more angry at the heroes for "saving" his business (and destroying it in the process) instead of at the villains, for which he had insurance and weren't about to kill anyone anyway? The writers have considered all these things, and because of that, the humor feels very organic - as I noted when I reviewed the issues, a bit of it is a bit forced, but that's to be expected in a comic that has so many jokes, and most of the humor does feel like it comes just from the "realistic" (for a superhero-crowded city, that is) ideas about Cosmopolis and the way superpowered people relate to each other. They would insult each other, and they would reference old battles that went poorly for the bad guys, and they would feel jealous of the A-listers who get all the glory. By focusing so much on the characters, Piatt and Dolan can make the fight scenes both exciting and humorous. There is a ton of action in the book, and the writers manage to raise the stakes on some of them (some of them are meant to be silly) without sacrificing the fact that these people know what they're doing and would probably banter a lot even in the face of death. It feels like something superheroes would do!

I also took a while to warm up to Dolan's artwork, as I still think it's very early 1990s Image-influenced, but you know what? That's awesome.

It's clear that Dolan is a terrific penciller, as he packs every single panel with wonderful details, from the Andy Reid joke in one panel (Piatt, I think, is an Eagles fan, but I wonder if Dolan is, too) to the amazing assortment of science-fiction character cameos he drops into the Science Award Show in issue #2 (my favorite is probably V.I.N.CENT, if only because The Black Hole is so ridiculous and I used to have the comic based on the movie). His character designs are wonderful, and they have to be, because the book contains so many characters that he has to find a way to make them visually distinctive. His action scenes are great, as he manages to choreograph fights so that we always know what's going on even as he shifts focus to different characters - he never forgets where everyone is, which is nice. He does really well with the physical comedy in the book, but he's also good at the emotional beats, and the way he draws Paula and Adam bantering with each other is part of the reason they work so well as a couple and why it will probably be tough to deal with when they find out each other's secret. The details he puts into each panel are wonderful, so we can see how some of the costumes fit together clearly, which lends them authenticity. He captures the joy of superheroing, too - these characters love kicking ass, and while they might be selfish and petty occasionally, they really do love beating up bad guys. The special effects are used well, and while the coloring is a bit too over-rendered for my taste (as far too much coloring is today), the fact that Orozco and the color assistants use bright colors helps alleviate that.

Even the dark characters - Silhouette is the most obvious example - are not a dull black, but lit by bright and eerie green (Silhouette's ankh amulet and eyes) to illuminate the dark clothing. The cheeriness of the colors help offset the rendering, so while I don't love that style, it doesn't ruin the line work. If colorists insist on over-rendering, the least they could do is make the colors bright. The more I look at the art on this comic, the more I like it, and that's quite a cool thing.

The creators are currently running a Kickstarter to fund more issues of the comic, if you're interested. There's quite a bit of neat stuff, including a Fire-Ant toy and a video game. Check it out here! They're also on Patreon, if that's your thing. If you're not interested in pledging for future comics, you can get this volume on Amazon or, I assume, other on-line places. You can also get digital copies at Comixology. Super! is really an awesome superhero comic, and you know you love supporting seriously indie comics, right?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

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