J. Michael Straczynski returns to superhero comics with “Sidekick” #1, but this series doesn’t kick off typically, despite all appearances on the first few pages. As it’s pretty easy to surmise, it’s not about the older, better-known, and widely-worshipped messianic hero himself, but instead the companion, who fights crime alongside his pal, stops dastardly villains’ deadly plots and all of the other do-gooder things that superhero duos do. At least, that’s what the sidekick named Flyboy used to do when he was teamed up with his mentor The Red Cowl — but instead of focusing on rescuing kittens from trees and stopping bank robbers, Straczynski instead shines a dark and disturbing light on the desperate and depressing life of the character whose past days of glory mean nothing to the world at large or his own present situation.
Straczynski uses the same methodology that Kurt Busiek utilized so well in “Astro City” and Mark Waid in “Irredeemable”; he quickly establishes the archetypical superhero and associated status quo, but then shifts direction and uses it solely as a backdrop to tell a different story entirely. He does it pretty well, especially in the opening flashback sequence that sets the stage for the remainder of the issue and presumably the series. Confidently recognizing that a stereotypical superhero team and battle with an equally stereotypical supervillain is exactly what’s needed to set up the scenario, he bravely does nothing to make The Red Cowl or a young Flyboy any different whatsoever from any other such characters comic fans have seen dozens of times, if not more.
From that point on, Straczynski starkly contracts this bright, simple, and idyllic past with a present that’s decidedly far more real, and far more complicated. His study of a destitute and depressed former sidekick, unable to forget and let go of his past life, is fraught with despair and sadness, to the point where readers can’t help but feel for him, despite his not-so-heroic vices and misdeeds. It’s the superhero equivalent of a former star athlete who spends middle age staring at the dusty trophies on his shelf while in a drunken stupor.
It’s also nice to see artist Tom Mandrake return to the superhero genre, as he brings the perfect old-school feel to the flashback portions of the story as well as a realistic but slightly darker and grittier look to the present day. It’s the kind of feel that Brent Anderson mastered a long time ago in “Astro City,” and Mandrake is every bit as competent here, but with a little crisper and finer touch.
“Sidekick” #1 is not solely about a has-been wallowing in his past accomplishments; Straczynski throws in a couple of surprises along the way, and one of them is a genuine shock. He’s creative enough to realize that there are plenty of modern-day superhero tales to tell, and talented enough to pull one off. This is definitely a comic for people who might have tired of superheroes long ago, but it’s also one for those who still dig them.