If you asked me for a list of some of the best superhero comics of the past year or so, I'd be sure to mention one that comes not from DC Comics or Marvel, two companies synonymous with the genre, but from Archie Comics, a publisher popularly known for not making superhero comics.
That comic would be the one starring The Fox, a Golden Age superhero from MLJ Comics (which would eventually become Archie Comics) that was recently resurrected in a well-made, well-received miniseries, now available in the collection The Fox: Freak Magnet.
Archie's approach to the book seems to have been somewhat Marvel-ous, in several respects.
First, the publisher appears to have allowed a talented creator, Dean Haspiel, to do pretty much whatever he liked with the relatively minor character, and he chose to stick with what came before, but to take it in his own, idiosyncratic direction, not unlike Marvel's post-Hawkeye strategy for its secondary, non-franchise books.
Second, Haspiel and writer Mark Waid seem to have created the book using the old-school "Marvel style" as pioneered by Stan Lee and his collaborators, in which the artist plots the story as well as draws it, while the writer supplies the script to match the action. Haspiel receives credit for plot and line art for most for most of the book, while Waid gets a script credit for most of it; the final issue is both plotted and scripted by J.M. DeMatteis, with Haspiel drawing; he also writes and draws a short epilogue.
So, who or what is The Fox? This Fox is a second-generation, legacy hero — Paul Patton Jr., a newspaper writer and photographer who assumed his father's superhero identity. He has no superpowers, but he fights the good fight with his fists while dressed in an all-black, not-terribly-foxy costume that looks an awful lot like the Black Panther's, except for the floppy ears and an abstract yellow fox head icon on the chest. (How abstract? It looks a little like the silhouette of the capital building upside down.)
Patton's original plan was to further his career by using the costume to draw colorful news stories to himself, but the trick ended up working too well, as he's become a ... well, it's in the title of the book.
As the series starts, Patton has just moved with his wife to a new city and is about to start a new job and welcome his daughter into their new home after being apart from her for years. All he wants is a normal life with his family, but he can't seem to turn off his inner freak magnet, and this volume tracks what's essentially one incredibly weird day in his incredibly weird life.
It starts with him stumbling into a social media/Satanism plot involving the monster-faced Madame Satan and legitimate businessman Mr. Smile during the course of his day job. He's then abducted by interdimensional super-space lady The Queen of Diamonds and sent to her homeworld to rescue her mind-controlled husband from an evil super-druid, a quest that involves The Fox fighting a handful of similarly old, obscure superhero characters -- Bob Phantom, Inferno, The Marvel — that have been transformed into monsters.
The single issues contained a back-up story starring another old MLJ/Archie superhero, The Shield, written by DeMatteis and drawn by Mike Cavallaro and Terry Austin. These are here presented in the order they appeared, between chapters of The Fox story, off-set by "Meanwhile" captions, until the final issue, in which The Fox joined The Shield storyline, the weird ending of his weird day (Made particularly weird by the fact that the Shield story was set during World War II, while The Fox story is set in the present).
The book is a wonderful introduction to the work of Haspiel, an incredible artist whose own work (Billy Dogma, Fear, My Dear) never seems to receive the accolades it deserves (at least, not in my opinion). In fact, chances are that even the most casual of comics readers have seen and/or read plenty of Haspiel comics without actually associating them with the cartoonist (he drew Vertigo books The Quitter, The Alcoholic and Cuba: My Revolution for writers Harvey Pekar, Jonathan Ames and Inverna Lockpez; the last place I encountered his work was the last issue of Batman '66).
Haspiel is pretty brilliant when it comes to drawing bodies in motion, and his Fox is therefore a perfect fit, as the character's costume reduces him almost entirely to a figure more than a character, with only his big, Spider-Man-sized white eyes and floppy ears serving to give him features or expressions. And, of course, The Fox is always in motion; jumping, punching, dodging, getting flung around.
The Fox may not have much of one, but Haspiel is great at faces, and he gets to draw plenty of square-jawed tough guys — good and bad — in addition to all sorts of bizarre monsters and crazy settings .
Waid goes above and beyond the expected duties of someone providing a script to a plot; he invests that script with an incredible amount of personality, mostly in the form of The Fox's quip-filled dialogue and constant, almost stream-of-consciousness patter/narration.
If well-written, wonderfully drawn, fun superhero comics aren't enough of an incentive to check out The Fox, I think it would prove a pretty ideal read for fans of Waid's recent Marvel writing, particularly his more lighthearted, devil-may-care take on Daredevil, or cartoonist Mike Allred's works (particularly his Madman), or the Darwyn Cooke's too-short Spirit revival for DC a few years back, the aesthetic of which overlaps with that of The Fox quite a bit.
If you missed out on the single issues, the trade makes for a pretty great package. It contains a forward by Allred, an afterword by Haspiel and a variant cover gallery that includes work from Allred, Cooke, Fiona Staples, Mike Norton, Paul Pope and Howard Chaykin.
One of Archie's big announcements last month at Comic-Con International was that it would be rebranding its Red Circle super-comics as "Dark Circle" and expanding its efforts into that crowded genre. One of those superhero offerings will, of course, be another Fox miniseries, Fox Hunt. If Freak Magnet is any indication of the overall quality of Archie's upcoming superhero line, then the publisher best known for its teen comedies might soon be distinguishing itself as a place for superior super-comics too.