Supercrooks #1, America’s Got Powers #1, Brilliant #3

I got to read a a few superhero comics with a high concept attached to it this week. On to the reviews.

Supercrooks #1 By Mark Millar, Nacho Vigalondo, Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Sunny Gho, Virtual Calligraphy, Dave Gibbons
Supercrooks #1
By Mark Millar, Nacho Vigalondo, Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Sunny Gho, Virtual Calligraphy, Dave Gibbons

Mark Millar's and Leinil Yu's new series Supercrooks is another examination of the superhero genre, this time from the POV of the supervillain. Based on reading the inaugural issue, it looks like it's shaping up to be a heist story. The idea sounds interesting, although the playing with genre tropes makes the plot feel kind of obvious. The big eureka moment is when someone figures out that a successful robbery can be carried out by going to a place not patrolled by superheroes. Ya think? The crooks are the usual assortment of losers and lowlifes, while the costumed crime fighters are smug pricks who probably abuse their status. Reaaally? In a Mark Millar comic? Off course, the main protagonist is forced by extenuating circumstances to return to a life of crime.

The art is gritty and attractive, as expected of the mainstream-honed talent working on the comic. The costume designs go for the bold and iconic. If there's a weakness to Leinil Yu's character designs, it's that his people tend to look generic. This caused a bit of confusion when a Las Vegas crime boss and the main protagonist were drawn so alike they might as well be twins separated at birth.

America’s Got Powers #1 Jonathan Ross, Bryan Hitch, Andrew Currie, Paul Neary, Paul Mounts, Chris Eliopoulos, Leinil Yu
America’s Got Powers #1
Jonathan Ross, Bryan Hitch, Andrew Currie, Paul Neary, Paul Mounts, Chris Eliopoulos, Leinil Yu

America's Got Powers is the superhero genre meets Reality TV. To be more specific, talent-based shows like the wildly popular Idol franchise. But instead of singing and dancing, there are gladiatorial games featuring super powered youths who gained their abilities in utero during a freak event 17 years ago in San Francisco. The TV show was created to channel their energies to less destructive avenues. But it now seems that the show's organizers are beginning to rethink their methods.

AGP isn't particularly subtle with its social satire. The military-industrial complex pulling the strings is obviously a nefarious entity that intends to use the contestants for its own selfish goals. The public that watches the spectacle is bloodthirsty and callous. And the contestants who succeed on the show become self-centered celebrities. There's some commentary on how mass entertainment is a way to distract the populace and a way for the privileged to wage class warfare on them. By contrast, the main protagonist is exceedingly kind to a fault. He also happens to be the one person left inexplicably powerless despite meeting all the conditions that gave the other youths their abilities. The only character who is hard to categorize is the scientist trying to understand the true nature of the super powered generation.

The art pencilled by Bryan Hitch is beautifully detailed in the grandiose, panoramic manner he's become known for. It can also get a bit distracting when he tries to base his characters of real-life celebrities, which is another Hitch affectation.

Brilliant #3 By Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, Nick Filardi, David Mack, Michael Aoan Oeming
Brilliant #3
By Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, Nick Filardi, David Mack, Michael Aoan Oeming

College-age slackers invent superpowers. Nothing about my critique of the first issue has changed. The pacing is slow, and the characters still speak in a kind of shorthand that reveals nothing important, especially about the actual nature of the superpowers in question. The art is still mostly composed of talking heads. Events finally reach a crisis point at the end of the issue, when one of the characters is caught by the authorities using his powers for illegal gain. Three issues in, and the only guy who gets to use superpowers is the story's resident SOB? So no, the perky girl on the cover does not get to shoulder press a sedan. But with an erratic publishing schedule and only two more issues left, this series has pretty much lost any traction for me.



Velveteen & Mandala

Velveteen & Mandala by Jiro Matsumoto
There's a lot in Velveteen & Mandala, which I believe is Jiro Matsumoto's official introduction to English speaking audiences, that's hard to stomach. It's a veritable series of creepy and disturbing episodes involving gratuitous nudity, violence, mutilation, rape, and defecation. It's a kind of otaku-laden phantasmagoria starring two sailor-suited teenage schoolgirls fighting zombies when they're not too busy making each other's lives miserable. All the while, Japanese society crumbles around them. And that's a strangely upbeat feature of the book. When everything and everyone else is dying, these two symbols of fanboy perversity somehow endure, inexplicably resistant to the forces of decay surrounding them. What does that say about humanity if the freaks and geeks are the people who inherit the Earth?

There's not really a great deal to be said about the plot, as it meanders about from chapter to chapter for 300+ pages and ends up explicating very little. Every so often, bombers drop corpses onto the riverside of Suginami Ward, Tokyo. And into this latter-day Sanzu wander two runaways - the violently antisocial Velveteen, and the ditzy Mandala. They both seem mentally unhinged as they take up residence in an abandoned tank and go about foraging for food. But the story takes a dark turn when the two are drafted into what appears to be an organized effort to process the corpses, which have turned into undead hordes that walk and talk like they're still very much alive. Where they originated from is unclear, but it seems that Tokyo's residents are being overwhelmed by war.

Velveteen & Mandala by Jiro Matsumoto

This is a visually dense book. After awhile the pop cultural references start to pile up: The vaguely reminiscent WWII setting, Hayao Miyazaki films, video games, RPGs, etc. As the violence and repellant behavior ramps up, Matsumoto gleefully captures all this with a frenetic drawing style that is both scratchy, yet detailed and accurate. Everything is covered in a texture that exudes a layer of dirt and grime. And the man loves portraying many scenes from the distorted perspective of a fish-eye lens. It's hard for me not to admire his virtuosity, even as I balk from some of the more upsetting subject matter.

What's the point of all this? Not much, actually, beyond Matsumoto exercising his artistic prerogative to shock or titillate. This is a work that actually breaks the 4th wall more than once to admit to the creator's lack of taste. And its social critique doesn't run particularly deep. Its nerd-centric focus seems more a twisted joke than embodying anything seriously-minded. But against my own better judgement, I found the final fate of these two unlikeable characters emotionally affecting. It's a strange, little book, though, which many readers will find unpalatable.

Velveteen & Mandala by Jiro Matsumoto

Photography: Off the Grid

There are growing number of people who have decided to live light on the earth to not be a part of problem anymore - Eric Valli