Pencils and Colors by Terry Dodson
Inks by Rachel Dodson
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Red One starts from the conceit that America's neighbors from across The Pond are a far more enlightened and liberated lot. Or maybe that was just the 70s. At any rate those silly but highly dangerous Yanks are kind of childish for still believing in superheroes. Why, they even make movies about them. Something has to be done about that for the sake of world peace. The central premise of the series is absurd and over-the-top, but I'm not entirely sure from this debut if it's meant to work as a parody or a homage, or some clumsy marriage of both.
The art team of Terry and Rachel Dodson seem to be playing it straight, effortlessly capturing the kitschy atmosphere and cheesecake aspects of the decade like this comic was the script of one more exploitative action adventure film. The colors acquire a washed out, nostalgic glow when the setting moves to 1977 Southern California, imbuing the place with a certain dated glamour.
Where the comic disappoints is in the dialogue, which is clunky and unrealistic. This may have something to do with translating from the script of writer Xavier Dorison, but it sometimes feels like an over-earnest imitation of the informal speech patterns of most Americans. What Hollywood starlet vents her frustration at her critics by screaming "I'm going to smash their peasant heads in!"? This is exacerbated by half the word balloons being crowded by too much text. This again may be a translation issue, but it results in some very slapdash lettering which could have been solved by resizing or rearranging the balloons.
The comic's protagonist Vera Yelnikov could be described as a Rule 63-inspired, Soviet-era version of James Bond meets Captain America. She's a bombshell drawn by the very people who used to draw Wonder Woman during Allan Heinberg's aborted run. Which is to say that Vera's clearly meant to be ogled by the reader. But she's no vacuous sex symbol, she's the country's top operative. Smart, capable, and supremely athletic to the point of being possibly a super soldier. Vera's a free spirit involved in a polyamorous relationship with an expecting couple, plus a few other hanger-ons. She has no problem inducting complete strangers into the Mile High Club, but stops at sleeping with her co-workers and superiors at the Kremlin.
For all of these reasons, Vera is sent to infiltrate American Society in order to play the part of a superhero. A costumed vigilante called The Carpenter has been murdering disreputable Hollywood types. This has the party bosses worried that such criminal behavior might inspire a new wave of puritanism, which in turn could reignite the Cold War. So they assign Vera to masquerade as another local do-gooder so she can provide a more rational counterpoint.
Needless to say, the story is a not-so-subtle commentary on the connection between violence, sexual repression, and religious extremism, not to mention the rising tide of social and political conservatism that would come to dominate Reagan-era America in the 80s. And it panders to the view that Americans on the whole are somewhat naive in their idealism, making them a tad suggestible to things like men and women in tights. At the same time, there's an admiration for that very naïveté that comes across in Dodsons' love for recreating the seductive Californian milieu and in their portrayal of a fresh-faced Vera as an innocent abroad.
Batman & Robin created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson
Originally serialised from 1966-1967 in Shonen King magazine to capitalise on the popularity of the Batman television series, the Batman manga would be rediscovered in 2008 by Chip Kidd, who would make it the centerpiece of his book Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan. Despite being well-received, Kidd was criticised for failing to credit the manga’s creator Jiro Kuwata. So for comic fans, it’s a little more gratifying to see DC release the first volume of a planned complete run for the manga in a format that more closely preserves the content of the original. But fans of the current incarnation of Batman or of today’s manga are probably going to find this comic slightly strange. This isn’t the brooding protagonist cloaked in black. Nor is the art going to remind anyone of today’s manga populated by delicately drawn bishonen and bishojo types. This is a solidly-executed boy’s action adventure of the period. But for someone like me, there’s something familiar and comforting about its simplicity.
To begin, this is a superhero comic that still displays the genre’s early circus roots. Batman and Robin don a variation of the traditional tights that they wore for decades before the duo started bulking themselves up with body armour. Long before superheroes were granted bodybuilder physiques, Batman and Robin were portrayed as lithe athletes. And this works for the kind of storytelling Kuwata employs. The duo are usually shown leaping off buildings, swinging on ropes, running at top speed, tossing and kicking their enemies, dodging bullets. This classic staging of fight choreography really helps to ground the characters in real physical exertion. By today’s standards Kuwata’s style is rather minimal. But it’s primary virtue is in how it captures the dynamism of its protagonists. The clarity and pacing of the action keeps what are sometimes wordy panels from slowing down the story.
The stories themselves, which mimic the 3-act structure of a television episode, are also fairly episodic, with Batman and Robin battling a succession of villains-of-the-week. Two of them (Lord Death Man and Doctor Faceless) were lifted from the manga’s American counterparts, but none of them could be described as an essential member of Batman’s rogues gallery. The plots and characterisations are now fairly predictable, with many of the tropes seen here having been used many times since the 60s. What I found surprising was the science-based nature of the antagonists. Like many readers, I’ve become accustomed to the horror/crime themed interpretation of Batman’s more popular arch-foes as well as Batman himself being portrayed as a psychologically scarred individual. But Kuwata’s stories reflect the post-War fascination with science and technology gone amuck. So the manga's always flamboyant villains tend to be hucksters, mad inventors, or freaks of nature rather than the more familiar assortment of mobsters, assassins, mass murderers, or serial killers. The only thing missing here are angst-ridden individuals transmogrified after being bathed in radiation.
This results in a very different kind of Batman. Rather than the urban avenger waging a one-man-war against crime in Gotham or the control freak who plans for every outcome, we have a Batman who initially stumbles when confronting a new villain’s MO for the first time. He starts out at a clear disadvantage dealing with their unfamiliar technology since he has no way to counter it. And while he eventually finds a way to win, he's far from infallible. This isn’t Batman the Dark Knight, but closer to Batman the problem-solving Science Hero. Admittedly, this plays to some of my more nostalgic instincts.