Friday, July 16, 2004

God Needed A Driver

Courtesy of our pals over at AiT/PLanet Lar, here's some preview art from Stuart Moore and John McCrea's forthcoming WILL STARR.

According to today's press release:

"Remember all those great sci-fi TV shows of your youth? Full of colorful new worlds, mind-stretching concepts, and complex characters? Well, this story isn't about them. It's about the OTHER shows -- the ones you watched, reluctantly, when the good ones weren't on. The ones that never made any sense, that bored you to tears -- that you always hoped would be good, every time you turned on the TV, but that never were,” says writer Stuart Moore.

"I really don't know where in my brain this book came from. It's not nice, wholesome entertainment, like most of what I write. It's really twisted, nasty, and depraved. It starts off with a giant dildo smashing into a swinging bachelor from 1979, thrusting him into suspended animation for 400 years till he wakes up to become a hotshot, coke-fiend space pilot of the future. Then it gets kind of sick. Basically, it's a lot like the '70s."

The book should be out in Spring. I have to admit I'm looking forward to this, for two reaosns: one, I've always had a soft spot for McCrea's work, ever since his run on The Demon all those years ago. Secondly, I think I've liked AiT/Planet Lar's sci-fi offerrings the best out of everything of their's I've read.

So, call me a sold-out shill for The Man if you want, but this is still a book that I want to read.


I’ll be honest with you: I had absolutely no idea what to expect before I began this book. I know nothing about the current state of childrens’ literature. I haven’t even seen a Harry Potter movie.

I certainly wasn’t expecting something as delightful as this. Quite honestly, I am surprised that the authors – Dan Danko and Tom Mason – got away with some of the stuff in here. It’s hardly ribald or inappropriate, but it is damn funny in places, and a lot of the jokes are a bit obtuse for most kids. The promo materials say this is intended for grades 6-8, and maybe that seems a bit old for me . . . but then again, I’m not an educator. I was reading Heinlein and Victor Hugo in sixth grade. In any event, I don’t think there’s anything here that a precocious fourth grader would have trouble with.

The story begins as Guy Martin has just recently been inducted into the League of Sidekicks in his alter-ego as Speedy, the Fastest Boy Alive (not the drug addict with a bow and arrow). Despite his fairly impressive power, he’s the low man on the totem pole, having been assigned to a distinctly unimpressive superhero Pumpkin Pete. Pete, as you may have guessed from his name, possesses the proportional strength, speed and agility of . . . a pumpkin. He’s not really that great of a superhero, as you can imagine.

In fact, most of the superheroes and sidekicks here seem like refugees from the Legion of Substitute Heroes – Exact-Change Kid, Earlobe Lad, Boy-In-Plastic-Bubble Boy, and Spelling Bea, just to name a few. The heroes are set upon by the Brotherhood of Rottenness, led by the evil marionette Peenoh Keyoh (say it out loud), and taken to their floating satellite to be thrown into the sun.

Danko and Mason seem to know their superhero mythology inside and out, and have no problem at all with gently skewering it. When you refer to something as "deconstructionist", you’re usually referring to very dark and ponderous works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns or Powers. But Sidekicks, while certainly a lot less weighty than any of those fine books, does about a good job - on its own level - of poking some darn funny holes in the concepts and mythologies of superheroes. Even a kid who’s never read a comic book and may just be familiar with characters like Batman and Spider-Man from the movies and cartoon shows will have no trouble getting most of the satire.  I don't know why in the world you would want to lead a 6th grade discussion on Derrida, but if you did want to do so, this and Duck Amok would be a good place to start.

Now, I don’t want to read too much into what is proudly a childrens’ book, but I definitely believe that Danko and Mason deserve a lot of credit for crafting a deceptively interesting work. I’m no dummy. The book took about an hour to read, and it was a light read at that. But the fact of the matter is, this is a far sight more enjoyable than most of the gloomy and torpid crap that passes for "adult" superhero comic books. It may not have the horribly misogynistic murder of long-running female supporting characters, like seemingly every other book on the shelves today, but somehow it manages to be entertaining despite all that. It’s fun, it’s breezy, and the characters are instantly recognizable. So what if I’m a good decade or two out of grade school myself, it’s still fun. At $4.95, it’s a better bargain than most regular 32-page pamphlets.

But as it is there is a lot of stuff here that seems like it would go over the head of most kids. For instance, there’s a scene-stealing appearance by a sidekick called Latchkey Kid, who sits in a room in the back of the headquarters while everyone else is out fighting evil, drinking soda and watching TV by himself. I doubt most kids would get that. Speedy and Exact-Change Kid race to their Sidekick Super Rocket of Blastingness, only to find that it is a cardboard box with dials and knobs colored on the outside. I laughed but I think something like that would fly over most kids’ heads.

Also, Peenoh Keyoh’s evil master plan involves turning everyone in the world into puppets. Now, last I checked most grade-school kids probably won’t catch obscure Silver Age references like this . . .

Now, it’s not perfect. For the most part it manages to avoid the sort of scatological humor that books like Captain Underpants trade in, but there is a character named Le Poop who incapacitates his foes with super-stinky . . . flatulence. I suppose even Hamlet had Polonius. It’s not really dwelt on for long, but all the same why do I have the frightening but persistent thought that this will be the kids’ favorite part?

There’s a lot of other stuff as well, such as a small subplot featuring Guy’s unrequited love for Prudence Cane, and Cane’s subsequent courting by Mandrake Steel, AKA Charisma Kid. It’s nothing new if you’ve ever read Spider-Man, but that’s hardly the point. This stuff is absolutely primal. If you’re a kid, you’ve felt isolated and put-upon and unappreciated, and that’s exactly what Danko and Mason understand. Just like the kids identify with Harry Potter and Spider-Man, they’ll identify with Speedy and his rather pitiful pals. That’s the beauty of superheroes – they’re a broad enough metaphor to accommodate just about anything, when done well.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m quite critical of the superhero genre. But this is the type of superhero book I have no problem with. A book like Sidekicks is a wonderful, upbeat example of superheroes done right, suitable for all ages (and by that I mean you should still get a kick out of it if you’re older than 12). I look forward to continuing the series and seeing what plans Mason and Danko have in store for these wonderfully silly characters.

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