Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Deconstruction and Sidekicks

The following article was originally published on JHU Online in December 2008.

The concept of the sidekick has always perplexed me, and to be honest, I cannot recall ever enjoying a comic that featured them in any prominence. Maybe because I've always been a "Marvel Guy" and the only notable sidekicks were Bucky and Toro in the 1940s and 1950s, or maybe because, even in worlds with gods, monsters, and flying men in spandex, it always seemed a stretch that one would bring a child along to wage battle against criminals and psychopaths. What kind of person plays dress up and cops and robbers with underage boys and girls? This isn't Fredric Wertham territory, here, these are questions of basic logic - questions Rick Veitch's Bratpack attempts to address, after a fashion. 

The story opens is fictional Slumberg, PA, a particularly bleak city that is wallowing in filth and crime in the aftermath of disappearance of the Superman-like "maximortal" True-Man. A group of four superheroes has attempted to fill the void, employing sidekicks along the way. We are introduced to the young sidekicks - jaded, loathsome - only to see them murdered by Dr. Blasphemy, a supervillain of sorts. The story then follows the recruiting and training of a new group of sidekicks, and things get predictably twisted.

I say "predictably" because I am reading this in 2008, at a time when the superhero has been deconstructed multiple times, and one has become accustomed to the exploration of the seedy underbelly of the superhero concept; in 1991, when the book was originally released, this likely would have been - and is still seen by some - as a seismic shift in the theory and practice of the superhero story (Heidi MacDonald groups it with Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns as a "troika of immortal works dissecting the superhero genre"), and one can easily see the possible influence on many current works such as Garth Ennis's The Boys. That is not to say that there are any real revelations here, that there is any subtlety to the deconstruction... whereas Watchmen's deconstruction was elegant, literary, and in my opinion incidental to the story being told, Bratpack's is as subtle as a jackhammer. Veitch does go into that Wertham territory head first, even dedicating the book to the good doctor. The book quite clearly spells out its intentions (superhero = twisted fascist) and its metacommentary on several long-standing comic book tropes is clever and yet a bit over-emphasized. The superheroes are ugly shells of people, twisted caricatures of several easily recognizable archetypes, and the new sidekicks' collective journey from wide-eyed innocents to abused abusers is nothing new. Despite this and other minor faults (the first half of the book drags a little), the payoff in tone and message is well worth the trip. Veitch even manages to sneak in some nice philosophical surprises along the way, especially as it applies to the void left by True-Man's absence with an anti-Superman argument as succinct as any I have seen.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Veitch's art. At first glance, the black-and-white art is unremarkable. But as I read the story, the page layouts and panel design really began to pop out. The style of the art is appropriately reflective of the tone of the story, and there are several points in the book where Veitch lingers on random scenes from around Slumburg that more vividly paints a picture of the time and place of this story than pages of clunky exposition (which this story does suffer from early on). As the story becomes fractured, splitting between the four heroes and their sidekicks, the art keeps up in clever pacing and layouts, revealing a mastery of craft that may be missed on first pass. - This is not a perfect book, but it is a fun, provocative read, and on continued reflection, certainly begs consideration as a book that belongs on a must-read list for anyone looking for an examination on the meaning and purpose of the costumed vigilante... and their sidekicks.

c) 2008, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson

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