Monday, December 9, 2013

Ordinary Superheroics: Dean Haspiel's The Fox

The Fox 2 by Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid
Red Circle/Archie, 2013
The Red Circle characters (the Archie superheroes) have been around intermittently since the Golden Age. The only really unique thing about Red Circle is that there have been many attempts to relaunch the characters over the last 70 years, attempts that have usually had the impact of a feather landing on snow. DC - as part of their long and recently unsuccessful history of gobbling up dangling superheroes to integrate into their own shared universe (because the existing DCU characters can't cut it, I guess) - were the most recent publishers of the line. But the DC Red Circle, which started out strong with a J. Michael Straczynski-helmed launch, simply fizzled out for the simple reason that the characters - indistinct enough in a crowded superhero landscape, certainly moreso in the densely-packed pre-New 52 DCU - weren't that interesting and no-one really cared.

Step back in Archie the publisher. Archie has distinguished itself in recent years by upping the company profile with well-produced, entertaining stories with significant crossover media attention, and by taking storytelling and marketing risks that they've never previously taken. It's only natural that they would retake the helm of The Red Circle, beginning with last year's Mighty Crusaders. But despite the line's age, for all intents and purposes these are new superheroes. And at this point in the genre's existence, it goes without saying that new superheroes always have an uphill climb in impacting the neutron-star-dense market of brightly-costumed muckity-mucks. At the very least you can only hope to make good comics and let potential market penetration come later.

Sadly, there's nothing terribly new or fresh or distinct about The Fox, issue two of which came out last Wednesday. The series is written and illustrated by Dean Haspiel with dialogue by Mark Waid, old-school hand-in-hand Marvel-style. Rather than going into origins, the story in issue one dives in with Paul Patton, ace photojournalist, getting into quick trouble thanks to his work as a photog and as his superhero alter-ego, The Fox. Patton is not superpowered but gets dressed up to draw out the story, and much to his chagrin constantly finds himself hip-deep in it. His wife, Mae, and oldest daughter are also superheroes, though Mae seems to be frustrated with Paul's costumed activities. Issue one is a little more straightforward, with Patton put up against a couple of meat-head thugs and a costumed interlude of The Fox against some kind of demon seductress with a new social media website. He easily wins both battles, but finds himself in the cliffhanger kidnapped to some diamond dimension, where we find ourselves in issue two. Issue 2 has a lot of Patton/Fox trying to figure out what exactly is happening, there's a battle with a changeling who he thinks is his wife in her superhero guise as She-Fox, and an exposition-heavy sequence where the power that shanghaied him explaining the whys and hows of the world he now finds himself in.

Patton found himself back in Impact City at series' start to reconnect with his adult daughter and to reignite his journalism career, and finds himself way over his head dealing with superpowered sci-fi magic weirdness. I guess that's the vibe Haspiel is going for: Patton completely out of his league and finding a way to win. He just wins very handily with little suspense or thought of genuine threat. Patton/Fox isn't terribly engaging or entertaining on his own, and the situation he finds himself in, forced to intercede in some alien realm's political drama - and despite the inspired weirdness of the Diamond Queen's disjointed dialogue - doesn't quite gel into an interesting story.

It's hard to peg down the series' intended audience. One the one hand, The Fox is competently produced, straight-forward superhero fare, with an accessible high-impact art style. The storytelling is simple enough with plenty of allusions and references to Red Circle heroes past and present. But the character, a married reporter in his forties with a superhero wife and an adult superhero daughter, just doesn't seem that compelling to your potential preteen audience. If you are an adult who is a fan of the creators' respective accomplishments, then The Fox (so far) is a competent cape comic of little other distinction, one of a hundred out now. But if you are new to the characters and creators, or a kid looking to dive into a superpowered funny book, there is sadly nothing about the book worth picking up. Haspiel's winning Kirbytastic art is a highlight, but simply insufficient to make the book worth it.

All-ages superhero comics have been a hard-sell in recent years. It's unfair to expect The Fox to compete on the same level as a Spider-Man or Batman with little eyeballs staring at a comic rack, a rack that apparently cannot support even popular superheroes in all-ages books. But it's also competing with dozens of other genres having greater effect in all-ages comics. Something needs to pretty special to stand out in any genre and format, and The Fox is distinguished only by its ordinariness.

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