Off my blog vacation.

Madman Atomic Comics #12

Did this used to be rock 'n roll?

I'll give you this: if there's one thing that's gotta be said about this current incarnation of Michael Allred's oft-adored superhero creation -- and trust me, back around '94 or so you couldn't read a comics-related publication that didn't have the word "Journal" at the end of its title without getting throttled with praise for the stuff -- it's that each page is now absolutely radiant with the serenity of an artist who's utterly in touch with the private world to which he's devoted a restless but assured craft, every last panel all rolled and soaked in as individual an aesthetic fascination as you'll find anywhere outside the front of Previews, although the publisher here is no less than Image Comics. In other words, if it's not always a satisfying thing to readers, issue by issue, it does sweetly hum with the glow of seeming deeply satisfying to the artist, which is a real and certain virtue for any comic.

And there's been a dozen of 'em since 2007! That seems like an awful lot - over half as many as Dark Horse published in nearly seven years (1994-2000). I've been following along since the (newest) beginning, and while this particular issue is smack in the middle of the series' second storyline, I couldn't possibly resist covering a comic that's dedicated (in part) to Osamu Tezuka and composed in consultation with (among others) Al Columbia, although I quickly realized that a review of issue #12 would almost have to become an overview of the series thus far.

But then, maybe that'll be useful. As big and present thing as Madman at least used to be, those exploits of once-dead pro killer turned gentle, scarred superhero Frank Einstein and all his snazzy far-out scientist-alien-beatnik-robot friends, it seems oddly needy for discussion; for all that 10-year old acclaim, you just don't hear an awful lot about the series anymore, critically or otherwise, despite the stuff getting out there more frequently than ever, and with distribution that many would kill for. Perhaps it's simply been around for too long, with too many stops and starts. Maybe the artist just doesn't have so much buzz behind him at the moment, having come off a smattering of Marvel projects (including the recent Thor God-Sized Special #1, I think) and a handful of issues of The Golden Plates, a laborious attempt to adapt the Book of Mormon to comics form.

Still, I'm tempted to chalk a lot of it up to Madman Atomic Comics coming off as inexorably different from the sprightly, love & pop, so-uncool-it-goddamned-well-knows-its-cool Tundra (1993) & Dark Horse comics that so many readers fell head over heels for in the midst of the gritted teeth and prolific pouches that sold millions of units at the same time. The aesthetic politics have since moved on - and look who's publishing!

In contrast, this new series (issue #1 is online in full) started off as a slow, compelling-frustrating callback to Allred's earliest and most ponderous work, with Madman spending page after loaded page conversing with himself and obscure beings as per his existence and destiny, which admittedly had been where the Dark Horse series was headed anyway in terms of tone. It wasn't until the Image issue #3, a dizzying homage to seemingly each and every one of Allred's 12,537 visual influences, one by one, moment by moment, the whole business cast as a type of cleansing ritual for Madman himself, lost in his own mind, words and statements becoming absurdly stretched and painfully reiterated to accommodate more space, more reference, more more more, that the series begin its gradual build as a respected veteran cartoonist's vessel for visual spectacle and whatever else.

There's other ongoing fantasy comics given to a similarly art-centered poise, of course - Hellboy would be a popular one that came of age around the same time, its layers of myth and lore and backstory stretching its action comic coat. But Allred's work has always seemed more coiled than coated, with even the loopiest superhero content wrapped tight around his personal obsessions: spiritual struggle; rock 'n roll; 20th century pop ephemera; the threat of emotional isolation; pure romantic love. It surely isn't for nothing that so many of his male protagonists are modeled after himself, and that all of them are disfigured or mutated, or somehow made weird - I'm sure Mike Mignola loves all the stuff that goes into his comic, but Allred is willing to throw himself right into the mix at any (even every!) moment, even at risk of upsetting an audience-pleasing status quo for his profound presence.

So I guess it's more immediately fitting that this latest, Atomic version of the series should proceed with a herky-jerky pace guided by seemingly nothing firmer than whatever fresh visual techniques Allred plans to pull off next with letterer Nate Piekos and beyond-vital colorist Laura Allred, though sometimes you come to long for narrative restraint. It doesn't seem to matter that following a no-talking issue (#7) with a winking movie-style wide panel recap issue (#8) and an issue devoted entirely to a left-to-right action scene set against a single continuous background image (#9) might play havoc with the wild dramatics the script has sent Madman, including multiple revelatory visions, an intergalactic journey, predestined war with a near-omnipotent monarch and multiple presumed supporting cast deaths - characters might frown or shed a tear or two, but it's soon off to the next set piece. It's a triumph of occasion over resonance.

This isn't to say the series quite clomps around with a numbing action comics boom - if anything, Allred takes an almost perverse glee in divining the contemplative potential from any new formal contortion. Yet the series often seems aimless, and Madman's nonstop angst can be tiring; there'll be little to hold readers who find Allred's thorough spiritual ruminations -- who are we? why are we here? what's in store for us? -- boring or inane, save for maybe the sheer force of his visuals.

And I can't say I'm entirely taken with those at the moment either - if you thought that long background image mentioned above happened to suggest an animation background painting, well, I think you've just figured out the Columbia influence and maybe the Tezuka dedication (although I can imagine the artist grooving on the visually agile philosophical musing of Phoenix), since Allred is apparently interested in transforming his panels into outrageously lush screen captures from the most lavish cartoon movie this planet has ever seen.

But as lovely as Allred's soot-shaded characters look against his soft backgrounds (and again, Laura Allred's increasingly delicate coloring approach is extremely important to the final effect), those images really do seem captured. I guess that's appropriate enough for the style Allred is shooting for, since an animation cel depicting a brute kicking Our Hero isn't supposed to look all that lively on its own (being purposed as a logical and pleasing portion of a sequence that will depict the action when put together), though for all the flying leaps and clashes going on there's almost no sense of movement, or any sensation of body-on-body connection, which compounds the story's sense of events leaving little impact.

Yet there remain pulses of real beauty; Allred is an excellent character designer, with even simple-looking creations like that blue guy on the cover feeling like they're embodying something conclusive about classic action man comic book art. He makes fine use of limited poses, as if distilling the most iconic gestures from a million prior superhero drawings, and his grasp of body language and facial expressions is formidable. If it's gonna sit there, it'll look pretty doing so.

There's also a certain playfulness to even his more stolid work, which can act to leaven his stories' psychological import; issue #11, for example, saw Madman racing through his parents' home to discover the source of long-winded black caption boxes that had been filling recent issues -- turns out Our Hero could hear them same as we could read them -- only to discover a phantom vision of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie living in the attic, calling itself Zacheous and seeking to turn him on to a distinctly Mormon vision of post-Earthly life. At which point Frank learns that his girlfriend Joe is finally being extracted from the body of superheroine Luna, wherein she'd been fused for the last few issues, possibly as a wink toward the women having near-identical character designs - you'd think that'd be the focus of the issue, but it's merely tossed out as a means of sending Frank Einstein (aka: Prometheus, dig it?) crashing out of his latest visitation, the real stuff of Allred's dreams.

This new issue keeps things rolling, more or less. There's a new visual trick, with Madman's race home taking up the top half of various double-page panel sequences while the bottom half (a big MEANWHILE is laid in between, in case you forget) depicts Joe and Luna hanging around back at the lab. The issue's title screams Madgirl!, though this sensational character find turns out to be Joe trying to surprise Frank by wearing a modified version of one of his costumes (with painted-on freckles!), a typically off-handed 'revelation' for the series. Then blue guy shows up, having been hinted at since issue #2, and whomps the hell out of everyone in a manner that involves sending them to a sort of Hell via an alien furnace.

As usual, it's not so much strange and fun as strangely fun, with a great deal of visual dazzle expended to an aloof effect. There's not that much tortured thinkItalicing involved this time, but you can sense it coming up soon enough, as it's as much the stuff of Allred's art as his drawings and Laura's colors, melding the whole into something even more vivid and distancing, like a wall of personal stuff that by its candor forces the witness to behold, though it's something to behold all right.

And, truth be told, beyond all that glossy contemplation, Allred is still coupling his unstoppable aesthetic-ecstatic desires to some possibly-fascinating perspectives on superhero tropes, albeit nothing so visibly ginchy as the pop that made his name. Something about the artist's barrage of upended belief systems and fresh 'truths' about existence seems to evoke the endless upheaval of contemporary superhero universes, while the comic's nearly blasé attitude toward actual death and rebirth via high science suggests the impermanent nature of caped disasters. Allred charges it all up so as to essentially overload the genre decadence, leaving some rather simple metaphors for adult pursuits - nonstop revelations become the human search for spiritual belonging, while the capability for scientific miracles is cast as Madman's longing to relate to an adoptive scientist father on a beneficial level.

Maybe this will all play out in the future, maybe not. Until then, Allred's beautiful misfits continue to sway slowly in a glamorous haze, to a beat that only one man could ever provide. Which is pretty rock 'n roll anyway.