Sterling Silver

*Well, today went better than I’d expected. Now all I need to do is sleep for 20 hours and I’ll be fresh as a daisy and ready to rumble for my thrilling weekend of additional work. Ooh! My fingertips tingled just typing those luscious words out! Well, at least I’m (finally) seeing Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 tomorrow evening, so that’s something to keep my mind off the endless email and paperwork and rocking hard like a powerful adult. Boom.

Solo #7

I’ll get my bias out of the way first - there’s basically no way I can’t respect a fellow who poses for his author’s photo in a head-to-toe cheetahman costume (it’s actually a character out of G-Men From Hell, I do believe), so headlining creator Mike Allred (utilizing the more formal ‘Michael’ here) has some big points in his favor right there. There’s also the book’s ever-shifting cover art, which has proven to be a fun distraction; pretty much every iteration of the cover is included somewhere in here, except for the infamous Adam West pose, though DC has thoughtfully archived it on their site for our collective edification. Be sure and note how the solicitation text refers to the book’s centerpiece Batman story, Batman A-Go-Go!, as something in which “…the Caped Crusader is taken on a kooky psychedelic journey.” Having finished the story in question, I can only wonder if the good folks at DC have actually read the thing; too busy swapping cover pics? Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As usual, there’s nothing particularly solo about this issue of Solo; putting Mike Allred at the helm was an immediate assurance of that, since the familiar ‘Mike Allred’ look is actually the work of Mike and Laura Allred, the latter providing absolutely essential color work. Indeed, it’s difficult for me to imagine a colorist more vital to the visual style of a penciler/inker than Laura Allred. Just look at any of the intermittent works of Mike’s that don’t sport Laura’s hues, and try to process the thing - it’s almost the output of an entirely different person. Husband and wife, the Allreds form a truly unique visual entity by marrying their individual talents; it’s not ‘solo,’ but it’s certainly singular, and it’s present throughout this entire project. The pair also co-wrote three of the six stories presented in this book, with two others scripted by Mr. Allred’s older brother Lee, working from his younger sibling’s stories. The remaining piece is written by Lee alone. All lettering is by Nate Piekos.

There’s quite a lot of superheroes in this issue; usually these books will roll out at least one obligatory short from an alternate genre, but not here. As the book’s one-page introduction mentions (translated from Bizarro), it’s a love letter to DC Comics. In particular, the valentine is intended for DC superheroes, mainly as filtered through a nostalgic lens, the tone perpetually locked into the late ’60s or thereabouts. This does, however, lead to varied approaches; there’s both fun and criticism in store, though the visual delight is always a constant, and perhaps the guiding light for those not so open to the cheesy joy of vintage DC miscellany.

The fun mostly arrives through a pair of gently tweaked comedic superhero romps. An Hour With Hourman characterizes the titular pill-popping hero as just that - a drug user, albeit an exceedingly heroic one. Having gulped down a 60-minute Miraclo Pill (the time-limited source of his amazing powers) pursuant to a false alarm, Hourman struggles to find ways to work off his buzz: “I have to burn off some of this gunk or I’m gonna pop!” He resorts to delivering pizzas, painting houses, fixing flat tires, anything to burn away that superhero time; it’s all lovingly rendered in a pale, dull palette, save for the hero himself, an impossibly rich black and gold, living in the Miraclo moment, the rest of the world struggling to catch up.

Even more bustling is Doom Patrol vs. Teen Titans, in which the Silver Age latter throw a wild rock ‘n roll party in a neglected Bruce Wayne penthouse apartment; pretty much everyone shows up, including assorted Phantom Zone personalities, half the Legion of Super-Pets, and even Mr. Terrific (yes, he of Gone and Forgotten fame), much to the chagrin of Doom Patrol, who’re just trying to get some sleep on the floor below. With the emphasis firmly planted on adolescent hi-jinx, nonsense fighting, and coy sexuality, it comes off as something of a PG-13 Super Fuckers set in the DCU. And while the time period hammering gets a bit rich (way too much “Groovy” and “Don’t blow your top” for me), the modestly executed dot coloring of one Allred perfectly compliments the other’s gorgeous character renderings, every last random guest cameo splashed across the page as if it’s their finest moment, as if we might never see them again, and they have to be loaned maximum archetypical power.

And then, there’s the long-gestating feature presentation of this book, Batman A-Go-Go!, also serving as the ‘industry comment’ portion of our program. The plot follows the beloved Adam West television incarnation of Our Hero, as he’s suddenly confronted with a changing world of race riots and ideological challenge and horribly violent crime, the specter of irrelevancy hanging over him, accompanied by a mighty temptation to become something that (not very coincidently) resembles the Caped Crusader currently gracing our comics racks; eventually, everything spirals into total bedlam, especially regarding the suddenly rebellious Burt Ward Robin, death and disgrace everywhere.

At this point, devoting a story largely to critiquing the contemporary darkening of superhero icons is getting dangerously close to becoming as hoary a cliché as the darkening itself, especially since Infinite Crisis appears to be raring to spin the good ship toward the sun once again, the pendulum swinging back as it always does. And so, Batman’s crisis of idealistic purpose (“Sink down to the criminals’ own level. Use their own ghastly methods against them. I can see it now: slicing hands with razor-sharp little batarangs. Walking out on my friends in the Justice League because it doesn’t fit with my image anymore. Being wanted by the police every bit as much as the criminals I hunt.”) feels familiar, tardy, tired; by the time Alfred cited Gardner’s On Moral Fiction and mused “Why is it the good things are never ‘real life,’ only the bad?” I was about ready for a nap.

But then, there’s zones of vigor too. The Riddler stands up for the absurdity of superheroes and their colorful foes (“We’re artists, you and me. Your game, your silly rules…”). The script slyly pins the whole disaster on (what else these days?) a Very Evil Woman. And, much like in every other story in this issue, the art carries it all through. The Allreds recognize the potent visual absurdity of plunging the pop art television Batman and his accompanying iconography into increasingly Grand Guignol scenarios, beloved supporting characters’ mutilated body parts turning up in little boxes one page away from a clash with the Human Firefly, a dreary, glassy-eyed Bruce Wayne opening up the Shakespeare bust to hit the secret button; by the time we get to the epic mass-murder/suicide finale, the drawn-on eyebrows on Batman’s cowl are comment enough - no dialogue is necessary. In this way, even the well-trodden path of advocating bright heroism in the face of a seemingly cruel reality seems scenic, the ravishingly corny final page feeling oddly earned rather than smacking of a cop-out.

There’s more in the book. A two-page New Gods strip is fun enough, and the wordless concluding childhood reverie showcases yet more visual aplomb, almost every hero who hasn’t yet appeared suddenly flying down to enhance a youthful state of mind. You sort of have to love superheroes in a way to get the most out of this; you have to be tuned into the same old-school frequency that feeds the Allreds’ tribute. Any appreciation of impossibly crisp spandex-and-capes art will lead you to raise an eyebrow at these pages, yes, even if you’re not entirely onboard the Silver Age train; there’s something to be said for pure aesthetic splendor, and there’s not much else out that’s more splendorous than this. But Mike and Laura and Lee Allred want you to fall into this book entirely. And that’ll maybe take a little extra push.