July 21, 2008

The Eat-Your-Greens Indie Review of the Week

I actually love vegetables quite a bit (except beets, so leave me the fuck alone about beets). But like a lot of convenience-obsessed Americans, I don't always go out of my way for a good veggie, especially if it means dirtying a pot or needing a fork for lunch at my desk. This weekly-ish off-the-mainstream-highway indie comics feature is what I'm doing instead of going to the Union Square farmer's market after work for perfect asparagus.

True originality is rare, and should be hunted down and properly acknowledged whenever possible. At the same time, there's a reason those of us who are into the superhero crap keep coming back to the genre's familiar formulas week after week--I can't really tell you what that reason is, but there must be one. That's why it's satisfying when someone takes a common superhero scenario and still manages to make it its own thing through the details.

Penance: Trial of the Century, a four-issue mini from Arcana Studio by Ryan Foley and Gian Fernando (credited in the book as GOOF), pulled this off in its first issue this week. The book initially caught Aaron's attention because of the "Penance" part, which of course is the current name of Thunderbolt and former New Warrior Speedball in the Marvel Universe--in the Arcana book, Penance is in fact the name of a superhero, and within the first few pages, he allegedly causes the death of another mask called Justice, which also happens to be the name of a former New Warrior--I'm not totally sure how that all works copyright-wise, but I guess they are just nouns.

In its fundamentals, Penance: Trial of the Century is pretty much Powers with one lady cop instead of the Walker-Pilgrim pair, and takes place in Atlanta instead of, uh, whatever city Powers takes place in. It kicks off with a rooftop battle between two costumed gentlemen, which is caught live on tape by a news helicopter. Penance apparently pushes Justice off the building along with Justice's civilian hostage, and both fall to their deaths--but the helicopter flies behind a gargoyle at a key moment, missing the murderous money shot. However, there's plenty of footage to haul Penance in for the tragedy, and police officer LJ McCloud is all too happy to lay it down on a vigilante who she feels undermines police work and, coincidentally, killed the wife of her best friend in this incident. The citizens are equally pissed--as a costumed criminal, Justice may have deserved what he got, but Penance equally deserves to pay for it.

Sounds fairly standard, right? Cops resent superheroes, public loses faith in superheroes as soon as they cause collateral damage, superhero commits the perfect crime for sending a message and making an example of, etc. But then a few interesting details unfold--the importance of Atlanta and the South as the setting are repeatedly reinforced; the superheroes are unionized; a relentless union leader by the name of Parasol launches a savvy campaign to support Penance and slowly gets to work on convincing McCloud that they're on the same side; there's something important about McCloud's elderly dad. The art is choppy and angular in a way that perfectly reflects the minor chaos of the plot, and the chaos adds to the realism--of all the many attempts to portray what it would be like if the "real world" (i.e. the world pretty much as we know it) had superheroes, this may be the closest I've seen. Lots of bureaucracy, media sensationalism, reactionaries, assholes.

But even more to the point, how many superhero comics take place in the urban South? There's always a hero from Kentucky who goes back to the family farm when things get rough or whatever, but the South is rarely the center of metahuman activity and attention. This seems to be a key element of the story, and mega-Northerner as I may be, I find this a rather promising change from the New York-Gotham standard. There's even a superhero called the Confederate, costumed just as you might imagine--and as long as the series doesn't take any too-obvious turns with this character, there's a lot of possibilities for nuanced tension there.

So that said, I'm giving Penance: Trial of the Century #1 a rating of "al dente," needing no more than a sprinkle of salt and maybe some Smart Balance, what with all the cigarette smoking. Definitely recommended.


Ryan said...

For Awesomed By Comics,
I was attracted to your blog by GOOF and I wanted to send along my comments. Man, you really got it. Your review summed up so much of what I was thinking as this comic was coming together. Thank you very much for the praise and I hope you dig the rest of the series. I can tell you that there are some pretty shocking moments coming. After reading your review, I think we have set up things pretty darn well because you are asking all the questions I hoped readers would ask... Thanks for coming along on the ride! Happy reading!!!

Evie said...

Hey Ryan, so glad to hear it! Really looking forward to the rest of the series (uh, #2 hasn't come out yet, has it?). You should also check out Episode #6 of our podcast where we talk about the book (there's a link to the feed in the right sidebar of the blog). Keep up the good work!