Monday, September 21, 2009

Superfogeys, Chapters 4-6

Tone is tricky business.

The usual route is to give your work a single, general consistent tone. This adds an additional level of cohesion and consistency to the work, and you can easily see it in film. Pay close attention to the next movie you see, and it'll quickly become clear what sort of reaction it's trying to evoke from you, regardless of how well it succeeds. Many webcomics take the single-tone approach too, from newspaper-style daily doses of humor (Sheldon, The Book of Biff) or ongoing character-driven plot threads (Multiplex, Girl Genius).

However, life doesn't always stick to a single mood, so why should art? Some creative works try to capture a broader spectrum of human emotion. The phenomenon is especially common in anime. There's a risk involved in such an approach, and's article on Mood Whiplash notes: "Done well, the contrast in moods can make each emotion all the more poignant and effective. Done poorly, the contrast can jar the reader/viewer right out of the story."

In reading chapters four through six of The Superfogeys, I realized that this full spectrum of tone is exactly what Brock Heasley is going for.

A lot happens in these three chapters--more than can be treated in detail in a single review. It also contains several important reveals and reversals that I won't spoil. Suffice it to say that The Third Man has assembled a powder keg of personalities at the superhero retirement home Valhalla. By gathering pint-sized villain Dictator Tot, senile superheroine Star Maiden, and super-anti-hero Tangerine among the current denizens of Valhalla, he can turn incident to injury, casual encounter to casualty, with very precise results.

I'm reminded of the quotation from Fight Club: "All a gun does is focus an explosion in one direction." And yes, someone does get shot here, and yes, someone dies. It's sudden, it's jarring, and it reminded me of a moment from a few years ago when I was playing baseball with some of my extended family. One moment we were all laughing and having fun, and the next moment my uncle's thumb was bent at a wrong angle. I didn't know how to feel; I couldn't believe what had happened. The death in chapter 5 left me with a similarly bizarre feeling.

But what exactly is the Third Man aiming at? Despite sparingly-given hints, his reasons have yet to be revealed. A lot hinges on the believability of his motivations, but that's a task for future chapters.

Chapter Six contains another of Captain Spectacular's reminiscences: his and Dr. Rocket's origin story. Overall, it's one of the more effective blendings of tone in the Superfogeys. Its jokes are generally humorous, its drama develops the characters of the Captain and the Doctor, and in particular it gives Dr. Rocket some very human motivations for his life of villainy. The story is also notable for its non-intrusive but interesting inclusion of religious elements. In short, it works.

Unfortunately, not all such multi-toned scenes are as successful. Captain Spectacular's marriage proposal to Spy Girl is treated with such casualness and humor that I found her acceptance hard to believe. In my opinion, without any ceremony or romance to it (not even a ring!), by all rights the Captain's proposal should have fallen flat on its face. On occasion, a strip ends in a punchline where a dramatic "punch" would have been more effective. Some moments are so surreal that I have trouble classifying their tone entirely. The musical number by the Healer and Captain Emo is an out-and-out dud, and I can't help but feel embarrassed for them.

These chapters of Superfogeys have some decidedly hilarious moments, though. A cameo of Clovis the Bear from Imagine This yields one extremely funny strip, plus a handful of additional jokes. Dr. Rocket's litany of crimes in this strip (spoiler watch active!) escalates the humor all the way to the knockout punchline, and this extracanonical comic makes an excellent and humorous introduction to Superfogeys as a whole.

I really can't say anything bad about the artwork. It's not the best in the business, but the linework is efficient, panel layouts are diverse and effective, and overall the art exhibits notable consistency. Many webcomics have artwork that is all over the board in terms of quality. In every strip, though, Brock Heasley exhibits a level of competence that, while not especially flashy, does the job, and does it well.

Brock Heasley is at the top of his game when he is presenting the lives of his elderly superheroes just as they are. It's most noticeable with Swifty, but his cantankerous cynicism is just one reaction to old age. Consider this strip where Captain Spectacular flashes back to his first meeting with Dr. Klein. There's a joke, but the humor underscores the reality that the Captain and the world have parted ways. He's in a dark place--literally.

On the whole, I feel like I can recommend Superfogeys as a quality comic at this point. I've read a good deal of it, and while the humor is about three parts hit and one part miss, there's more than just humor to its appeal. It has suspense, an engaging ongoing plotline, and a well-developed cast of unusual individuals. Plus, where else can you find a comic that takes the concept of elderly superheroes and doesn't stop at just playing it for laughs?

If you haven't already, give Superfogeys a look. Early chapters were shaky, but I've found it to be worth sticking with.


tyler said...

Brock has done a great job of making a multi-layered story that is fun and captivating. The style reminds me of my favorite show, Lost. He's planned this out and it's going to unravel in some unexpected ways. I also really enjoy the flashbacks and guest artists.

I disagree a bit on the song by the Healer and Captain Emo. It wasn't my favorite, but it wasn't terrible. And I disagree on Clovis the Bear. It was kind of cool to see a guest character, but he was too much like Dictator Tot. I like Dictator Tot much more than Clovis.

Great review! Thanks for giving some good backing to your analysis. You've made some excellent points about tone and other elements of comics. I definitely value your opinion.

Jackson said...

A differing opinion! Thanks for dropping a comment, Tyler. It's cool to hear people talk about the comics I read from their own personal angle, and perhaps even to disagree with me on some points. As a Dictator Tot fan myself, I can see where you're coming from with the point about Clovis. I'm sticking to my guns on the Dr. Rocket song, though. :)

I also like the way that Brock's planning manifests and shows itself in the storyline. In commentary on a recent strip, he noted that he was no longer just telling a story, but building a universe. The most interesting thing to me about that universe, though, is the focal point that is its characters. We're viewing that world from after the superheroes' swan song. I've never really seen that done before.

Anyhoo, thanks for the kind words--for me and for Brock! :)