"Man of God" in Age Of Heroes #4, by Brendan McCarthy and Elliott Kalan. Marvel.
In the old days, this was all we had. The comics would come out every week, just like they do now, and they would sit on the racks in their stapled pamphlets, just like they do now, and they would look like the lowest common denominators of popular culture, just like they do now, and they would read like it far too often et cetera. The difference is that nowadays we've got stuff that doesn't work that way. You can buy a graphic novel in a bookstore, you can check out webcomics on your phone, you can grab a mini at conventions or the good specialty stores, and that's not the whole list of options. In a way it's impressive that the single-issue comic book, so awkward, so slapped together, so minimally considered, has survived this long at all -- let alone as the dominant force of the last medium whose mainstream isn't completely moribund. I bought the comic with "Man of God" in it off a newsvendor in Hollywood who has a spinner rack next to the men's magazines. He looked at me kind of funny when I paid for it because usually all I buy is National Geographic, but I kinda put on this punk rock facial expression that was like "Yeah. Fuck you. Comic books."
This comic's cover says: "THE HEROIC AGE AGE OF HEROES" in big sparkly-gold letters. Then it says: " 'Age of Heroes... sets the tone for the incoming Heroic Age with wit and style and class.' ComicBookResources.com." Seeing that when I bought it, I took a genuine, heart-straining pride in owning this thing, and also in the fact that I've been published on "ComicBookResources.com", even if it was only the one time. Why? It's hard to say, honestly. Maybe it's because I work at "The Gap" all day for minimum wage as the photoshopped faux-post-Springsteen "rock music" blares overhead like air raid sirens -- with a goal of creating a "consumer experience" whose ultimate end is the elimination of human friction, a time-slip after which you don't remember how you lost your money or got those jeans but know it was pleasant enough that you'll come back next time -- and this comic book cover alone is so flawed, so human, so imperfect despite itself, despite the overdone computer-logoing and the silk-smooth Jae Lee artwork. The "AGE AGE" that screams off the masthead, the bizarre, elliptical quote that won't make sense to anyone who isn't deeply vested in not only Marvel continuity but Marvel branding (isn't the Heroic Age already here? it says so on the cover), and besides that, states the book's true intentions almost too baldly (this is a comic book miniseries that exists to generate interest in further comic book series, quality come as it may). It's not part of the larger robot culture, it's something else. Smaller, odder, more alive. I get to be part of this, too. So can you. The issue retails for $3.99.
This is stuff that we only get to see here, the clumsy fumblings of a "media empire" as it gropes for a place in everyday American life. You think a movie, even a prequel for some other movie, leads with "AGE AGE"? You think they feel like convincing the audience that their flick is tonally consistent with the next one to come is important enough to hit the posters with a quote testifying that, in fact, it is? Only in comics, and if you read these kind the choice is between savoring or lamenting this stuff. You figure out where I am.
Or maybe I'm proud of this comic because for all the big-media posturing and commercial affectations it's still playing the same tunes those old comics played, before an underground and a recession broke the newsstand model, before a bunch of dudes decided they had created the "graphic novel", before anyone even considered that things could be different. The Heroic Age Age Of Heroes #4 contains four short superhero stories, told with varying levels of skill and inspiration. This is how it used to be, all right -- no "events", not too many carefully-piloted serials, and comic book after comic book filled up with made-to-order shorts that the editors commissioned by the yard and found a place for somewhere. Two of this book's stories are terrible, one gets by, and one is strange and a little awkward and beautiful. Though three of them involve Captain America to some degree or another, Cap himself gets four lines of dialogue in total, and the comic leads off with an 11-pager about a new female version of the Black Panther dealing with the fallout of her African kingdom having lost its mineral wealth to the ruler of a European nation. (Yes. It's not as good as that sounds.) So this is what comics were and still are, man, beneath the high-art highlights, beneath the New York Times bestseller lists and movie adaptations. The best story in this book is top five in all the comics that came out so far this year, but its format beats the genius down along with all the rest, just like it did to Toth, Kane, Cole, Wood. Down into the unnoticed seas of detritus that the biggest company produces every month, and you really need to care to pluck the diamonds from the rough. No one is telling you you have to read the new Age of Heroes, and maybe that's why it feels so much more special and so much more real to pick up something like Brendan McCarthy's "Man of God" than the new Acme Novelty Library. Quality here isn't planned, it just... happens.
All the format blustering aside, the substance of this thing is also from a simpler (Heroic?) age. Used to be someone would write a script, some short genre thing with a few moments built in that seemed likely to produce good pictures, and then it got put into the hands of the best artist available to draw it, like a prayer put into the hands of God. There was no dithering about where the book was going to be in two years or who was best suited to draw the Batman character (and thank heaven, because then I doubt Dick Sprang would've gotten anywhere near him). The reality was that there were artists who wanted work, and the stories went to the ones who could draw. You could hardly be blamed for thinking that mega-weirdo Britcomics auteur Brendan McCarthy's the least likely guy to fill out that role decades down the line, but here we are, and here he is.
In the entire decade of the 2000s, we got one new McCarthy comic book. It was 48 pages, but still. In the past five months we've gotten six (and a couple hot covers to boot), all of them for the major corporate publishers, half of them done over someone else's scripting. I have no idea why McCarthy's gone this deep into the trenches when he could draw whatever he wanted and have it turn out bought and beautiful; is he hard up for cash? Does he want to know the same artistic existence his Silver Age idols did? Does he want to cut his teeth on a few lo-fi workshop gigs before crescendoing into a "real" return? Or, and this one seemed least likely of all at one point but gets more plausible every time he makes a fairly nowhere script into a wild thing, does he realize that there's greatness to be had down here, too? Everyone with more than a passing interest in genre comics will have come across one of the incredible random shorts that pop out of the industrial-production machine from time to time -- Richard Corben's made decades of them, Bernie Krigstein ripped a string of them in the '50s that we're still catching up to, and Dan Nadel just curated a giant friggin' book of them, but my favorite is Toth's "Girl in the Golden Flower". Has McCarthy really consigned himself to the same depths, to the pious work of elevating hack scripts to Olympian heights by imagining them as beautiful comics? Whether or not it's a long-term career plan, it's what he's spending his time doing these days, and thank god for that.
The short genre story (that is, shorter-than-pamphlet-length) doesn't have too many other top-flight practitioners these days. It's kind of a shame, because they can be really unique and sublime in a way nothing else can. While longer hero stories take pit stops for character development, pacing-focused scenes, crossovers, everything else, and alt-comics shorts are usually concerned with either creating a tone or putting some notable scene on display more than explaining it, the best superhero shorts lock into the subject matter with laserbeam intensity, pruning away all the bells and whistles of shared-universe action serials in favor of beginning, middle, end. Outside of the random miracles like All Star Superman, shorts are pretty much the only places you're likely to find "pure" hero storytelling anymore, just no-frills comics yarns about dudes in costumes doing dangerous shit.
At their best, hero shorts have enough economy and tact on the writing side and enough skill and showboating on the art side to turn every panel into something worthy of consideration -- not epics or sagas as much as collections of little blasts, a funny line there, a clever reference here, a neat composition in that panel, a color-process trick in this one, a string of pearls that manages to never let you down. McCarthy's past two shorts have both come close to this ideal place, but fallen a little far with scripts that left enough space for delectable psychedelic freakouts but not proper conclusions. With "Man of God", though, he finally gets there, incorporating his disorienting visual stylisms into straight storytelling and producing his strongest, most focused art since returning to comics. Though there are few things in the medium like seeing McCarthy go off the chain with his signature brand of post-everything technicolor madness, he gets further here by directing attention first to the story's cleverer nuances and his formidable drawing ability (something that hasn't always been as apparent as it could be in the past few months), and only then slapping down the chromas with his usual vengeance.
"Man of God" is an odd little story, kinda puked up from the depths of Marvel banality -- a Stan'n'Jack rehash drawn by an old master who hasn't worked in years from a script by a dude off "The Daily Show" -- but hell if Stan Lee wasn't a hack whose greatest success had come out of "Monsters to Laugh With" and Jack Kirby wasn't a broke has-been when they started off on their big adventure, and hell if a team like McCarthy and Elliott Kalan can't make a great comic with a little trying. Surprisingly for Marvel, surprisingly for a TV writer, surprisingly for a third-rate superhero anthology, Kalan's script is quite good, maybe even outright laudable. It's yet another entry in not one but two of the most annoying categories of comics, namely Lee/Kirby plot rehashes and stories about reg'lar folks whose lives conspire to bump them into superhero plotlines, but for all that it keeps its feet. There's fertile ground to be mined in both of those wastelands if someone talented digs deep enough, and Kalan shoulders the load with aplomb, giving us characters instead of ciphers (or, funny ciphers instead of bland ones when neccesary), writing dialogue that accomplishes more in a page than the average Brian-Michael Bendis does in a storyarc, and weaving a plot whose simplicity only adds to its glacial power.
"Man of God" is the story of one of the Inuit fishermen who discover Captain America's body floating in a slab of Alaskan ice after his death in Nazi-smashing action, but it's so much more than that. The fisherman's tribe end up worshipping the frozen, glorious figure as a god, and the fisherman himself keeps the faith up to this day and the Super Soldier's second miraculous resurrection from death, prompting a hugely interesting subtext about the way comic book fans "worship" their heroes. "My god isn't named Steve!" yells the fisherman's modernized, post-tribal grandson, and the script isn't afraid to acknowledge the absurdity inherent in the fervent belief fandom uses to make these characters so real. But the fisherman counters with a question: "So your god can come back from the dead, but mine can't?" Later, after recounting the tale of how Captain America's presence spurred him to a heroic deed of his own, he muses to an action-figure fetish: "He made me a better man. That is all the god I need." It's a head-on look at the modern fanboy trend of casting superhero stories as modern mythology, going over the idea's case with a mixture of brutal honesty and warm compassion. The ending's ambiguous, as these things so often are, but that's perfect, really -- how authoritative an answer can we expect about whether or not it's a good idea to worship a Captain America doll? Regardless, it's deep and ambitious and genuinely thought-provoking, which is so much more than expected, so much more than comes along but once in a blue moon. It's a vastly entertaining story that asks big deep questions about life, death, and the beyond; same as the best work of Clowes, Schulz, basically anyone else you care to mention.
Is it that good? Guess not. But it certainly looks better than anything else that's hit the stands in a long while. Since returning to comics, McCarthy's definitely been building to something, paring his linework down while taking bigger and bigger chances with his colors and incorporating an ever-increasing amount of digital graphics. On this issue's glossy paper his "new look" finally comes fully formed, a thick, craggy line carving up the pages with incredible grace, sepia-tone inkwashes pushing the flashbacks into an unrestrained mythological realm, acrobatic use of computer effects, and the warrior strength of Pacific Northwestern motifs standing stoically behind the panels. The framing gets downright defiant, packing metric tons of dreamlike McCarthy weirdness into slick, snappy '60s-Marvel action layouts, and the shifts between illustrative and cartoon drawing come fast and furious, snapping the tone from the laugh-out-loud family drama of present-day Inuit Alaska to the freezing, stentorian grandeur of Captain America's glacier years. The closest relative to this stuff is the stiff, Eastern European, engraved-looking art of Marvel Bullpen also-rans like Don Heck and Dick Ayers, but the color lava, the stylistic switch-ups, the maximalism and poise of McCarthy's style give it so much more. It's got everything form Jamie Hewlett to Kyle Baker to Joe Kubert in its brazen pen scratches and wide-open solid blacks, and it delivers on every emotional beat and moment of archaic wonder in Kalan's script.
But more than simply serving the story, McCarthy creates great moments all by himself. "Let's go outside" is a line that gets you excited about turning the page when there's a purple and orange snowstorm raging over the Alaskan ghetto, throwing huge gusts of digital flash and blue-scarlet snowflakes in our eyes. It's a joy to watch the deep ink washes of the flashback story go from muddy brown to pure gold as the Star-Spangled Avenger's presence kindles the dormant heroism in our fisherman, or to notice how deftly McCarthy frames the glow of a saffron headlight through the indigo night as it illuminates a squabbling family. There's a fanboy thrill in seeing McCarthy's poppy, post-Kirby versions of Iron Man and Goliath or his bestial Sub-Mariner (complete with a dull digital halo to set off his perceived status as an angelic messenger from the "ice-man-god". And his Captain America, despite spending the entire story frozen in a see-through tomb, steals the show with a near-mystical beauty and a transformative power radiating from his ancient eyes. This is superhero comics elevated the only way they can be -- by their art, to the absolute height of action slam and drama, no chance untaken, no moment under-represented, nothing taken for granted, everything drawn onto the page with teakwood solidity and saltwater splash, everything looking glorious, heroic.
And yet at the end of the day this is just another Captain America story, retelling what's got to be one of the two most retold Captain America stories of all time. It doesn't push formal boundaries very far, it doesn't transgress in any "meaningful" ways, and it all ends up happy and right in the end. The fact that it turns those things into strengths is probably rather unlikely to endear it to a legion of superhero fans with no aesthetic sense who've "seen it before", and another legion of alt-comics fans with a problem with hero books who "need more from their comics". Unlike the great comics that get recognized as great right off the bat, you have to come to this story -- it isn't going to come to you. But like every great comic, everything that's worth the reading and the contemplating and the seeking out at any cost, it looks beautiful and it has something to say. I always want more, and plenty of days I feel like I've read enough to have seen it all before, but "Man of God" is a stunning, masterful piece of comics art, and to deny it is to deny the greatness of small wonders, the magic that can come along without our even noticing. Only in comics? I don't know, but you can find it here, you can be a part of it here, maybe even off a newsstand.