Spencer: Superhero comics have been around for over 70 years now. In that time, they’ve amassed quite a pile of tropes that writers return to time after time. One thing I’ve always admired about Jay Faerber’s writing is the way he takes these tropes and plays with them, using our intimate knowledge of them as a kind of shorthand to effortlessly familiarize us with a situation or character. In Faerber’s new series, Anti-Hero, he combines superhero and crime tropes to create a world that shares the best—and worst—of both genres, all while creating a hero who might just be lost in either world.
Callum Finney, small time hood, works for a crimelord named Liam Quinlan. Quinlan has been grooming Finney for great things, but after Finney loses a shipment to the super-strong, invulnerable hero known as Paragon, Quinlan gives Finney one more chance to redeem himself. Fortunately, Finney discovers Paragon changing into his civilian identity in an alley; Paragon is actually a man named Henry, and Henry is going through a divorce, being separated from his kids, and is at risk of losing his job, all because his super-heroic activities interfere with his civilian life. Armed with this juicy piece of information, Finney confronts Henry and lays out his blackmail plans:
On first read, the one moment that stood out to me as “off” in this issue was when Paragon was discovered as he changed his costume in an alley. It seems like an incredibly careless thing for him to do, but then I realized something: Paragon is a character straight out of the Golden Age of Comics. He’s a brightly colored, stoic, unstoppable do-gooder who always saves the day. Even his villains fall into the more classic, goofy-looking idiots of yesteryear:
Yes, his name is Jack Hammer, and yes, he is my new favorite villain. Anyway, with a life like that, of course Paragon would think that he can just change his outfit in an alley somewhere and nobody will notice. The problem is that, while Paragon might be a Golden Age hero, he lives in the modern day. Henry can’t just change uniforms in a phone booth; modern-day villains are going to stalk him and track down his identity from the slightest clue. Henry can’t just run out of the Daily Planet whenever he feels like it to fight crime; his family and his employers won’t just overlook his strange disappearances.
As a result, while Paragon might be a successful hero, Henry is a man lost, a man who has tried his hardest to do what is right and yet is losing everything he holds dear, and my heart aches for him, it really does.
Then there’s Finney. Now I’m not anywhere near as familiar with the tropes of crime stories as I am superhero comics, but Finney strikes me as the classic con man. He’s involved in organized crime, but shows it no loyalty; he’s clearly in this only for himself, and not only abandons his men by jumping off a bridge the second Paragon arrives, but turns around and lies to his boss’s face about it. I can’t think of a worse type of character to discover your secret identity than a con man; at least a villain like Jack Hammer would probably head straight for Henry’s family, and that’s a threat Paragon could stop, but I don’t think Paragon can handle the type of threat Finney poses to him, at least not yet.
Paragon and Finney are men from two very different genres, and Faerber makes it quite clear that Anti-Hero is an attempt to blend both the superhero genre and the crime genre together into something that, hopefully, will be more than the sum of its parts. To that effect, the art team (featuring Nate Stockman on pencils and inks and Paul Little on colors) does a fantastic job of recreating the moods of both genres. When the focus is on Finney, the colors are darker, the shadows more prominent, and the inks heaver, especially in the early pages set in Quinlan’s den. Meanwhile, when the focus shifts to Henry, the colors are bright and bold, the inks clean, and the shadows become less noir-ish.
Even when Finney and Henry finally meet, they’re still drawn in their separate styles, further emphasizing the drastically different worlds they inhabit.
My favorite moment in this issue is actually the scene where Henry breaks the news of his divorce to his children. The writing and art come together to create a scene that might just be perfect:
Stockman’s rendition of Henry’s children is spot-on: they’re adorable, they actually look like children (as opposed to tiny little adults), and they manage to both look like their parents to boot. The acting is fantastic, especially that expression of utter despair on young Hank’s face.
The best part of this page, though, is the fence. Henry wants to be close to his children, to hug them and comfort them, but that fence is in the way. The fence is more than physical, though: it’s the wall Henry has put up by maintaining his secret identity. There’s a part of his life Henry has kept everyone he holds dear out of, and until he lets somebody in, he’ll never be able to have a stable relationship, or job, or to truly be present for his children the way he’d like. It’s obvious that Henry is a good father who absolutely loves his children, but how close to them can he really be when he’s keeping secrets of this magnitude?
So Patrick, since I kinda roped you into reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Did you enjoy the blending of superhero and crime tropes? What about the title: do you think the titular “Anti-Hero” is Henry, Finney, or someone else entirely? And how long will I have to wait to get my hands on a Jack Hammer action figure?
Patrick: Well, let’s see – this year at C2E2, Marvel Editor Tom Brevoort said that it takes about 9 months from the moment they commission an action figure to the day that it actually shows up in stores. It turns out sculpting the original, creating the mold, manufacturing, painting, packaging, marketing, distribution all take a long time. And the issue comes out today… I’d say we’ll be getting that Jack Hammer action figure ON EXACTLY March 25th, 2014. But if you can’t wait that long, just go DIY – how hard could it be?
I love the title Anti-Hero – but it’s such a loaded term, and when we see it used in concert with these two dudes, it’s not entirely clear who it would be referring to. In fact, neither of these guys really fits that bill in any meaningful way – but the new entity that’s created by Paragon being under Finney’s influence certainly will. Blackmailing a superhero is such a fertile ground for heartbreak and conflicting ethics and all that great stuff we associate with our favorite anti-heroes, like Walter White or Tony Soprano. But that’s all what the series promises. This issue settles in very comfortably around loss, and while it’s framed by an opportunistic little shit getting ahead in the world, this issue is profoundly sad.
Henry’s inability to juggle his superhero identity and his civilian identity got me thinking about all the times we see the tension between the two played as false drama. How many times does MJ tell Peter that he needs to spend more time with her? How often do his professors tell him that he really should be spending more time on his homework? How frequently does he get chewed out by Jameson for not turning in enough work? (Shit, Parker’s busy even without the superhero gig.) There’s seldom any real danger of the hero losing control of their personal life — at least on any permanent basis — because those characteristics are fundamental parts of who they are. Sam reason I was pretty sure Alfred would survive the Death of the Family – Batman’s just not Batman without Alfred. Faerber’s got a brand new character to play with, and there’s no limit to how far his life can melt down around him. And that’s extra scary because — until he wasn’t able to juggle it any more — his non-hero life seemed to be going pretty well.
Hey, Spencer, you mentioned that Henry’s on the verge of being fired. It looks like he’s actually got a pretty lenient boss, one that’s only starting to call him on his bullshit now, but right before Paragon dashes out to confront Jack Hammer, their conversation has a look of finality to it.
First of all, I love that this is staged wordlessly through the office window. Second, Stockman draws some wonderfully observed body language during this scene. We’ve all done the ceremonial “begging for time off” dance before. It’s such a desperate play for the smallest amount of freedom. But I also like that we don’t have any clear indication of how that conversation played out – maybe we was fired right then and there.
It’ll also be interesting to see if Finney has any patience for Henry maintaining his civilian identity. This issue did such a good job of showing us that they’re hard things to balance, but it must be hard to do so because it’s worth it. I’m almost reluctant to see what happens to Paragon when he’s lost control of both sides of himself — he just seems like such a nice guy — but this issue instills in me more than enough faith to see this story through. You may have strong-armed this title into my pull, Spencer, but it it’s totally worth it.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?