Wednesday, June 30, 2010

45 Thoughts on '45' (PCS Repost)

As follow-up to my recent pseudo-interview with the creators of Forty-Five, I was sent an advance copy to review. Since it's an unconventional book, I figured it deserves an unconventional review--so here are 45 thoughts about Forty-Five:

1. Forty-Five is not a good comic book--in the traditional sense that a comic book involves a mix of words and pictures in a sequential narrative. The unusual format, a collection of 45 thematically linked interviews, each with an accompanying image by a different artist, feels more like an illustrated novella. More than any book old or new that you'll pick up in a comic shop in 2010, Forty-Five deserves the label graphic novel.

2. Forty-Five is a very good read. Despite the odd format, each character comes alive in the brief moments we have with them, and you become truly invested in the protagonist interviewer James Stanley's exploration of life as a Super-S (the term for those with powers; Normans are the regular non-powered folks), an investigation he's conducting in preparation for the birth of his own possibly Super-S child.

3. Writer and creator Andi Ewington has created a rich setting where super powers have become common--caused by an extra mutant chromosome that has found its way into the collective human gene pool--and the Norman response has become to either celebrate it, fear it, or, in some cases, try to exploit it.

4. Whether Ewington's deviation from the standards of comic book storytelling works for you, you'll be drawn in by his impressive world building. While the subject matter is very different, I was reminded of the way, in World War Z, Max Brooks manages to paint such a complete, epic picture of a zombie infested Earth, simply through fictional interview excerpts.

5. While $17.99 USD may seem like a rich cover price for only about 60 pages, the book is so densely packed with story that you'll get your money's worth simply on time spent reading.

6. By "densely packed," I mean the print is very small. I don't know if the dimensions of the final printed book will help with this, but I certainly took advantage of my ability to zoom in and enlarge the text on screen.

7. Griping about font size isn't a strike against Ewington or the Com.X editors. There's hardly a wasted word on any pages. The story is just too big a picture to paint within the limiting canvas of one spread per subject.

8. If anything, this is a book that would be well served to have a digital version made available, allowing e-readers to zoom in and enjoy the writing, minus the eye strain.

Simon Bakersfield-by Andie Tong

9. If dense copy alone doesn't sell you (or if all this font size talk has you worried), consider the gorgeous artwork by a small army of contributors. The full-color illustrations accompanying each of the 45 interviews are not just throwaway, rush-job pin-ups. Each one tells as much story as its respective interview, and the variety of styles helps contribute to the vibrant landscape of Ewington's world.

10. Forty-Five begins with an interview of parents of a newborn Super-S, just after delivery, while they are still feeling the glow of new parenthood. When asked what the couple has decided to name the boy, the father begins to rattle off all the superhero aliases they've already considered for the kid, not realizing the interviewer meant the child's actual given name. The sheer joy and elation of the mother and father is undercut by this subtle hint of madness that you can assume the rest of the world is experiencing.

11. The variety of super powers displayed throughout the story is intriguing. By the third interview--of young Sally Berkley, who surrounds herself with an illusory fairyland of elves and satyrs where she can be their magical princess--you really get the sense that the Super-S powers may be growing beyond Norman control and comprehension.

12. With the interview of Nathan Miles-Miller, gifted with the power to control water, a father determined to see his son become a superhero, and no interest of his own to do so, it is clear that those Normans that do think they can control the Super-S's may not be doing so with the best intentions.

13. It isn't all ominous dread, however, as some of the interviews focus on reasonably well-adjusted Super-S's who are handling their powers wisely and responsibly. Ewington manages to present these cases in a way that suggests a generation gap and a learning curve for the Normans, more than an impending super-powered apocalypse. We're right on top of the fault line of a paradigm shift.

14. The Academy of Higher Development comes up often throughout the story, just one of many interesting bits of societal geography that beg for further exploration--perhaps, in a sequel or spin-off?

15. The case of "LunarBlade" throws a wrench (or maybe a crescent-shaped sword) into the works of how Super-S works, as she comes by her powers after chemical exposure--not necessarily due to the mutant chromosome to which others' powers are attributed (so she's what Ewington calls 2nd Degree.) Thankfully, the 2nd Degrees don't strain the believability of the broader Super-S story; rather, they expand the possibilities in this world.

LunarBlade-by Kit Wallace

16. Also expanding the possibilities in this world are government-sanctioned guardians of specific cities, "black ops" style Super-S activity (linked to a group called XoDos), and official super teams like The ANNEX. It's impressive how much of the story in Forty-Five takes place in the periphery of James Stanley's interviews, in addition to the story points in the interviews themselves.

17. Black Jak'd, who has the ability to see in the future, but suppresses the power with drugs, was the first character to jump out as a potential lead in his own Forty-Five spin-off comic. The heightened sense of conspiracy in his story and the artwork by Boo Cook certainly helped make the case.

Black Jakd-by Boo Cook

18. Auroron, as illustrated by Sean Phillips, screams Dr. Manhattan, but his foul-mouthed, braggadocious interview suggests The Comedian. An interesting pairing of power and personality, for sure.

19. "Bodyjacking" would be a wicked cool power (as displayed by the character called Residence). For a villain, at least. Residence-by Rodin Esquejo

20. The interview with Solarflare and CarbonCopy, a dynamic duo with a less-than-dynamic partnership, devolves into the kind of silly hero in-fighting that comes up all too often in mainstream superhero comics, but instead of serving as satire or commentary on that, it simply disrupts the tone of the story up to that point.

21. Such a moment could have served as an opportunity for Ewington to change the narrative structure of the book, and jump into some sequential storytelling, but instead, the chaos is left unresolved at the end of the single-page interview, and we move on to a new Super-S subject.

22. With RollCage, we get yet another type of super in the world of Forty-Five--the Exo-S, which simply means his powers are completely external. Jeff Anderson's accompanying illustration and the mercenary, in-it-for-the-perks bravado of the character are reminiscent of DC's Booster Gold, as he was reinvented during 52.

23. The world expands again with Stronghold, described as a "Super-M"--a Super-S who has experienced a more drastic physical mutation.

24. Digging deeper into the story of XoDos and the Lotus reveals that, while we're not dealing with traditional storytelling here, we do, in fact, have the equivalent of a Big Bad lurking in the shadows and behind the scenes of all these interviews.

Zip-by Matt Timson25. Before reading a word of the interview, my jaw dropped at Matt Timson's scary and heartbreaking illustration of Zip--a Flash-like super speedster who also has the unfortunate ability (or curse) to age people with a touch.

26. The Zip entry is another one where it seems jarring how the interviewer simply walks away from the chaos that has broken out during the course of his interview. It is an intense scene, but one hindered by the book's structure.

27. And again, with the combo-interview between rival Super-S's DarkMatter and Twister, the interview deteriorates into chaos that is cut short. At this point, it is clear that the Super-S community is putting on a false smile for its adoring public, as most of the veteran adult Super-S's act anything but adult.

28. These first-generation Super-S's are more like children than the kids profiled earlier in the book. Some, more like sociopaths!

29. "Vader" as a catch-all term for "evil" Super-S's (or super-villains) is brilliant.

30. It is also one of many subtle reminders that the starting point for the world of Forty-Five is definitely our own. The interview that takes place with Peter in his father's comic shop earlier in the book is filled with similar nods to our own real-world pop culture.

31. Ewington paces out the interviews wisely, knowing when the reader needs a break from any XoDos business and talk of government conspiracies. While the radioactive hero with cancer has become a comic book cliche, the interview with G-Core is a welcomed dose of super-powered humanity.

32. Some of the interview subjects--eg, Mr. Doe, Flaky-J--raise the questions How did James Stanley possibly arrange these interviews? and How does Stanley expect to survive his book release?

33. That first question is certainly never addressed.

34. "Max-Dex" as the name of a Super-S with inhuman dexterity tickles my nerdy bone. I'm not sure whether RPG humor is the highest or lowest form of geek humor, but I like it.

35. Aftershock Girl, illustrated by Trevor Hairsine and colored by Frank D'Armata, is another character rich enough to carry her own title. At 74 years of age, she's the oldest active Super-S in the world, and her interview barely scrapes the surface of storytelling possibilities with her.

Aftershock Girl-by Trevor Hairsine

36. As the book began with the birth of a Super-S, things wind down with the death of another--StateSide seems to be a Captain America type hero, but the interview dodges any obvious sense of homage or satire.

37. I've used "satire" more than once in this review, but it is worth clarifying that the tone of Forty-Five is dead serious.

38. Forty-Five is not a half-hearted poke at mainstream comics, nor is it a weak riff on the Justice League or the Avengers (like so many other attempts at introducing "new" superheroes).

39. The characters and conflicts in Forty-Five all feel very organic--clearly sprung from the same well as the heroes and villains of the DC and Marvel Universes, but managing to transcend the obvious inspirations in a way few new superhero books ever manage.

40. Robert Kirkman's Invincible comes to mind as another such exception, where the created world has sprawled far beyond simply Superman and Captain America ciphers. However, that series thrives on its serialized, popcorn movie tone. The world in Forty-Five is much darker. Sleeper, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, is probably a closer comic book match.

41. The 45-interview format makes a direct comparison to other comics difficult. In fact, Forty-Five reads more like a compendium to a role-playing game universe...

42. ...and I would love to roll up a character for that game.

43. There's an impressive collection of backup features included in this book--deleted scenes, extra and alternate artwork, and even two fictional interviews with the fictional James Stanley promoting his fictional collection of fictional interviews!

44. No fault of Ewington or the 45 artists involved with this project, but it is unfortunate that one of the pull quotes on the back cover, along with one of two forewords within, is attributed to "Optimous Douche" (from Ain't It Cool News). There's a time and a place for Internet aliases. The back of an otherwise extremely respectable read is probably not one of them. :)

45. Forty-Five is open-ended. Since the storytelling is restricted to what James Stanley reports in his 45 interviews, we're left wondering exactly how all the threads from those interviews will resolve and even exactly what will become of Stanley and his unborn, possibly Super-S child. This isn't a bad thing and it isn't a spoiler. It's just the ending the format demands. Also in demand, more from Andi Ewington and the Forty-Five Universe!

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