Managed to do a great trade with John Lees at the Glasgow League of Writers group (http://glowriters.blogspot.co.uk) tonight – ‘Taking Flight’ arrived hot off the press from UKomics this morning, roughly about the same time as John’s stock of the third issue of The Standard dropped, so we swapped.
Just got home and read it, and thought I better get a post up here while it’s fresh.
I loved the Standard when I first caught it. I didn’t know John then; he kind of snuck up on the non-GLoW part of the comics scene in Glasgow with some incredible reviews, and on reading about it I knew I had to get it straight away. I wasn’t disappointed – the first issue occupied this strange beautiful place between the Silver and Dark ages of comics, walking that tightrope with some ease. After setting up the main story and introducing us to some fantastic characters, it ended on a bang, snatching the ground out from under us, and instantly setting its stall as a comic that would be dealing with the unexpected.
The art by Jon Rector (http://jonathanrector.tumblr.com/) was fantastic – dense inks that left enough room for the story to shine through, not dedicated to splashing black across every inch of panel. The art really acted in service to the story, as it should, and the colours and lettering were great too.
The second issue was announced by a beautifully atmospheric cover, and we moved into a different, darker phase of the story. This was becoming a nuanced piece about the difficulties of retiring as a superhero and handing over to younger people who might have a murkier sense of justice and responsibility than you. It also took sideways swipes at celebrity culture and corporate sponsorship, but we were aware by now that underneath all this fairly dazzling superhero stuff, some more repugnant was evolving.
The regular flashbacks revealed the life of the Standard and Fabu-lad, the kid he takes under his wing. That story is a re-telling of the Batman and Robin relationship, but instead of being bound together by the loss of their parents, this dynamic duo are more complex – original Standard Gilbert Graham isn’t the damaged playboy of Bruce Wayne, he’s a fairly solid, dependable chap – maybe even slightly boring. And Alex Thomas/Fabu-lad’s parents aren’t dead – they’re abusive, as revealed in a heart-breakingly poignant scene. That Graham adopts him and helps him transform into Fabu-lad is a twist on the later relationship that was played out in the Batman universe – that Bruce Wayne was a loner, who worked with Robin reluctantly. This issue harks back to a Golden Age when both were in it together, as much for the fun as for the justice.
Yet the introduction of more details about the missing girl in this story and the hinting at the villain, as well as detail on the “Rorschach” style superhero, The Corpse, lean this second issue towards a bleaker place, even if there is still humour.
By this time I was hooked, line and sinker; Jon’s art got better, even he was let down slightly by a different colourist who I felt didn’t quite capture the magic of the first issue, and John’s story was superbly written.
Now, it’s been a long time coming, but I’ve just sat and devoured issue 3. That tightrope between Silver and Dark Age is traversed again as Graham takes up the mantle of the Standard again, coming out of retirement to save the missing girl. The journey to find the villain is a fraught one – in a deft move, Lees darts around some potentially uncomfortable issues that could surround a killer who is child abductor, and in doing so creates a villain that is creepier than we could have ever imagined, and an enemy that makes Graham’s role as superhero look in peril. It also explains the intensely creepy cover, with the evil-looking little girl and her pet skunk…
The skunk relates to the villain in Graham’s flashbacks, The Skunk, a Silver Age villain if ever there was one – someone in it for the rush and the thrill of robbery and extortion, using his deadly pungent gases to commit his heinous crimes. This is intercut with the present day mission to reveal and defeat the kidnapper of the city’s kids. But nothing’s as cut and dry as it seems – even the end to The Skunk’s criminal escapades is dark and tragic, although we find out he turned it around in later years.
Lees uses an interesting device that I think is sometimes overused in comics – the pages of talking heads. However it works really well in this instance, as we see various witnesses and protagonists interviewed for a documentary on The Standard. None of this stuff feels forced or gimmicky; not only is the story strong enough to take the weight of these devices, but their sparing use, and the way in which they are skilfully inter cut acts a lever for the plot, moving it forward in ways that give us lots of character information and backstory without ever feeling expository.
Some of the atmosphere John builds feels straight out of Watchmen, and I’m not overplaying it when I say that this comic feels like it fits directly into a position after that book. It’s like John has recognised the inherent flaw in so much of what followed Alan Moore’s magnum opus – that superheroes just became gritty without any thought for the whys and wherefores – and has positioned his book to pick up some of the questions Moore was asking about his superheroes back then. This isn’t a book that fits into the Marvel/DC mould. It doesn’t feel like common modern deconstruction either.
It feels like a fresh reimagining of the world of comics directly after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, exploring what it meant for the world to catch up with the heroes, what it meant to live in a world where villains became increasingly more psychotic and dangerous, not only to the public at large, but also to the heroes themselves. And also what happens to morality and responsibility when the glare of celebrity washes over them?
The Standard issue 3 doesn’t end on a cliffhanger the way earlier issues did – in fact, you could say that the opening arc is now closed – but we’re left with subtler, sweeter questions that make me desperate to read more. These questions are now dependant on the very interesting characters that Lees has created – I want to know the story of these characters, not just the next part of the plot.
Also on the art, Rector’s digital work looks fantastic, particularly as the book progresses. And the new colourist, Mike Gagnon, issue 2’s flatter, just makes the work sing; his flat blocks are much more suited to the Standard’s time and epoch-hopping nature, and do great service to the rich blacks of the art. Kel Nuttall’s lettering is fantastic too.
A final note on this “comic age” thing I talked about earlier – in taking his lead from the type of work Alan Moore was doing with Watchmen, John has constructed a story and a book that skates casually through Silver and Dark age stuff, but the result is very much Renaissance. This doesn’t feel retro, or like a pastiche. It feels solid and consistent, and is even greater than the sum of its parts.
I can’t wait until all six issues are out and this is available to buy in trade format on some lush paper and with a nice hardback cover, but until that stage, you need to pick up this book.
And I got through this whole post without referring to “indie” once. The comic is that good. It would sit comfortably beside anything that mainstream publishers are putting out there right now, and frankly shits over most of Marvel and the DC New 52.
Head over to the website: http://thestandardcomic.com/