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The Self-Published Super-Hero Spectacular #1

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Small Pressganged is Broken Frontier’s weekly column designed to shine a spotlight on the often overlooked world of small press and self-published comics. Every seven days we’ll be providing a mix of review round-ups of the best of current small press comics and spot interviews with some of the movers and shakers of the scene.

This week’s offering is a little bit of a first for the column as we dip our toes in slightly more “mainstream” waters – in terms of genre at least – and look at two self-published super-hero books: Martin Eden’s celebrated team of gay adventurers in the well-received SP book Spandex, alongside writer Jamie Gambell’s love letter to a more traditional era of super-hero storytelling in The Hero Code…

Spandex #1-5
Martin Eden (writer/artist)

As I was preparing this week’s column the news broke that Martin Eden’s small press super-hero book Spandex had been picked up by British publishers Titan, who will be publishing a collection of the first issues of the series later this year. It’s wonderful to hear that Titan are following in the footsteps of U.K. publishers like Blank Slate and Myriad in realising the vast potential of the Brit self-published scene, so congratulations to Martin on this welcome development!

And with that bit of hearty back-slapping out of the way let’s take a closer look at Spandex for the uninitiated amongst you. If you’re a U.K. comics fan thinking the name sounds familiar but you can’t quite place it, then cast your memory back to 2010 and a mini media frenzy that took in not just online coverage, but newspaper, radio and television spotlights too. Martin Eden’s team of gay super-heroes became media darlings for a few weeks in the summer of that year, and the book has also since seen its name on the Eagle Awards ballot papers, nominated in the “Best British Colour Comic” category alongside iconic titles like 2000AD and The Beano. Not bad going at all for a small press book!

The Spandex team consists of the colourful members Diva, Liberty, Glitter, Mr. Muscles, Butch, Prowler, Indigo and Neon, who operate out of the English coastal town of Brighton. Each of the team-mates has their own carefully constructed character quirks and elaborate back stories which Eden adeptly uses as springboards for their overlapping individual story arcs. In contrast to its mainstream super-hero counterparts, Spandex has a thoroughly unpredictable nature. It’s full of intriguing twists and jaw-dropping turns, and for that reason I’m going to avoid giving away too much here in terms of plot development over the first five issues. Suffice to say, though, that all those staple ingredients of a good super-hero soap are included: surprising secrets, shocking betrayal, unlikely relationships, death and even a multi-title crossover series pastiche. All backed up with a suitably indulgent air of self-aware cheekiness!

Spandex has some interesting contrasts to it. It’s a title with a self-consciously different premise and yet its structure in terms of narrative, characterisation and sub-plots hearkens back to a more traditional era of super-hero comics publishing when books were written for their primary monthly audience and not creatively compromised for the sake of an eventual trade paperback collection. When I interviewed Martin for Broken Frontier a year and a half or so back (click on the links here for Part 1 and Part 2 of that interview), I likened the series to John Byrne’s run on Alpha Flight, and that’s an analogy that most definitely holds five issues in. Both series are character-led, full of startling developments and surprises, and leave the reader feeling that anything could happen… no cast member is indispensable and the status quo is always open to irrevocable change.

              

The current arc is busy unlocking mysteries about Spandex’s past and its legacy, exploring the complex inter-relationships of the team members and pitting them head-to-head with revenge-seeking arch-enemies Les Girlz. It’s also rather effectively satirising some of the less admirable traits of current super-hero comics with perspicacious aplomb and an assured wit. What impresses the most about Spandex, though, is that in amongst the humour and the ostentatiously high-camp antics of marauding pink ninjas, 50-foot lesbians and gay zombies, are some very thoughtful, very powerful and very human stories. The third issue’s exploration of depressive illness, for example, is an outstanding example of Eden’s ability to shift between comedic flamboyance and compelling drama.

Super-hero soap opera at its most engaging and appealing, Spandex is your reboot-free, prequel-resistant alternative to the worst excesses of current mainstream comics.

Spandex is available from the official site here priced £3.20 an issue (details for international orders on site). For more information on the upcoming trade paperback check out the Titan site here. Spandex #6 is out next month.

The Hero Code #1
Jamie Gambell (writer), Jonathan Rector (artist), Heather Breckel (colours)

Somewhere along the line super-hero comics stopped being wish-fulfilment fantasies for children and became the near exclusive province of middle-aged men. This is, admittedly, hardly an original or incisive observation. Whatever the reasons, whether we want to blame it on the staggeringly short-sighted pursuit of the direct market over the newsstand, or assign culpability to big publishers aiming their product at the completist mentalities of an ever shrinking and ageing demographic it was never created for, most commentators would probably agree that, at some point in the recent past, that sense of awe and wonder that accompanied super-heroes and their magical, four-colour exploits has been lost to a more cynical and deconstructed interpretation of the genre.

Creator Jamie Gambell is attempting to redress that upset balance in his traditionalist super-hero book The Hero Code. The first issue sets up a variety of plot threads centred round what appear to be obvious analogues for DC’s “Big Three” characters. Gambell has a very simple philosophy for his series here but, perhaps ironically, it’s one it can be argued has been somewhat neglected in the mainstream in recent years. That basic storytelling foundation for The Hero Code is “The good guys should be good. The bad guys bad, and good will always prevail.”

This opening chapter introduces us to the Superman-like Optiman, a darker Batman stand-in called the Black Wraith and a mysterious young woman who appears to have an Olympian heritage and would seem to be our Wonder Woman counterpart. We also have some germinative, linked sub-plots involving the activities of a surely requisite criminal overlord, mandatory mad scientist and, of course, the obligatory mysterious, shadowy manipulator. First issues of super-hero books are always difficult to judge because there’s a need to adhere to certain conventions in establishing the main characters, the supporting cast and setting up sub-plots; particularly if you’re trying to capture your own personal “Golden Age” of the capes-and-cowls brigade as Gambell is attempting here. However, from this first taster he’s on the right track in realising the terms of his mission statement to prove there’s cool in old school. Backing him up, Jonathan Rector’s art provides all the right visual nods to the classic stylings and timeless poses of the field.

Those investigating The Hero Code further are not going to find a book that is looking to innovate or push the genre in startlingly original new directions. Indeed, its whole raison d’etre is built on restoration not refurbishment. But what they will find is good-natured, old-fashioned, all-ages fun of the type that’s been largely missing from mainstream super-hero comics for far, far too long. In this pessimistic and exploitative age of super-hero comics there’s something really rather admirable and appealing about Gambell’s back-to-basics approach.  

For more on The Hero Code  #1 check out the official site here. The Hero Code is available priced $3.99 from the online store here.

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Andy Oliver is Broken Frontier’s Managing Editor and a contributor to Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.

If you are a small press comics creator, or self-publisher, and would like your work to be reviewed in a future edition of Small Pressganged then e-mail Andy at andyoliver@brokenfrontier.com for further details. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.

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Comments

  • Jason Wilkins

    Jason Wilkins Feb 2, 2012 at 9:46pm

    My favorite Small Pressganged yet! Awesome piece Andy!

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Feb 3, 2012 at 4:38am

    Spandex at Titan?? Excellent news for Martin Eden!

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Feb 3, 2012 at 10:59am

    Thanks Jason - been so long since I've written anything substantial about super-heroes that it felt a bit odd! It is good news Bart and indicative, I think, of publishers looking more and more towards the small press and its potential for providing material that appeals to both traditional and non-traditional comics readers.

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