The New York Comic Con may be behind us, but the comics purchased from the con less than a week ago are still in our minds, hearts, and work desks. Not only is the biggest convention on the east coast a place to find tons of announcements from big publishers and media franchises, but it is naturally an ideal place for smaller publishers and/or independent creators to ply their crafts. Such creators often hail from not only across New York, but across the country and even the world.
Enter John Lees. A comic book writer and creator hailing from Glasgow City, Scotland, he has been working on his own series for at least the past two years. He's united with ComixTribe as well as other smaller publishers such as UK Comics Creative to get his comics into store shelves into his native land as well as online initiatives to stretch his audience beyond that into North America. "The Standard", his first superhero epic, began publication in 2011 but has stretched into 2013 as Diamond Distribution are shipping the series to American stores on a bi-monthly schedule. The first three issues were thus reprinted with fresh new covers, while the latest issue debuted in Glasgow before an anticipated run across the pond in the near future. Lees has since gone on to craft a second series, "And Then Emily Was Gone", which officially kicked off last month. Having nabbed one of the last copies of the "Glasgow print" of "The Standard #4" weeks ahead of its U.S. release, this column is now privy to an advance review.
Without further ado, a double dose of John Lees comic reviews!
The Standard #4: If it feels like ages between issues, it is only because it has been; I reviewed the previous issue at the end of last year's New York Comic Con. To recap, "The Standard" is a superhero murder mystery story wrapped around a commentary about differences between generations as well as the impact of the media in this current generation. Decades ago, Gilbert Graham became the superhero "the Standard" via a freak encounter with a space rock and eventually adopted a troubled young boy, Alex Thomas, as a surrogate son and sidekick, Fabu-Lad. Graham ultimately retired to become a teacher as Thomas grew up and took over the Standard mantle. However, when a child abduction captures the heart of the media and Thomas is murdered by a mysterious figure, Graham ultimately comes out of retirement to finish his ward's last case. Caught in the midst of the 24/7 media cycle, however, means Graham's happy retirement may be a thing of the past.
After the third issue's joyous ending, this issue brings things down to earth with expected ramifications as well as offers a contrast between tones of comic heroes once more. The return of the original Standard has spread across the media, and once again catapulted Graham into the social spotlight. Being greeted like a rock star when arriving to work, Graham recalls the case of "TV-Man", a burly thug who sought to lure him into a fight nearly thirty years prior via a series of televised boasts. Graham tried to impart into the young Alex the folly of having motivated by ego or fame, which were sadly lessons which he lost sight of as he got older. At first unwilling to return to wearing his purple and orange tights full time, Graham manages to save two of his students from street punks before ultimately being convinced to help solve the spate of murders linked to his past alongside Sky City's other superhero, "the Corpse". Much as Graham represents the "gee whiz" Silver Age, "the Corpse" represents the "extreme" era of the early 1990's with a design and dialogue balloon scheme which immediately invokes memories of "Spawn". Such comparisons work as the artwork by Jonathan Rector seems to have a hint of Todd McFarlane in his style, flanked well by Mike Gagnon's vibrant colors. The result is art which manages to tell an effective superhero story in a way which perennial superhero comic readers are used to and which manages to evoke different eras at once.
Lees displays a love and understanding of superhero comics with this series, and this issue is no exception. There have been quite a few "old hero comes out of retirement" stories in superhero comics, from classics like "The Dark Knight Returns" or the more recent "Destroyer MAX" from Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker. One of the major differences in "The Standard" is that Gilbert Graham is the complete opposite of many of those senior citizen superheroes. He isn't grim or gritty and returns the same light hearted charm, demeanor, and optimism as from his youth. He tells street punks to watch their potty mouths, rocks a bow tie, and offers kids milkshakes without any hint of cynicism. The fact that the story he's in is actually quite violent and there's a layer of tragedy to his wife which this issue finally reveals simply stands to make those qualities shine. While "the Corpse" was an easy suspect for the series' string of murders, he turns out to be a red herring as the killer seems to be going down a list of victims which will eventually lead to hi-tech tycoon Zena Zarthos, daughter of Graham's arch nemesis. "The Standard" doesn't mock the simplistic morality and mannerisms of the Silver Age while acknowledging that times have changed and not always for the better. The meeting between Graham and "the Corpse" offers great contrast as the story deepens the mystery and offers an exciting cliffhanger.
Although Gilbert Graham wasn't declared the official lead of this series until its second issue, it is the focus and embellishment of him which sparks more interest than the murder mystery angle at times. The revelations in this issue reveal that Graham isn't who he is because he's not faced tragedy or grim events, but in spite of them. One can almost hear Adam West voicing the character in some imaginary animated adaptation, only not the version who voices the mayor in "Family Guy", but the West who impressed a generation of kids in "Beware the Grey Ghost" on "Batman: The Animated Series" in the 90's. Seeing Graham contrast with the world around him from Thomas' sleazy agent to "the Corpse" as well as face villains far more vicious than anything he's faced in his prime is at the heart of the drama, and one which can make waiting a year between issues seem to not seem as long. Fortunately, it won't be nearly that long until the next installment, and remains one of ComixTribe's best titles. At 28 pages for four dollars, it's more than a bargain for page count alone.
And Then Emily Was Gone #1: John Lees shifts gears from superheroes to horror with this new title alongside artist Iain Laurie for a very different story about an unlikely hero coming out of retirement. Drawn in black and white, it seems as if having a hero come out of retirement to solve a child abduction is a trope which Lees seems to favor, although that's where similarities with "The Standard" end. The star of the story is Mr. Hellinger, an ex-cop who fell from grace after claiming to see monsters and then drinking himself to oblivion to avoid them ever since. The young Fiona spurs him out of his drunken stupor and his shabby apartment with a fantastic story; not only does she believe her friend Emily was abducted, but that she was taken by a monster from urban legend, Bonnie Shaw. Meanwhile, Emily's parents become obsessed with a demonic box, and readers also meet the bizarre Vin and Louise, who seem to be low level thugs for hire.
Describing Laurie's artwork can be a task, since it is far different from Jonathan Rector's more flashy superhero style. Laurie uses strong lines, a lot of detail and excellent uses of blacks and white to establish a creepy mood throughout the work, not unlike an indie horror film. His style may seem vaguely similar to many small indie comics offered on sale at progressive shops in downtown Brooklyn or even "Forbidden Planet" in Greenwich Village, yet remains distinctly his own. Bonnie Shaw himself is essentially "the Boogeyman of Merksay island" and has a design which makes him look frightening without being so over the top that he borders on parody, as many monsters in cinema tend to do. Nobody is a perfectly chiseled super model in these pages, with their own distinctive faces, body types and teeth. It may merely be the opening chapter of a longer story, but it is an effective chapter which sets up this strange horror/mystery quite well with efficient dialogue and art like no other.
On the whole, the New York Comic Con is a good place to discover John Lees' comics, although with some studying of Previews they can soon some to a shop near you!