Magen Cubed is a novelist and comics critic. Her superhero/SFF series THE CRASHERS is coming soon from Booktrope.
Image Comics’ Airboy #1 from James Robinson and Greg Hinkle is a sharp, cynical, and uncompromisingly funny look at the comic book industry. In an age of reboots and reimaginings, as nearly-forgotten properties like Marvelman (now published as Miracleman due to legal issues) and Flash Gordon (which is currently on its way to a Hollywood rebranding), it’s an honest criticism of the pressures that perpetuate them. It’s also a comic that needed to be written, and surprisingly, hasn’t yet been put out by a mainstream publisher.
The premise is simple: Golden Age-era adventure series Airboy has fallen into public domain, and Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson wants James Robinson to reboot it. Robinson, struggling with the state of his fading career, doesn’t want to do it. With the promise of more money, however, Robinson reluctantly agrees, and takes on artist Greg Hinkle as his collaborator in what appears to be a doomed book. Soon, wracked with creative block, the two embark on a brutally honest journey of self-loathing, self-destruction, and self-discovery that brings them closer to Airboy than they thought possible. Simply put, Airboy #1 is sex, drugs, and comic books, all wrapped up in an unflinching and earnest account that pulls no punches.
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Themes such as these aren’t new. Modern pop culture is littered with cynical portrayals of artists like Robinson and Hinkle, offering audiences a voyeuristic peek behind the curtain of how media is produced. From the debauchery of jaded filmmakers getting lost in the sun-bleached Hollywood hills, to the drug-addled exploits of gonzo journalists racing across the desert in search of the American Dream, this is familiar territory. We have movies about making movies, books about writing books, and even shows about making shows. It’s only natural that we would eventually have a comic about making comics, and all the ugliness festering beneath the shiny veneer of our favorite titles. But to their credit, Robinson and Hinkle do it with far more poise than the typical ghoulish pop dissection, making this title one to look out for.
Robinson’s scripting provides a ruthlessly funny and self-effacing autobiographical account. From depression to drug use, graphic extramarital encounters to rigorous self-examination, nothing is off the table. While certainly explicit and over-the-top, every moment is handled with poignant candor. Barbed name-drops and industry references throughout provide laughs for well-read members of the comics audience, but also effectively ground the story in a strong sense of time and place. The characters dynamics, however, are where the script truly shines. Subtly crafted exchanges between Robinson and Hinkle provide humanizing pathos beneath the unrelenting debauchery, positing Hinkle as the unwitting straight-man in their exploits. This balance between the despondent, self-loathing Robinson and the well-intentioned, if somewhat naïve Hinkle serves as a strong back-bone to the adventures that follow. It also keeps the story from veering into an unchecked, uninteresting montage of depravity by setting up the personal stakes for each of these men in different stages of their respective downward spirals.
As the issue ends, we also see that this spiral has led them directly to the elusive character they’re burdened to reboot. Airboy himself appears in their hotel room like a beacon of Golden Age ethics and values, breaking the muted hues of their hotel room in a glittering burst of blue, red, and gold. This turn toward fantasy heightens the absurdity and places the story in the realm of pure meta. Whether a nagging product of Robinson and Hinkle’s guilty consciences or a physical manifestation of the character to now literally guide through the modern world, it will be interesting to see how Airboy’s appearance plays out for the rest of the series.
From a visual standpoint, this book is almost above reproach. Overall Hinkle’s artwork is brazen, well-paced, and incredibly engaging. Few working artists can capture malaise as effortlessly as Hinkle does, with his slack figure work, drooping eyes, and lonely panel compositions. Each of his characters carry a visible tension in the lines of their bodies, be it the hunch of their shoulders or the arcs of their backs. This gives them a strong sense of presence and personality from the moment they appear on the page, and in some instances makes dialogue or box captions unnecessary. Hinkle’s flat, dour color palettes further bathe his scenes in the tangible misery that moves the plot from its peaks and valleys of drug-fueled abandon. Like the apathetic teals of dingy hotel rooms and the moody purples of quiet bars at late hours, his artwork perfectly captures the world and hits all the right notes. More than that, it’s just satisfying to read, with well-composed, finely-detailed panels that lure the eye in and demand the reader’s attention.
As funny as it is poignant, Airboy #1 is an irreverent and necessary look at the comics industry. Beyond its bawdy delivery, it is also a surprisingly human story of self-reflection, despair, and the potential (however slim) for redemption. This is a book worth reading, black eyes and all, and one of the best #1’s in recent memory.
Magen Cubed is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MagenCubed