As with any medium, comicbooks have their own clichés. They are timeless tenets that don’t represent a genre per se, but are the redundant necessities and conventions of the format. Superhero comics particularly are guilty (and not ashamed) of over indulging in these traits. With decades upon decades of comics to draw from, and the post-modern ironic leanings of our era, comic creators have been rolling out title upon title that reinterprets the conventions or pokes fun at their trappings with a much stronger cultural perspective.
Adult Swim’s The Venture Bros. cartoon is a prime example. Though made for an irreverent adult audience, the show is a lampoon of the adventure stories of old and the popular villains and heroes many have grown up enjoying. Disney’s movie Sky High was similar, as was Pixar’s <>The Incredibles, each getting behind the masks and tights to explore the interpersonal relationships and domestic lives of superheroes.
Image’s latest series, Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors takes a different approach, exploring the villain side of the superhero world, but is certainly a contemporary of The Venture Bros., Sky High and The Incredibles. And like those films, Gladstone’s is a book that satirizes the superhero genre as much as comic books themselves.
On the surface, Gladstone’s is about kids at a school for super-villains. The majority of the story is set-up and introduction, yet the final four panels present a twist that demonstrates this title is more than hormones and villainy. The book is about coming of age and the destruction of innocence.
Writer Mark Andrew Smith introduces a variety of easily identifiable villain types in the form of pubescent scholars hoping to hone the craft of world domination. Kid Nefarious, Mummy Girl, Martian Jones, Ghost Girl, and the infamous Skull brothers are all archetypes for the various villains we’ve come to know in superhero comics. Mixing grade school drama and the stereotypes of school age kids, Smith is creating a world as familiar as possible so that the satiric nature of the book flows easily from the narrative without becoming too distracting for readers.
It’s a challenge as so much of the superhero genre has been lampooned repeatedly for the last 30 years (anyone remember Superfolks by Robert Mayer?). The idea is to hit on the familiar and then take it in another direction. Smith certainly has the set-up for that, but it remains to be seen how the execution will play out over the follow-up issues.
The use of grade school kids is pointed. That age groups believes things to be real, like professional wrestling and the battle between villains and heroes. They are innocent of the way the world really works, and Smith uses that point subtly to outline the potential for a crumbling of beliefs.
Like the The Venture Bros. have guilds and societies that professionally “arch” heroes with set rules and laws, Smith indicates that the world he’s creating will be similar. The question that remains, however, is whether there will be a larger theme that develops after the inevitable destruction of the kids’ innocence? All indications point to the trappings of Super-villainy to be much more complicated than “Victory Speeches 101”.
Visually, Gladstone’s looks like a Saturday morning cartoon. Artist Armand Villavert uses exaggerated backgrounds and character designs to push the point that the book is mixing superhero satire with grade school drama. It’s a perfect match that gives the story the aesthetic tone it needs to standout from the pack. This is not a mature audience story, examining and parodying the conventions of superheroes with excessive sex and violence. No, it’s about school girl crushes, the pressures of getting good grades and recess.
Villavert and colorist Carlos Carrasco immediately identify that point and go about creating a visual presentation that is cartoony, yet also sophisticated in its detail. The understanding is that to go all-in, the panels must be equal to the narrative tone or the subtlety of the story will be completely lost. If for nothing else, Villavert and Carrasco fundamentally achieve exactly what they set out to do.
The visual appeal aside, Gladstone’s is a solid first issue, mixing the whimsy of kids acting like and learning about super-villainy with satiric light comedy and goofiness. Though the dialogue suffers from the same first issue crisis that ails many new books – trying to cram so much dialogue in small word balloons – its inherit charm shines through. The most dramatic aspect comes in the last two pages, and that hook certainly raises the expectations of what’s to come next, but what it all comes down to is that Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors is another good offering from Image’s recent launch of new titles.