[5 February 2014]
PopMatters Comics Editor
At what point does an existential fear become a primal fear? Or to put it another way, where were you on Mayan Doomsday, around this this time, a little less than 14 months ago?
Nothing happened of course. But that’s not really the sociological secret of Mayan Doomsday. The real secret engine driving the situation is not the event itself, but having survived the event. “Nothing happened” is just the starter pistol. The game is how you see the world when imbued with that unique psychology of having survived the apocalypse.
In one of the canniest moves in comics this year, veteran creative J. Michael Straczynski attempts to grapple with that psychology not only in the medium of comics, but in the genre of noir, moreover in the genre of noir comedy. This crossroads between the medium of comics and psychology of noir, particularly of noir comedy is as culturally significant as Apocalypse Al, the most recent offering from Straczynski’s “Joe’s Comics” brand (published by Image Comics), is entertaining.
In “Joe’s Counter,” the editorial column that appears at the end of each Joe’s Comics publication, Straczynski ponders on the reason he was drawn into the arena of noir comedy, especially after the highly successful Ten Grand of 2013, a book that saw noir elements infuse a horror setting.
Straczynski writes: “A friend of mine, upon seeing a small statue of Wile E. Coyote standing arms tight at his side, fists balled in anger, eyes wide, ears straight up so hard they were practically vibrating, described him as ‘the Egyptian god of frustration.’
“And that, for my money, is about as good a description of Allison Carter as can be imagined.
“I love noir comedy, especially when the lead character is the only one for miles in any direction who seems even remotely sane. Movies like Arsenic and Old Lace can reduce me to hysterics every time. Ditto for Young Frankenstein, as Gene Wilder tries desperately to hold onto the last remains of his sanity while surrounded by a cast of utter loonies.”
By “Allison Carter” Straczynski means the lead in Apocalypse Al and the eponymous “Al” of the book’s title. Al is the latest scion in a long line (going back to prehistoric times) of Apocalypse hunters dedicated to preventing whichever Apocalypse de jour. She’s the archetypical “woman in a man’s world” in that she is the very first woman to hold down the same job as her line of fathers.
What Straczynski unfolds in the pages of Apocalypse Al can only be described as a wonderland of noir, but also a wonderland of LA. All the good noir takes place in California (think of Raymond Chandler, of that Chandler-scripted film Double Indemnity), and Straczynski makes an unflinchingly bold statement about why noir works so well in the LA sunshine. And in doing so, makes an equally strong argument for why apocalypse culture is a mirror of LA culture.
When we first meet Al, we meet her in the throes of an almost perennial, almost uniquely LA problem—the problem of self-actualization. Al’s career has stalled (not stalled so much as plateaued, really), and she’s reduced to snarking out any potential apocalypse-monger with sarcasm before delivering the final blow. A blow she’s always been able to deliver, thus far. We meet her at a point where her world is safe, predictable, and one where at she’s mastered every competency needed to navigate her world.
But of course, this situation cannot last. Al quickly finds herself drawn into a case involving the Ultimate Darkness (the preferred name of the Ultimate Evil), and in this opening act, finds herself navigating a world where the quirky and the exasperating pile upon her.
The comedy itself is light and flippant, exactly the kind of verbal repartee that Straczynski based his Spider-Man on more than a decade ago (as a side-note, Straczynski’s Spider-Man was sublime in that it showed how Spidey’s repartee-based fighting style was at odds with the hardcore “true” crime that he was up against), or the kind you might find in an episode of the Real Ghostbusters. So Straczynski delivers admirably on that promise he makes in “Joe’s Counter.”
All pieces in play, Apocalypse Al is a rare work, in that it shows exactly the full range of its writer. Between the horror neonoir of Ten Grand and the retro superhero deconstruction of Sidekick of last year, Apocalypse Al reads like something light and fresh. But also something well-crafted and resilient.