45 is socially poignant and in a certain sense, socially redemptive. It tables two issues that linger on from the previous century, the story of fatherhood and the story of journalism, and allows these to interact in the crucible of a comics narrative. Over the course of exploring the new dimensions of these social institutions, 45 offers readers a profound meditation on a third, and equally meaningful social institution — that of comics itself. At the beginning of this decade, pioneering comics theorist Scott McCloud, in his seminal Reinventing Comics, suggested a bright future for the medium with the promise of a digital mode of transmission. By the decade’s end, 45 writer Andi Ewington, and an ensemble cast of 45 artistic collaborators, offer a second innovation of comics. This time, not an innovation dependent on the luster of new media, but one reliant on a focused rejuvenation of the underlying principles of comics itself. For Ewington, the tale of comics is inextricably entwined with the tale of fatherhood and the tale of journalism. 45 is not so much an Original Graphic Novel, as it is an essay on the apparatus of meaning and value deployed by these three social institutions under the condition of the new century.
The premise for Ewington’s story is tantalizingly simple as it is seductively elegant. In a world awash with superheroes (a world where any human has the chance to be born with super powers, or even purchase them), prospective father, investigative journalist and emotional core for the story, James Stanley, undertakes a personal mission. His task is to prepare for the possibility of his soon-to-be born child’s super powers by interview 45 of the world’s most visible superheroes.
The format of the comicbook is as visually alluring as the story’s premise is intriguingly simple. Each interview is faithfully transcribed (with significant actions narrated) on the recto page of the graphic novel. The verso page however is reserved for the artwork. The 45 contributing artists offer up, each in a unique visualization, an interpretation of the history or circumstance the interview narrates. Artists include Jock, Sean Phillips, Ben Oliver, John Higgins, Gary Erskine, Trevor Hairsine, Eduardo Francisco, Calum Alexander Watt, Simon Coleby, Lee Carter, Neil Edwards and Robert Atkins among others.
While a fair number of artists like Charlie Adlard and Sally Hurst choose to render the sociopolitik uncovered by the interview only as a single poster, Ewington seems to have hit on a deeper, more profound more meaningful comics that incorporates splash-page art as a necessary part of his storytelling. Single panel or no, the assembled artworks read smoothly as a comics themselves. The eye glides from one visualization to the next, while Ewington’s writing can be taken up at leisure to add more depth to the visual story being unfolded.
With Ewington’s journalistic storytelling however, readers are invited into a clear an non-jaundiced view of traditional print journalism in an age of digital media. In a refreshing stance, Ewington himself seems hopeful for the integration of Web 2.0 values, and the traditional economic model of the printed media. Investigator James Stanley’s task is personal, and his keen journalistic voice (as omnipresent narrator of his world) seems as accessible as a blog. And yet, in his various notes and across his many observations, Stanley’s voice takes a slightly harder-edged, somewhat more professional tone. Readers get the sense that his material is being marketed, his comments are preparing a specific demographic (his target audience) for a view of his subjects where his observations seem natural, or even sympathetic.
It is in this way that Ewington begins to comment on his own pending fatherhood, and indeed on fatherhood in general. Fatherhood, it would seem Ewington argues, is no different that a professional journalist with a keen, clear eye preparing his audience for regarding the subject of an interview. There is a certain work to be done here that by its nature must maintain a degree of continued invisibility. The preparation of the world itself must remain unseen.
The social realism of superheroes Ewington portrays in his debut comics work, remains on par with the great superhero deconstructions of our time. 45 is the equal of such works as Watchmen or Frank Miller’s estimable The Dark Knight Returns, since it offers both a reformatting of expectations around the comics medium, and a credible and deep wrestling with the notion of the superhero.