It seems that there is a strange but powerful tendency in the human species to want to see our heroes brought low.
It seems that there is a strange but powerful tendency in the human species to want to see our heroes brought low. While we love them -- and impose a much higher standard to them then the one we hold ourselves to -- we simultaneously revel in their downfalls and use their failings as proof that they were never really better than us after all. In today's pop culture we create celebrities, obsess over them, subsequently resent them, and then feast on their self-destruction. Comic books are one of the primary mediums in which this hero-worship and deconstruction is explored in all its nuance and implication. In fact, due to the exaggerated nature of the hero mythology that has developed, it seems that comics offer more explicit examples of these tendencies then any other aspect of our society or culture. Superheroes are constantly being constructed and deconstructed; new creators are always looking for new slants and ways to reinvent the massive genre. Howard Wong is one of latest creators to add his own perspective to this trend in his book After the Cape, recently collected into trade format by Image Comics. To borrow from the back cover copy, Wong's story is about "a man unable to face his own addictions and thus lost everything he held dear. This is his story. The story of a man... and his fall from grace."
That information provided on the back cover is really all a person needs to know about the plot. The book, created by Wong, plotted by Jim Valentino and illustrated by Marco Rudy and Manny Trembley, does not stray from the typical path its theme provides. A man unable to support his addictions and his family, is pulled into darker worlds as he struggles to hold onto his life, and eventually he is unable to overcome his failings and loses everything... in this case he just happens to be a superhero.
This lack of real exploration into the superhero aspect of the story is disappointing after the setup provided by the magnificent cover of the collection. The image, colored Freddy Lopez, shows the main character Ethan, unconscious and being held by his superhero alter ego, Captain Gravity. The breakdown of the character into his two primary components, flawed man and infallible hero, leads the reader to believe that the duality required by a person who dons the mask of a superhero, is going to be explored; that while Ethan may have fallen, the hero side of him will be there to catch him. Instead of that scenario, prefaced by the cover, we get the synthesis of the two extremes, the flawed hero. While this choice is fine, it is inconsistent with the framing of the story provided by the cover illustrations.
The art throughout the book is very well done and is stylistically in line with most deconstructionist stories. There is no color, further providing contrast to the cover art, and the use of shading creates a sense of a world always shrouded in shadows. The black and white shading reinforces Ethan's moral collapse and the sudden merging of the previously delineated world of good and evil he used to inhabit before his addictions became impossible to control. It further casts a strange aura around the other heroes, insuring that none of them are able to grab onto that iconic mythos provided by colored comics. Ethan is falling from the heights of morality into the depths of crime and deprivation, but the art creates a world view where even the good guys aren't clean.
The story unfortunately does not capitalize on the art's strength to land the thematic punch intended. While I try not to focus on the negative when writing reviews -- I believe that readers will find more value in what I think are a book's strengths rather then its weaknesses -- I must confess I was disappointed with the After the Cape. The comic didn't really add anything substantive to discourse on the subject. The back cover's quote from Entertainment Weekly states that the book is "For fans of the neo-realism of Powers' Brian Michael Bendis." The problem with this comparison is that Powers use of "neo-realism" is the method not the objective. The point of Powers is not that the people and heroes cuss and have sex, that is just a vehicle Bendis employs to tell his story. In the case of After the Cape, the setup is the story, the means have become the end, but nothing is really gained. A superhero is an alcoholic, so what? The author never capitalizes on the implications of this to say anything new. There is a brief moment where Ethan is fighting with his best friend and the two begin talking about how there was no support system inherent in the superhero lifestyle that could have saved him before he went down his dark path. A few lines of dialogue on what could have been a fascinating discussion of the superhero paradigm were all the reader gets. I ended the book annoyed at its formulaic ending and the cheesy "The End... ?" the creators chose to employ.
While it may seem from the previous paragraph that I think that After the Cape is a bad book, that is ultimately not the point I'm trying to make. The problem with this book was that it could have been great comic instead of just ok. It had all the ingredients to tell an interesting story, it was placed in the one medium that lends itself more then any other to these questions using the exaggerated metaphor of the superhero, and instead of capitalizing on of those factors it stops just short of greatness. It creates a hero, and then destroys a hero, without any redeeming elements to make the destruction worthwhile. It's Britney Spears at the VMA's, not Powers. It's deconstruction for deconstructions sake. There is a sequel due out in November and one can only hope that addresses some if the first books deficiencies. Ultimately, all that can be presently said is that After the Cape adds it voice to the cacophony of pseudo-realistic superhero comics, but doesn't have anything new to say.