Saturday, March 31, 2007

Shark-Man #1

Shark-Man #1, 2006, Thrill-House Comics
writers: Ronald Shusett & Steve Pugh
artist/letterer: Steve Pugh
additional layouts/art assistant: Garry Leach

Appropriately, Shark-Man #1 is the “fin” of A Comic A Day’s third quarter, not to mention yet another comic book with an animal in its title – a long-standing theme this month to commemorate the release TMNT. Fortunately, unlike yesterday’s Destroyer Duck, this issue’s hero only dresses up as his bestial namesake, reminding us that the animal kingdom has been an inspiration for the superhero community since their inauguration nearly a century ago. I wonder, if that bat hadn’t flown through Bruce Wayne’s window, what would superheroes really be like today? Would we have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, let alone newer characters like Shark-Man.

All that is to say, I need not credit TMNT for these animal-oriented titles anymore.

Despite its eye-catching cover and action-packed opening act, Shark-Man is primarily a political comic book, an Aquaman-meets-Prison Break story about underwater urban espionage. Shark-Man, a.k.a. Alan Gaskill, is the founding father and benefactor of New Venice City, a modern Atlantis with a faithful populace until its governor accuses Gaskill of embezzling the city’s funds, and since we readers know Shark-Man is innocent, we can only assume that this conspiracy has trickled down from the government level. Gaskill’s secret “shark cave” is infiltrated and an entity calling itself the Shadow-King effortlessly kills the hero. Shortly thereafter, Gaskill’s son Tom (poorly established as an apathetic Jack Knight-like heir apparent to his father’s heroic legacy) finds his slain father just in time for the police to burst onto the scene and arrest him for the murder. Indeed, from the first few pages in which Shark-Man is too late to save a cruise ship from pirates to this last page frame job, this first issue is not this hero’s finest hour.

Perhaps that’s why I liked it so much. Shark-Man was left to the sharks from page one. The irony is absolutely delicious.

Normally, I would emphasize the obviously derivative nature of this story – in my synopsis I referenced both Batman imagery (I didn’t mention the Alfred-like character wearing the soothsaying helmet, did I?) and recent Starman lore in the critical propellants of the plot, a blatant sign that this series might write itself into a corner when it’s done ripping off other heroes’ dynamics. However, the fanboy in me is actually willing to discard these critical comments because . . . ah, I hate to admit it . . . Shark-Man has a cool costume. Yes, although I usually deconstruct my daily comic’s writing more so than its visuals, if only because of my inability to consistent scan my subject’s illustrations for reference, but this time, from the moment I pulled Shark-Man #1 from that fifty-cents bin, I was taken by the suit. The clothes make this hero, with its Rocketeer-esque shark helmet, shark jowls belt buckle, and shark-teeth talons, all menacing and super cool looking. Steve Pugh’s painting (perhaps with some digital filtering?) is in rare form, a solid cinematic story-telling style that captures the grand scope of this underwater adventure. Aqua-who? Namor the what? Those guys wear fancy swimsuits, nothing more. Shark-Man is a freakin’ superhero. ‘Nuff said.

Further, the political overtones of this book and the brief but compelling establishment of New Venice City’s legal infrastructure pose a more interesting potential for conflict than any superhero action offered in Shark-Man #1. Tom’s girlfriend is one of his father’s accountants, and the governor and police chief are both introduced as crucial characters we will undoubtedly see much more of in future issues. The Shadow-King is a special effect (and reminiscent of the Shade, another Starman reference) and nothing more, at least in the confines of these inaugural pages. If writers Shusett and Pugh dare to venture away from James Robinson’s Jack Knight and toward an allegorical Bush, Sr./George W. parable, what with the subtext of provincial legacy, this series could conversely pack quite a punch.

This issue’s dedication to Bill Finger explains the frequent illusions to DC’s canon, but further presents an opportunity to explore the phenomenon of comic’s founding fathers, those creators that established the superhero genre that thousands of fans know and love today. I’m specifically referring to the back-up story in yesterday’s Destroyer Duck comic, “The Starling” by Superman creator Jerry Siegel. When I saw Siegel’s name, I was instantly excited to read this story, to walk in on the ground floor of an idea by one of the pioneers of this industry. “The Starling” features an alien entity that comes to Earth, saves a woman from some rapists only to make passionate love to her himself, then leaves, calling his one-world-stand an “inconsequential tryst.” Yet, from the next issue blurb that teases “The Starling is Born,” we can only assume that the tryst was anything but inconsequential. Frankly, this first chapter was a glorified sex scene, the kind of erotic tableau that would’ve given Wertham a real run for his money, back in the day. I was unimpressed by how unimaginative the story was – although I can imagine that, when you’re the creator of Superman, your own shoes are too big to fill anymore. I wonder if new stories by the old masters are best left unpublished in favor of fresh takes like Shark-Man. Shark-Man is an old idea with contemporary twists – a true modern Bill Finger homage. Either way, this phenomenon reveals that creators from both yesterday and today are in an ongoing scramble for some semblance of an original idea. Oftentimes, when it comes to swiping one another’s inspirations, you can literally smell the blood in the water.

Again, with this review, the third quarter of A Comic A Day is complete, which means a quarterly report will be posted here sometime within the week. It’s the home stretch, now. April, May, June, then I’m done. Unlike Shark-Man, I don’t have anyone to receive my torch. I’m my own disgruntled heir, I guess. Is there anything fishy about that?

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