Friday, September 26, 2014

Recommended Reading for 9/26: Leaving Megalopolis

The deconstruction of superheroes and the genre tropes entailed therein goes back to at least Watchmen, although I've heard it argued (and can agree) that Mark Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme is the first deconstructionist superhero story. Since then, plenty of creators have torn down the genre, and some have rebuilt it afterwards. It would be easy to look at Leaving Megalopolis as another such book, but I don't feel it is. The new graphic novel from Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore (best known together for their work on Secret Six) does not deconstruct the genre. They play completely true to all the tropes, even if they take it beyond the point that most traditional superhero stories do. It's a dark book that instead shows what the common person has to do when their super protectors go mad, and how people draw together in the worst of all worlds.

Leaving Megalopolis shares more in common with The Walking Dead than it does with any of the output from DC or Marvel, and I say that as a high compliment; it's a story about regular people, not the great forces around them. Gail Simone has always been a writer whose characters shine through, able to make them three dimensional in less time than it takes many writers to just introduce one dimension. The graphic novel follows a small band of survivors trying to, well, leave Megalopolis, a city once protected by costumed champions before a battle with a creature from the depths of the Earth drove them all into a homicidal frenzy. Now, death can appear from any corner at any moment. The only hope is to slip out of the city, avoiding the attention of these super powered lunatics.

The book opens on the devastation in Megalopolis and closes in on Mina, our principal character for this volume. She's wearing a police uniform, carrying a shotgun, and is about as friendly as the shotgun when we meet her. Simone isn't playing any of the cliches here; Mina isn't the hardbitten cop who has seen too much of this, nor is she the warm and fuzzy, to serve and protect officer. She's a person, with hopes, dreams, and a past that has prepared her to close herself off and survive in this broken city.

The book is actually three intertwined narratives. The first is the present, with Mina and the other survivors making their way through the wreck of the city, encountering supers as well as other survivors, some good and some even more frightening than the supers. We also see Mina's history from childhood to present, and see how that life informs her decisions. And we also get cutaways to a Senate hearing about the incident in Megalopolis, giving us a fuller view of what happened and how the world is reacting to it. It's a great bit of world building, and it never feels like we're thrown out of the main story for a random aside.

Mina quickly encounters the rest of the cast including Harold, a middle aged guy in a suit; Michael, a male nurse; Meredith, who waits at the hole the monster came from, reacting to her trauma by hoping for her dog to climb out; and Lisa, who appears having been attacked and traumatized, but if by supers or people it isn't made clear. Others make it in and out of the group as they encounter various supers along the way, but this is the core group who make it the story's climax. Each of them reacts differently to the new world of Megalopolis, Michael is the compassionate voice to Mina's cynicism, while Harold is, according to Simone's endnotes, "the representation of free will." Meredith comes out of her stupor to be a stronger person than it seemed. And Lisa seems to be broken by her experiences, but looks can be deceiving. The great thing about these characters is that they are more than I can sum up in a paragraph. Each jumps off the page with their own voice.

Thematically, Simone touches on some powerful issues. The central theme is that of heroism and community. These are different people, people who didn't know each other before the disaster, and now have to work together to survive. More than that, Mina has to step up and move beyond her past to become the hero that the people around her expected her to be. We also get to see the opposite of that acceptance, in a group of survivors who are doing nothing more than appeasing their new psychotic super-powered masters, and how easy it is to give in. It's also very interesting when we hear the heroes talk exactly what is going on in their heads. They aren't the walking dead, killing because they must. There is a very specific methodology and..., psychosis, maybe, behind what is going on here, but the more you learn, the more there is a philosophy to this madness. I also fell in love with a brief scene where the survivors find a bobcat loose in the city, and there's a discussion about how nature overtakes civilization, and whether it means the "time of man is done" or that life finds a way, and we will too.

In building a world of new superheroes, you need an artist who can come up with all sorts of great designs. Simone says in her notes that she didn't want, "homage" characters, characters that are clearly Batman in purple or Superman in black and gold, but characters who capture an era or a particular archetype. Jim Calafiore does this with ease. Each character design is original, but is clearly in a tradition. Overlord (in green and grey above) is your typical godlike hero, with super strength, flight, etc., and you get the impression just from looking at the costume what tradition he is in. Fleet (bottom left) is a speedster, and it's easy to tell just from looking at him that he's the fast guy. The Red Flame (not pictured) is a fire based hero, and his design doesn't look like Human Torch or Firestorm, but still has the essence of flame. And Calafiore's personal character, the one he designed for the short he wrote and drew at the back of the book, Southern Belle (below Overlord), is a great mix of the patriotic hero with a more genteel ideal that fits with her name. And kudos for having to design two versions of each costume, one before the monster fight for flashbacks and one after, and have them all work perfectly, the evil versions looking logically connected to the original, but the evil version being a creepy twist.

Leaving Megalopolis is marked as volume one, and there's a doozy of an ending that makes me excited to see more. But in itself, it is a self-contained story of heroism and loss, set in a world of superhumans. If you like superheroes, the work of Gail Simone, or stories of survival against all odds, this is a book you should try.

Leaving Megalopolis was funded initially through Kickstarter, but a mass released edition came out from Dark Horse Comics last week (the cover of which is below). If you happen to be in the New Jersey area this weekend, artist Jim Calafiore will be doing a signing of the book at Dewey's Comic City, my comic shop, on Saturday from noon to two, along with our Fall Back Issue Clearance Sale. Stop by, pick up a copy, get it signed, and say hi.

No comments: