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Larry Young & Brandon McKinney's comic book polemic on the state of superheroes today. . .

Planet of the Capes

Reading Larry Young & Brandon McKinney’s superhero parody graphic novel, Planet of the Capes (AiT/Planet Lar), I found myself recalling an episode from The Simpsons‘ second season. The episode, “Blood Feud,” concerns Homer’s disappointment over the fact that multibillionaire Monty Burns is insufficiently grateful for a blood transfusion son Bart has provided for the ailing tycoon. At the end of the episode, the family vainly attempts to come up with a lesson from the episode’s events. There is no moral, Homer finally asserts, it’s “just a bunch of stuff that happens.”
So it is with Planet of the Capes: “Nobody learns anything. Everybody dies,” the book’s back cover asserts in boldface (how’s that for a big ol’ Spoiler, folks?), and you sure can’t accuse Young of false advertising. The book concerns a quartet of super-types (accent on the types): a cowled crimefighter who goes by the name of Justice Hall, a flirty alien babe named Kastra (ouch!), an inarticulate mutated beastman called the Schaff (perhaps in homage to Silver Age artist Kurt Schaffenberger) and an all-purpose superguy named the Grand. Our vaguely united foursome is called into space by the appearance of a spaceship orbiting the Earth. The occasion sparks a color flashback (the bulk of the book is in black, white and gray), which “explains” how the Schaff became his grotesque self, but before we learn what the ship is doing “halfway between Tranquility Base and Fort Meyers, Florida,” it explodes, sending our protagonists to an alternate Earth where there are no superheroes.
Throughout the book, Young keeps playing bait and switch with the reader, making you think he’s taking his plot in one direction only to arbitrarily zoom elsewhere. At one point, we’re introduced to a non-superpowered quartet of action types reminiscent of an untransformed Fantastic Four, but they don’t last very long. That color flashback leads to a pay-off that’s intentionally unsatisfying. When, in the book’s final section, one member of our super quartet starts behaving in a manner that presumably violates everything he’s stood for, it barely registers because the character has been so sketchily presented.
What Young has done, in effect, is create a book that’s a cautionary to all us fannish comic geeks attempting to foist Really Good Superhero Comics on non-fans. For readers unfamiliar with the particular company universes that feature each character, I suspect that many of our prized graphic novels real a lot like Capes: as a succession of random events acted out by cardboard figures whose motivations are at best opaque, at worst non-existent. Yet to superhero junkies with a sense of history, the characters in Capes also follow the general path of the genre itself. From simple crimefighting stories to tales of alienated monsters to space opera to demi-realism (where the physics-straining rules of earlier comics no longer consistently hold; where a dam that’s held together by superhand one time can no longer keep from crumbling apart) to the rise of psychotic quasi-heroes, Capes charts the devolution of Mainstream Comic Book Hotness – and does so with a knowing wink to the cued-in reader.
McKinney’s art suits the material, morphing to accommodate the shifts in storytelling (the most obvious comes during the color flashback, where even the Grand’s supersuit is rendered in more retro fashion). It’s hyperbolic, packed with poses no one would strike outside of superhero comics and anatomically absurd (a fact that’s exaggerated with the Schaff, a blended creature with extraneous body parts). Pretty amusing in the stuntedly snarky context of Capes.
Since its release in April, Planet of the Capes has been reviewed by a slew of comics bloggers, each with their own slightly different take on the book. I’m tending toward the thumbs-up side, though after reading Young’s considerably richer Astronauts in Trouble volumes, I’m also admittedly hoping that the writer/publisher’s next work involves more than “stuff that happens” in the name of aesthetic polemics. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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