Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Review: Hero Camp #1

Hero Camp was on my radar for a long time before the first issue came out a couple weeks ago, because writer Greg Thompson is a regular “face” over on MillarWorld and made sure to keep the book’s title on everybody’s minds. It’s a book I’ve been a bit anxious to read, honestly, because while Thompson’s online persona is charmingly unaffected and intelligent, the concept of the book doesn’t make it sound like my cup of tea.

See, while the last few years have really opened my eyes to how incredible comics can be, and I’ve been getting more and more excited about the medium, I’ve also been getting increasingly blasé when it comes to superhero books in particular. I don’t begrudge the genre its sales dominance in the industry, and I think it’s got a lot of great stories left to tell, but right now (with a few exceptions, like Invincible, Captain America and Supreme Power) I’m just not getting excited about superheroes. The idea of a summer camp for superpowered teenagers sound cute, but I wondered if it was just the kind of thing that was gonna leave me flat no matter how good it was.

So, does Hero Camp buck the trend?

There’s a lot here to like. Robbi Rodriguez’s character designs are really fun and distinctive for the most part, reminding me in some spots of Mike Allred’s work on X-Statix while showing us some of his own unique flavor with the issue’s villains and, surprisingly, with the inevitable standard big bruiser character (a la The Hulk), a kid named Block. I’d have guess this would be the hardest character to make distinct, since there’s such a long list of similar brutes. Perhaps it’s that challenge that pushed Rodriguez to bring his A-game to the character; whatever it was, he’s got a fun look, and when he first appeared in the issue I hoped he’d be getting some decent “face time” in the series.

I got my wish, because Block gets his own back-up story in the closing pages of the issue. It’s a hammy scene with a classic vaudeville joke that could easily slide down the line into cliché, but it plays well. Thompson’s dialogue is “comic booky” enough that I approach the story with different expectations, wanting something lighthearted and silly, and that’s exactly what I’m served.

There are also a number of fun tweaks of dialogue throughout the issue; the teenage boy superhero flying right behind a supergirl and exclaiming to his friend, “Dude! You can see straight up her skirt!” rings true and plays it with just enough restrained class to keep it cute.

Here’s the thing, though. There’s a limit to the effectiveness of cute and restrained, and it comes when we get to the serious character stuff. Our Hero, a boy named Eric, is the son of two famous superheroes and has shown no sign of powers, yet is believed to “secretly” be the most powerful kid in camp. While there are a number of obvious ways this could play out (he discovers his powers at the key moment, he finds a way to make a meaningful contribution without powers, etc.), this would still work if the character’s response to his situation was a little more personal, a little more specific to himself as a character. But as a result of the cute, iconic charm of the book’s style, he’s given nearly nothing to make him that specific a person; he’s got all the usual teenage boy trappings, like a loyal dog and a girl to crush on and so on, but that’s as far as it goes.

The idea here, I have to guess, is to appeal to a broader audience. Tom Petty once said he wrote lyrics by taking a personal story and removing detail after detail until anyone could see themselves in the song. There’s something to be said for that, and I think Thompson is employing a similar tactic here. But for me, he goes just a little too far with it. There’s some entertaining mystery behind the true nature of Eric’s powers, and the relationship between the lead villainess and one of Eric’s friends, but I’m not intrigued enough by either character to really have that hook in me that I need. It could also well be that the character arc Eric is facing is just not one that resonates with me; I learned long ago that my parents' confident expectations in me weren't important in defining myself, that just "being me" was enough for the three of us, and I can't help suspecting that Eric will learn this lesson in a friendly, affirming way that'll simultaneously comfort and tire me.

Those who are big fans of old school four-color super-hero books will find plenty to like here, but I’ll have to see the next issue to make a decision; if Block takes on a bigger role, or the villains do some more funny stuff, or the vaudeville angle gets a little thicker in the scripting – all of which show potential in this issue – I’ll be in. If it looks like this is shaping up to be a coming of age story, I’ll probably pass, because that kind of stuff just doesn’t often speak to me anymore.

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