The Webcomic Overlook #102: The SuperFogeys
The Webcomic Overlook is back for 2010!
First of all, apologies to everyone for the long wait. A tip for you single people: after you get married, Christmases get ten times busier. You have a whole second family with which to party and to buy gifts for. And it gets even more complicated when your own family is clear across the other side of the country. So Christmas for me was a hectic time of shopping, traveling (to, like, three different states), and partying (which I hate). Like the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers from last week’s wild card game, I am pooped.
Yet, I have returned. If you had wild fantasies that The Webcomic Overlook had died and gone away forever, then I’m sorry to spoil your dreams. Also, what a horrible thing to say! What would your mother think?
But anyway, onto the review that I’ve apparently been working on for a month now.
Superheroes never age. They just get rebooted. Superman will always be your mild-mannered boy scout permanently stuck in his late 20’s to early 30’s. He’ll always have a similarly aged alter ego in Clark Kent, who will always be an anachronistic reporter at the local newspaper. It can’t be helped. It’s in his DNA. I imagine he’ll stay a newspaper reporter even when papers themselves are a forgotten remnant of the past, driven to obsolescence by visual media and the Internet.
Or witness the tragic case of Peter Parker, the world’s oldest college student. Few know that, in current continuity (before Brand New Day, anyway), Peter and Mary Jane had a daughter named May Parker. Hey, sorta makes sense with Peter’s progression from a teenager to a college student to a married adult, doesn’t it? Except the Marvel editorial staff thought it made Peter too old, so they had Peter’s daughter kidnapped and never referred to again (unless you count the out-of-continuity Spider-Girl books). Later and more notoriously, Peter had his marriage to Mary Jane taken away via devil magic (i.e., editorial fiat), turning him into a struggling single guy once again to appeal to Marvel’s theoretical target audience of teenage boys.
Spider-Man’s greatest enemy isn’t The Green Goblin. It’s aging.
I think this explains the popularity of comics that portray elderly superheroes. It’s a portrayal we don’t see too often. Part of the joy of reading Kingdom Come was seeing Superman with streaks of gray in his hair, Bruce Wayne in a neck support, and Wonder Woman … well, she really doesn’t age, what with our double standard of letting men have gray hair and wrinkles yet women must look pleasingly young. However, Kingdom Come and other comics of its ilk don’t really deal with the ramifications of growing older beyond the dilemma of passing on your legacy to the next generation. Heck, even the old dudes of the Justice Society comic hardly are drawn to look a day over forty.
How about when superheroes have to deal with the less savory aspects of growing old? Fortunately, that’s why the world gave us Brock Heasley. The SuperFogeys is a comedic yet somewhat melancholy look at aging.
It’s hard to think of a more depressing setting than a retirement home. It’s always portrayed as a nightmarish place where people lose control of their bodies. The air is tinged with the pungent aroma of bodily wastes. Friends are dying on a regular basis while you yourself are counting the days until you draw your last breath. You have surrendered a good deal of your independence.
It’s even more depressing when the residence of the home are superheroes and supervillains, people used to having abilities far surpassing those of normal people. There’s a long and depressing fall from waging intergalactic battles to anticipation over the start of the next bingo game. It’s like that scene from X-Men 3 where a depowered Magneto is unable to move metal chess pieces. The mighty have fallen, and all that’s left to look forward to is the Grim Reaper.
(Incidentally, I know there are some people who swear that they saw the chess pieces move, which meant that Magneto has regained his superpowers. I’ve seen that scene more than once, and I saw no movement. Besides, I like my version better.)
The retirement home in The SuperFogeys is named Valhalla. It’s run by the gregarious Dr. Klein and his ambivalent staff. The main protagonist is Captain Spectacular, a Superman stand-in who’s seen hard times and is confined to a wheelchair. He’s joined by his former arch-nemesis Dr. Rocket (a Lex Luthor/Dr. Sivana type), Jerry (an aged sidekick with some sort of mental disability), and Swifty (a Flash type who, irony of ironies, now needs a walker).
The SuperFogeys kicks off when the Valhalla residents are introduced to their newest member, Spy Gal. She is a Black Widow espionage type who may be more than meets the eye. Is she really suffering from dementia? Or is she going undercover at Valhalla because something fishy is going on behind the scenes?
Make no mistake, there is a conspiracy afoot. Several side characters directly involved in the lives of the Valhalla residents are taking kickbacks from a mysterious character known as The Third Man. But why? Does this shadowy gentleman of the night harbor some sort of implacable grudge against one of the heroes in the retirement home? Could this be a revenge scheme against the generally affable Captain Spectacular?
The elderly are difficult to write about without falling back on cliches … especially if you’re not one yourself. And from Brock Heasley’s photos, I imagine he’s not a shade over 40. It also appears he has three eyes and two noses, so it’s entirely possible that the photo is not 100% accurate. Still, he does a pretty good job creating a cast of distinct, if one-dimensional, characters. (More on this later.) I have no idea if real old people are as randy as the ones found in SuperFogeys (Spy Gal and Star Maiden seem to hit on/get hit on in every other strip), but, hey, it’s a break from talking about bowel movements and being technological Luddites 24/7, amirite?
The tone of webcomic starts off on a pleasant and genial note. It’s mainly concerned about Captain Spectacular becoming comfortable with being old. This means making peace with his former archenemy, getting over old romances and discovering new ones, and learning how to live with limited mobility. I found the leisurely “twilight years” approach is an appropriate one to take in webcomic about aging. It is slow, though, and undercuts any sense of urgency built up by the “shadow conspiracy” storyline.
Things change, however, as of Chapter 5 onwards. This is when Valhalla is introduced to Tangerine, a violent, bargain basement Wolverine-analogue who’s, for some reason, named after a delicious fruit. He’s been interned at the retirement home due to his propensity for dangerously violent outbursts. One thing leads to another: a likable character gets offed, the conspiracy begins to unravel, and new, more vicious character appear. From here on out, SuperFogeys becomes a shade darker as plot elements are rearranged to form a far more coherent storyline. It’s as if SuperFogeys does a hard reboot from a superhero version of Golden Girls into a superhero version of Golden Girls if Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche had been Treadstone agents in a previous life.
Mr. Heasley even takes time to flesh out his characters in flashbacks to when the heroes are fit, young men and women of action in spandex. Clearly, while SuperFogeys is fundamentally a gag comic, there’s an effort to incorporate the epic scope and grandeur of modern myth-making in comic books.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that prevent me from totally embracing this comic. First of all: I’m not a huge fan about jokes centering around bodily wastes. When you’ve got a comic that visibly illustrates these jokes, I’m kinda turned off. However, if you’ve got no problem people getting peed on, The SuperFogeys delivers with a character called Space Pig, a talking pig with a fishbowl helmet who flies through the air thanks to the power of his pee. His urine (or S.P.U.’s) also contain curative properties, so when that pee hits your face, it just might save your life. So if you think people being drenched in pee is funny, bully for you. This and similar jokes — Captain Spectacular’s aversion to pants, bedpan humor — that will have latent OCD’s like me reaching for the anti-bacterial disinfectant.
Second, the characters seem too one-dimensional to carry an epic story. Jerry, for example, carries the label of “sidekick” in relation to Captain Spectacular… and that’s it. That and his borderline mental illness are his only personality traits. As a result, the character of Jerry feels perfunctory. When The SuperFogeys stars, his existence is merely a foil for jokes about superhero sidekicks. Efforts to flesh out Jerry, like the subplot where his family doesn’t really want to visit him, come off as rather clunky.
But Jerry’s not alone. Everyone comes across as similarly one-dimensional. Captain Spectacular gets a bunch of back story piled on him, but, even factoring in his sordid past, he’s barely more than a standard clueless nice guy. Swifty is basically just a grumpy old man in the “get off my lawn” mold. In fact, pretty much everyone could basically be defined by where they fall on the “irascible old fogey” scale.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with characters in gag strips can be one-dimensional. There are plenty of successful strips that cruise on their main character being fat, lazy, and partial to the delicious flavor of lasagna. However, as I mentioned before, SuperFogeys has big aspirations, and when you’re building the comic into an epic storyline, the shallowness of the characters becomes far too apparent.
On a similar note, the romance between the Cap and Spy Gal — a major plot element — felt less than convincing. We’re supposed to take, on faith, that the two are totally into each other. I don’t buy it. Cool, they have a past. Star Maiden is thrown in there for jealousy to bubble forth. I can dig it. But it doesn’t feel natural.
I suppose it’s a limitation of the gag strip medium. Everyone has to make a snarky comment and everyone has to be a grouchy sourpuss, because in the end what matters above all is that there’s a kicky punchline. But handling a romance. It took ages for Jon and Liz to get together in Garfield and for Cathy of Cathy to get married. Why? Because in the confines of a four-panel strip, romance takes for-friggin’-ever.
However, while SuperFogeys may not make me laugh out loud all the time and while the characters could use a big ol’ dose of Grade A personality, the webcomic is nevertheless a very likable one. I very much enjoy Brock Heasley’s clean art style. It’s a little reminiscent of the old school stylings of Sinfest and fellow superhero parodist Evil Inc. But what sets Heasley apart from his contemporaries? He knows how to draw old people. His illustrations play around with the many different ways he depicts sagging skin, yet his characters still look attractive, human, and dignified. Contrast this with the late Grumps webcomic, where all the old people are basically drawn as emaciated zombies.
In the end, SuperFogeys falls square in what I define as middle-of-the-road. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it, either. If you don’t mind seeing superheroes struggle just to use the bathroom, this webcomic might be for you. Reading SuperFogeys can indeed be a downer, since it reminds us that we, and the ones we love, will grow old someday. We will cease being invincible heroes and be reduced to a state where they have to wear diapers. But there’s hope, as well, because aging ain’t so bad as long as you’re aging with friends.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)