So, it’s been a hot minute (make that the better part of a year) since ComixTribe released its last issue of The Standard, which is an excessive wait by any measure. Still, I enjoyed the first three issues of this indie series about an altruistic Golden Age superhero forced to abandon retirement and face the equally greying (in terms of moral ambiguity) terrors of today, and have been looking forward to its follow-up. Issue #4 in particular rocks out with its ... own distinguishable voice (you thought I was gonna say “cock out,” didn’t you?), some exceptional art and a perhaps surprising depth of feels, but is it and this book as a whole (as its name suggests) setting a standard at the edge of superhero comics?
Well, while it may not be breaking (or making) any rules, what this book does with commendable effort is merge two ages together to tell a classic superhero comic book story about the stories that superhero comic books tell, or have told, since becoming a medium.
At the same time, John Lees and Jonathan Rector succeed in finding their own unique, distinctly-human spin on that familiar conceit: how will an old, “standard-setting” icon preserve the lessons he established in modern-day heroes, who have since distorted his message. This is not to mention the newer, deadlier villains that killed The Standard’s one-time sidekick-cum-replacement, Fabu-Lad; his mysterious murder, of course, having dragged the wrinkled wrangler of wrongdoing out of retirement in the first place.
In the first three issues, Lees and co. nimbly bounced the story between past and present, measuring against each other the types of superhuman threats throughout the ages. They do so again this time by showcasing The Standard’s quick thrashing of an archaic, attention-seeking baddie named “TV Man.” The problem is, it doesn’t work as well here.
The transitions just felt more jarring, or perhaps not as visibly signposted. I wouldn’t say that its flow is significantly befuddled, but it does sometimes take half a second to get your bearings. The same is true for some of the lettering, as two different characters share similarly-visualized speech bubbles, which I thought was odd, and hopefully not forced foreshadowing.
Overall, though, it’s clear that Lees is having a blast writing this story, with little moments like the sort of Superman-meets-Spawn type meeting. And yet, he also proves a steady hand at tragedy, penning a truly heartwarming past yet melancholy present shared by Gilbert and his ill wife Caroline. That relationship and all those Gilbert experiences within his new surroundings comprise the best parts of this book and do come across as something special.
As concerns art, barring the cover, which lacks an adequate punch, Rector’s stuff in issue four is pretty damn great. There’s a certain nostalgia his work conjures, reminding me of someone doing a really good job of ripping on old 90s Image books ... but with more skill than the subjects they parody.
I won’t lie, there are a few moments of inconsistency, but they are few and far between as, artistically, issue four feels more confident and assertive, which allows Rector’s endearingly-innocent and classic comic/cartoon/manga style to be further scabbed and warped by the hyper-realism of the story.
There are a couple of pages that especially stand out, like the first appearance of the “unbreakium” mecha-suit, with which Zena Zarthos (daughter of the Standard’s once-greatest nemesis) hopes to privatize super-heroism. It’s absolutely gorgeous and a great nod to how comics have changed visually over the past 20 years.
Also impressive are the colors; Mike Gagnon does a fantastic job of establishing tone, whether it’s echoed in the scenes of Gilbert’s gilded brightness, the glossy shadow-cold corporate desperation of Zarthos and her mechanical alternative, or the deeply-moving, yet tonally muted interactions between a struggling man and his too-far-gone wife.
I’m very much hoping that the creative team and publisher can stay on target with this book and its forthcoming penultimate and final issues, because while the ending was a bit from left field, I’m very interested in further exploring The Standard for what could be, as a whole, a great multi-period character piece.
Writer: John Lees Artist: Jonathan Rector Publisher: ComixTribe Price: $3.99 Release Date: 12/11/13