Un-caped crusaders

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a spoof of superheroes.

BIZARRO COMICS NO. 1

by various writers and artists (D.C. Comics, $29.95)

SUPERHEROES HAVE consistently ruled the comic book medium since the 1939 debut of Superman in Action Comics no. 1, much to the dismay of many fans who want the form to get the respect they feel it deserves. And despite the inherent clunkiness of the format, from its good-guy/bad-guy polarities to its willfully limited artistic palette (most superhero comics are drawn in some variation on Jack Kirby's rough, dynamic style), there's no end in sight to the genre's domination.

On the other hand, it's worth noting that, within the field itself, the deconstruction of those superpowered protagonists has been going on nearly as long. Think of Mad's vicious parodies of "Superduperman" and "Woman Wonder" in the '50s, the sly hero mockery from the alternative comics camp (Reid Fleming's Flaming Carrot comes to mind), and Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Dark Knight graphic novels. Each of these comics, in some way, has questioned the place of the superhero in society, in our fantasy lives, and even in the realm of the comics world itself.

Reading D.C. Comics' intensely pleasurable new hardback collection, Bizarro Comics No. 1, is like falling into a time warp where all those reimaginings are happening in one place—and to some of comics' best-known characters, no less. Indeed, most of the best Bizarro stories are outright send-ups. "Silence of the Fishes," written by Evan Dorkin and Brian David-Marshall and drawn by Bill Wray, finds Aquaman's ability to communicate with his fellow underwater creatures neutralized: "I'm no longer speaking to the denizens of the deep," he informs his family as they're tied to a reef and tortured by the evil Black Manta. "We had an argument. It's a long story and I'd rather not discuss it right now." In "Super-Pets," writer Sam Henderson and artist Bob Fingerman reimagine Superman's Kryptonian parents packing a farmload of animals with him onto that spaceship to Earth, only to have them steal his thunder. ("I just rescued your child!" Superman informs a Metropolis couple whose daughter has just escaped a wrecking ball. "Look, honey!" her unfazed father tells his wife, pointing to the sky. "A flying zebra!") And Kyle Baker's "Letitia Lerner, Superman's Babysitter" is a dazzlingly rendered work of slapstick genius, full of rich color and witty sound effects. (Personal favorite: When baby Supe cries, breaking every piece of glass in the house, the word "SHATTER!" is written in the pseudo-Oriental lettering of the logo from a box of Cherry Clan candy drops.)

MOST INTERESTING, though, are a pair of stories dealing with the everyday lives of young, bohemian women in the city, an indie-comics staple upended when applied to superheroes. "The Clubhouse of Solitude," written by Horrocks and drawn by Jessica Abel of Fantagraphics' Artbabe, is the kind of chatty, angsty, people-sitting-around-a-coffee-shop-talking-about-their-lives story that Abel's comic specializes in. Here, Mary Marvel, who's left the profession to pursue a normal career and relationships, and the still-active Supergirl commiserate over cheesecake. Abel's inking style in this comic—stiff-brushed, with an almost woodcut feel— is somewhat unusual if you're used to her more fluid previous work, but it suits the dialogue-heavy story, and facial expressions are expertly rendered, particularly those of Supergirl and the coffeehouse proprietor who hangs the expense on her dessert—"The least an old admirer can do for the Greatest Superhero Ever!"

Conversely, I Was Seven in '75 artist Ellen Forney's style is aggressively cartoony, and her "Wonder Woman's Day Off," written by Ariel Bordeaux (No Love Lost), is Bizarro's most ingenious story, not least because it contains my favorite single image of the book: our heroine strutting down a city street wearing sunglasses and carrying a handbag. Where Horrocks and Abel's Supergirl is barely able to take an hour once a year for coffee with her oldest friend, Bordeaux and Forney have Wonder Woman call in sick ("Great Hera," she tells the reader after informing Batman over the phone that the Justice League can handle Sinestro without her today, "that man is insufferable") so she can go into the city for coffee. Then she enters a poetry slam (her composition is "Hero's Desire": "We dance with death/And laugh at the devil/And yet—/ . . . We pray for a simple peace"), tearfully accepting the audience's applause in the final panel, as a sniffling Batman offers the similarly choked-up Hawkman a tissue. Superheroes may never go away, but if there's any (ahem) justice, they'll remain the subjects of parody in books as playful as Bizarro Comics.

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