Saturday, August 6, 2016

normalman!


normalman is one of those comic books that speaks to my baser nature. It's essentially an entire series of comics built around a single joke -- what if instead of superheroes being singular and unusual, they were ubiquitous and the lowly man without superpowers were the freak.


That's the essence of normalman invented and developed by writer-artist Jim Valentino.  He has his hero rocketed to the planet Levram (get it!) and he pops out of the vessel a fully-grown man sans any superpowers in a world overripe with such types.


While making fun of some of comics' most valuable tropes, Valentino also uses the comic to lampoon some of the classic images and styles of classic comics. This more than any other aspect is what makes the comic of interest to me. I like how each issue of normalman is different, playing off the type of comics produced by Marvel, DC, EC, or other recognizable publishers.


As a consequence of this attempt to simultaneously lampoon both the substances and styles of comics, Valentino contorts his story to make it fit the nominal requirements of each issue. That hurts the momentum of the story, but does make each issue interesting in its own way.


It seems clear to me that Valentino had little idea of the direction of the series beyond its initial half dozen issues or so as the normalman universe continues to expand with little attempt to make details cohere in any really reasonable way.


That's fine as satire, allowing Valentino to do takes on hit comics of the time like Elfquest and others like crossing over into Journey. It's about half way that the longest running gag in the book ends, the seemingly endless roll call of the Legion of Superfluous Heroes, a roll call which effectively prevents them from taking any action whatsoever.


Valentino is able to make some commentary too on the values promoted by comics, pointing out the way comics promote violence and seem to validate avarice, two aspects of American culture which are easy and ready targets for satire.


But as the series continues the reader can feel the tone shift to a more regular comic book story as the plot which has unfolded in a zany way begins to cohere more and develop to a singular climatic (sort of) end point. Despite the sense in the early issues (and back ups in issues of Cerebus the Aardvark) of a small-minded spoof, the narrative seems to begin to take itself more seriously as a pure story about well...normal characters.


And as such begins to lose some of the satirical punch which had informed the wild energy of the early issues. We become immersed in a murder mystery, and while it's safe to say no one character in normalman is allowed to become sufficiently real for a reader to invest in much, there seems to be an attempt at least to develop sentiment.


Wild forays into space notwithstanding, it seems to this reader that in the last run of the book, we are headed to a destination, but not one which necessarily promises to pay off.


Trips into the past are fun, and jokingly point to a neat paradox which makes normalman to some extent responsible for his own dilemma (an element which is not much at all developed).


The final few issues put normalman more in control of his fate as he acquires power  though always he seems not to fully understand what it is he really wants or needs.


The story bogs down a bit toward the end as the finale seems to be arbitrarily delayed to make out the requisite dozen issues and such of the series itself.


By the time we are poised for the thirteenth and final installment, saved for a 3-D annual, the story is quickly losing gas and the reader seems just as eager as normalman himself to be quit of Levram and its lunacy.


This entire saga has been collected a few times, most recently in The Complete normalman from Image Comics.



There are couple of additional tales (one co-starring Megaton Man) which sadly are less effective than I remember them being when they first hit the stands, and don't really add much to our understanding of the normalman universe.


normalman was effectively a single idea expanded to twelve issues and beyond. It's full of delightful cameos (my favorite hero E-Man shows a few times) and any Silver or Bronze Age fan will get a kick out of it. Still and all it seems a bit less impressive on this reading than I recollect.


If you'd like to see the covers these Valentino variations take a spin on go here to a post from me a few years ago when I first bought this collection.

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