Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
DC/Wildstorm, 6 issues (#1-6), cover dated June-November 2002.
You may think this series of posts highlights the greatest comics ever published. Well, it doesn’t. Obviously, I don’t own all of the greatest comics ever published, but even some of the books that I have spotlighted here don’t fall into that category. High Roads is one of them. It’s not one of the greatest comics ever published. So why do I find it worthy to write about?
Well, there’s a great deal to be said for comics that delight in the fact that they’re comics. There’s also a great deal to be said for comics that embrace the lunacy of comics and provide a kind of balls-to-the-wall storytelling ethic, with nothing but sheer entertainment on their mind. If we consider High Roads as a spiritual scion to World War II and/or imperial action adventure movies in the vein of Where Eagles Dare, The Eagle Has Landed, The Man Who Would Be King, The Wind and the Lion, Lawrence of Arabia, or even Raiders of the Lost Ark, we understand its appeal much better. Are all of those movies “great”? Some would say yes. High Roads is old-fashioned adventure like those movies, but it can be a but bolder than the movies because, as with all comics, it doesn’t have to worry about a budget.
Lobdell certainly isn’t interested in delving too deeply into anyone’s psyche here. Like many World War II action movies, the fact that the Nazis were doing truly evil things is glossed over and we’re left with the fact that they’re bad guys. Hitler is made ridiculous, true (a flashback in issue #3 shows him in a diaper and bib, as that’s how he likes his sex games), which is one way to belittle him, but Lobdell isn’t interested in telling a story about the Third Reich and why it was such a horrible entity. He wants to tell a story that features Nazi ninjas, and by God, he’s going to do it!
Like most of these kinds of stories, the plot is straight-forward. We begin with Sergeant Nicolas Highroad hanging from a Nazi ice cathedral. He’s trying to set dynamite to destroy it while fending off German soldiers who are, quite naturally, trying to kill him. Lobdell lets us know right away that this is going to be a wacky, high-spirited adventure, especially when Highroad, at one point, appears to be suspended in the air, Wile E. Coyote-style, before falling to his apparent doom. As he falls, he takes the time to wonder how he got there, which is, of course, a cue for a flashback! This is a classic style of storytelling – begin with a bang, then slowly introduce the characters. On the first 13 pages (until the flashback), Nic kills three Nazis, so we definitely begin with a bang. And, naturally, the fact that Nic is hanging from a Nazi ice cathedral piques our curiosity, which is when Lobdell goes back in time to answer questions.
The story falls together rather easily. Nic Highroad, an American sergeant, ends up in Paris after it was liberated. He’s a painfully naïve stereotype of the cornfed Yankee dreamboat, but that characterization only heightens the wackiness of the comic. He visits a stage show where Sir Arthur Bombridge III, “the greatest actor who has ever lived,” performs as, well, Hitler. A midget Hitler, even. Nic meets Sir Arthur and offers to buy him a drink, something the pompous actor can’t resist. He takes Nic to Madame Eugena’s, where the third member of our gang is working. Her name is Sloan Applebee, and she used to be Hitler’s mistress, a fact she won’t shut up about. Nic and Sir Arthur enter the brothel, find everyone in it dead, and Sloan about to be kidnapped by Nazi ninjas, members of the Brotherhood of the Iron Cross, who dress in fetish gear and have swastikas tattooed to their faces. It’s just that kind of comic.
It turns out Sloan wants to steal a prized possession of Hitler’s, one that will make her rich. She enlists Sir Arthur and Nic, and they later hook up with Oki, a failed kamikaze pilot who went AWOL … in France. Oki gets them to the North Pole, where the Nazis have a secret base (of course). There (of course) they discover that the Nazis have a secret weapon to turn the tide of the war, and they have to stop it. They’re captured (of course), but they escape and save the world. In the meantime, they get rich. Happy days!
Lobdell writes the whole thing with a ton of energy, which helps elevate the comic above its pedestrian plot. It’s the very definition of a non-funny fun comic, because Lobdell puts pedal to the metal from the first page and never lets up. Sure, there are plot holes you can drive a truck through (does Nic go AWOL? how does Oki have enough fuel to make it from Japan to France?) and details that are weirdly wrong (why is the Depression going on in 1923?), but they fall away when we just allow Lobdell’s wild script to carry us along. He adds a soupçon of character development, from Nic’s bucolic life on the farm to Sir Arthur’s scandals in Hollywood to Sloan’s odd sexual games with Hitler, but it’s all just in the service of the plot. This is furiously fun storytelling with odd jokes (Dutch Reform ninjas?), some not-too-awful violence (plenty of people die, but it’s mostly bloodless), femme fatales (Blanche Noir, the traitorous French ex-resistance fighter!), and evil Nazis. Just the kind of old-fashioned stuff we all love!
Ultimately, like a movie of this ilk can rise on the strength of its actors (Harrison Ford elevates Raiders of the Lost Ark in a way that Tom Selleck – who I love, by the way – probably wouldn’t have, based on his work in High Road to China and Lassiter), so too can the art on a comic elevate a script, and Yu’s certainly does here. Lobdell’s script is well-done and frenetic, but Yu makes the book sing. His early work for Marvel was decent but nothing spectacular, but this book and (later) Superman: Birthright really showed what he could do. Yu is as high-profile as he’s going to get right now, and this book gives us opportunity to check out what he can do when he’s not pressed for time and doesn’t have to cram dozens of superheroes into each issue. High Roads allows him to breathe a bit, and it’s gorgeous to look at. This book came out during the height of the “decompressed storytelling” fad in comics, so some of the pages are devoted to wide spreads that simply allow Yu to show off, but the attention to detail is so stunning that it’s completely forgivable. Yu is influenced by Travis Charest, especially in this book, but his drawings are not as slick and reflect a rough-hewn, war-torn world better. He illustrates the book like a perfect 1940s movie – the hero is blond and square-jawed, and all the women are buxom and curvy and total sex objects. There’s a charming innocence to the way Yu draws Sloan and Blanche Noir and the other women in the book – they’re sexy without being skanky, and Sloan, especially, is vulnerable without being weak. Everyone is an idealized version of a stereotype, but Yu sells it so well. He helps deepen Lobdell’s script by taking time to show how scared Sloan is even though she acts tough, how sad Sir Arthur is that he’s not starring in Hollywood anymore, how ashamed Oki is that he can’t complete his mission, and how lustful Nic is even though he’s an honorable man. There’s a beautiful panel showing Oki about to embark on his suicide mission, and the shadows fall over him as he contemplates leaving it behind and dishonoring himself but staying alive. There isn’t much that is deep about High Roads, but what depth there is exists because of Yu’s art. It’s a nice complement to the wild script that Lobdell provides.
High Roads might not be a great comic that will change your life, but it’s the kind of comic that makes you happy when you read it. In the best tradition of old-fashioned adventure movies, it grabs you early on and never lets go. Lobdell doesn’t get a ton of respect these days, and he doesn’t do a ton of work in the industry either, but he pours his heart into this book, and it shows. Yu, meanwhile, shows the chops that have made him such a big-time artist today. High Roads has been collected in a trade, and it’s fairly easy to find. It’s a wild, completely enjoyable ride.
Many other Comics You Should Own are in the archives! How fun!
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