Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Yes, a bunch of comics again. But they all star the same character, so it’s just like one big comic, okay?
While I was wandering around the small press area in San Diego, I happened across Randy Reynaldo, who was selling various iterations of his comic book creation, Rob Hanes, a worldwide adventurer. I remembered that I had pre-ordered the “zero” volume that had been offered in Previews, so I skipped getting that, but I picked up The Rob Hanes Archives and issues #1-12 of Rob Hanes Adventures, the ongoing Reynaldo has been producing sporadically for the past decade. So I figured I’d review ‘em all! Reynaldo publishes these through WCG Comics, and you can check out his web comic as well.
I’m kind of a sucker for these kinds of comics, so I’m not surprised that I enjoyed them, but it’s interesting how Reynaldo’s writing and art (but especially the art) gets better throughout the course of the series. The first trade features Rob Hanes stories from a fanzine Reynaldo created in the early 1990s, and they’re pretty rough. You can see that Reynaldo has talent, but the composition of his panels is often very poor, as he skews perspectives to fit too many characters into small panels. his figures are very stiff and disproportionally drawn, and the backgrounds are rudimentary. Only late in the collection, in the story called “Masks” (which was completed in 1989 but not published until 1993), did Reynaldo discover Zip-A-Tone, which helps the art a great deal because it adds nice shading to the line work. In the later stories (beginning in the zero volume, which includes stories from 1994-96), Reynaldo gets a lot better with shading, perspective, backgrounds, and fluidity – it’s impressive watching his art evolve from the late 1980s to 2009 (which is when Rob Hanes Adventures #12 was published). He still has some minor issues with his action scenes, but the art has improved by leaps and bounds, and it’s fun to watch as you read through these stories. Reynaldo wants to set these stories in exotic locations because Rob, as an international man of mystery, needs to globe-trot, but early on in the series, it’s often difficult to buy that Rob is spending his time in a Middle Eastern country (Koman, where he’s stationed for a while). Although we never get the intense background detail that some artists give us (occasionally, it must be said, to the art’s detriment), as we move into the ongoing, Reynaldo gets much more confident about the settings, whether it’s a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas (issue #1), Hong Kong (issue #3), the Czech Republic (issue #4), the African savannah (issue #8), or a deserted island (issue #12). He manages to give the reader local flavor without having been to the locations (I assume; I don’t think Reynaldo is independently wealthy) and give us local color without relying on vast vistas of the place. It’s a clever trick, and Reynaldo gets much better at it as he goes along.
He does some other nice things with the art, too. The characters look like real people, and they have many different body types. Rob isn’t a buffed-out hero kind of guy – he’s in shape but he’s not overly muscular. Meanwhile, the many, many women he meets during his adventures aren’t cookie-cutter, either – they’re attractive in different ways, and Reynaldo makes sure their body types are realistic as well – they don’t have giant breasts, they wear sensible clothes, and they have different hair styles. He does this with all the characters – they wear clothing that suits the situation or their personalities – but it’s nice that Reynaldo does this particularly with the women, who often get short shrift even if an artist makes sure the men don’t all look and dress alike.
Reynaldo’s stories are solid, old-fashioned action/adventure tales. He writes quite often in the “liner notes” of the collections and each issue how much he is influenced by Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, going so far as to give Rob a bomber jacket with the same insignia as the one worn by Terry Lee of that strip. He also introduces a few characters who are “related” to characters in the older strip – they share the same last name, for instance, and Reynaldo hints that they’re descended from certain characters without being too explicit, which means if you don’t get the connection, it doesn’t really matter. Terry and the Pirates isn’t the only influence on the book, of course, and Reynaldo tells us what they are, which is always keen (some are unsurprising – Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence of Arabia – but some are – A Room With a View, for instance). Reynaldo writes quite often that he wants to keep the tone light, and usually, he does – even to the detriment of the story (issue #7 of Rob Hanes Adventures is called “Death on the Moors,” but Reynaldo wrote that he decided to turn it into an attempted murder story because he didn’t want to kill off the victim, which isn’t a terrible choice but feels kind of off). That’s not to say people don’t die, because they do, but it’s clear that Reynaldo wants to keep the stories light.
As I wrote, they’re old-fashioned adventure stories, but that doesn’t mean they’re not comtemporary. Rob Hanes works for Justice International, a private security firm that often gets contracted by the CIA, and it’s interesting that Reynaldo was doing this long before these types of companies became prominent during the second Iraqi War. Rob’s job allows Reynaldo to send him all over the place. He uses plenty of “ripped-from-the-headlines” plots and puts some nice twists on them. The only recurring plotline (Reynaldo wants very much to make sure each issue is a single story) deals with “Glowworm,” a Soviet mole in the CIA who is modeled on Aldrich Ames and turns out to be Rob Hanes’s father … or is he???? Reynaldo revisits the plot a few times, but in issue #5 of the ongoing, he wraps it up to concentrate more on single-issue stories. He originally stations Rob in the Middle East, in the fictional country of Koman, but he also, early on in the series, deals with the break-up of the Soviet Union. He also sets several stories in China and deals with that country’s emergence as an economic power, and he has some fun with the murder mystery on the English moors. In issue #10, he sends Rob to Florida and puts him on a minor-league baseball team that is tainted by a drug scandal. In issue #11, he gets kidnapped to North Korea, which is not called by its proper name (I’m not sure why – Reynaldo doesn’t try to hide that it’s North Korea and Kim Jong-il). It’s interesting that he mixes the action/adventure and even the fun of that kind of comic with real-world complications and even tragedy without dragging down the tone too much. Rob assists a doctor who tries to stop Russians from stealing medical supplies that are supposed to be delivered to the commoners; Rob has to navigate a delicate civil war in the Middle East; Rob even quits for a while because Justice International is bought out by Drakorp Oil, and he doesn’t want his work to be compromised by a multinational corporation. It’s kind of interesting that Reynaldo is able to add these elements but still keep the tone light.
Characterization is also fairly important in these stories, because while Reynaldo varies his plots, they basically come down to Rob Hanes defeating bad guys. Reynaldo, however, packs these comics with great characters, which makes each comic more interesting than they would be on a plot level. Reynaldo writes about not having a fixed supporting cast and how much fun it is to come up with new people in each issue, but he’s not being completely ingenuous – there are plenty of recurring characters, but they’re just not present in every issue. Reynaldo does a very good job both with Rob and the rest of the cast. Rob himself, despite his successful track record, isn’t the prototypical secret agent – he’s often overmatched physically (to the point where he ought to go to a neurologist and get checked for concussions because he’s been bonked on the head so often) and he doesn’t like killing people and tries to avoid it if possible. In marked contrast to a far more famous secret agent, Mr. Bond (who has a cameo in Rob Hanes Adventures #4), Rob isn’t all that confident around women, even though he has plenty of opportunities with them. It’s a refreshing take on the idea of an adventurer – Rob gets out of tight spots by using his brains and running a lot, not by standing and fighting. He can fight, of course, but he often chooses not to. The other characters are well constructed, as well. Abner McKenna, Rob’s partner/sidekick, is often played for laughs, but in one early strip (from 1988), he’s mistaken for Rob (he does nothing to correct the client) and has his own adventure, acquitting himself nicely. While the men in the comic are well done, Rob’s primary interaction is with several attractive women, whom I’ve already mentioned when discussing the art. Reynaldo makes sure that these are confident, independent women with interesting careers and distinct personalities. One of the earliest strips features Caroline Wilde, a rich, spoiled young lady. Later in the series, she returns as a more mature woman who has grown up and sticks by her husband even though he’s a cad. She’s just one example of the kind of woman Rob meets, although she does provide a bit of a template with regard to his romantic life. He and Caroline are obviously attracted to each other, but she’s too immature for him at this point. When they meet again (in Rob Hanes Adventures #4), there are more sparks, but now she’s married. Something always comes between Rob and the ladies, whether it’s the fact that he falls for a criminal (Suzette French in issue #12), or he reminds a woman of her painful past (Alexandra Vera Cruz in issue #5), or the woman is in love with someone else (Caroline, for one, but Lorelei Thornfield in issue #7, Princess Chulaborn in Adventure Strip Digest #1 and issue #9, and Bae Jihyun in issue #11), or, more humorously, the woman isn’t interested for other reasons (Molly, the general manager of the minor-league team on which Rob plays, doesn’t date players who hit below .200). Most of the time, Rob doesn’t get together with the women because they both have jobs that take them far and wide (most notably with Isabelle Corbeil – although he does have a fling with her – in Adventure Strip Digest #2, issue #1, and issue #6, as well as Kayta Vilnius from Adventure Strip Digest #2 and issue #4). I don’t mean to write so much about the women in this series, but Reynaldo does a very good job with them. Whether they’re on the right side of the law or not, they’re all interesting characters, and Reynaldo convinces us that they all have full lives even when they’re not showing up in a Rob Hanes comic. That’s a nice trick.
If you’re interested in tracking the development of Reynaldo’s art and writing skills, I would suggest you get The Rob Hanes Archives to begin, even though those are the weakest stories. But I would definitely recommend Rob Hanes Adventures volume 0 and the ongoing. You can get them at Reynaldo’s WCG Comics web site for not a lot of money. Take a look! These comics are a ton of fun, they’re right in Greg Hatcher’s wheelhouse, and if you don’t love comics that are right in Greg Hatcher’s wheelhouse, I just don’t know what we’re going to do with you.
Tomorrow: Icky romance. Why am I such a sap?
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