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Committed: Sassy New Superman / LEVEL UP recommendation

Today I’m going to talk about two entirely disparate comic books. Mostly I want to recommend this lovely new book Level Up, by Gene Yang and Thien Pham, but before I get to that, here is something interesting.

On the left is an image from the upcoming new Action Comics, with lovely art by Ralph “Rags” Morales. Center and on the right are two completely random Tom of Finland drawing from a couple of decades ago or so. Do a search on his name, nearly everything he does looks quite similar to this Superman drawing, (i.e. skin tight t-shirt stretched over a sculpted torso, artfully damaged jeans over rugged black boots and sexily arching back.) I am aware that men are increasingly being depicted this way, in comics, fashion and movies too, this is the norm. In the future I think that people will recognize this era as a time when the objectification of the male physique went from being an aspect of a marginal, underground sex scene and moved aggressively into the mainstream. It is kind of fun to watch what was once the provenance of something dirty, becoming openly available to everyone.

Anyway, onto my reading recommendation (and it is pretty much as far away from DC’s saucy Superman as you can imagine.)

This week I read a comic book that made me cry, a lot. I mean that in a good way, it touched me, not that it was depressing. Level Up the new comic book written by Gene Yang (author of the award winning American Born Chinese) with art by Thien Pham.

A few months ago I read a preview of the first few pages of Level Up which got me entirely hooked. I’m giving you the link, so that will probably say more than I can with my recommendation, but I do want you to know that after the preview, the story continues to unfold and develop beautifully.

I rarely read reviews because I’m so wary of spoilers, so I’ll do my best not to recap the actual story so that I don’t spoil it for you. Since I read the book I’ve seen a few reviews, and I noticed that some reviewers compare Level Up to Scott Pilgrim. I would have to point out that this is not at all true. In fact, it would have put me off of reading it if I had read those reviews first. In fact it is very different, the only similarity is that there are games referenced in both, a very superficial similarity in my opinion. Yes, there is some link between life and playing games for the main characters, but if anything it has more in common with the raw content of Josh Richardson’s mini-comic Intervention: Entertainment System which (albeit a much smaller book) also uses the metaphor of games to talk about some wrenching, painful issues.

This is a comic book about a young man as he goes through some pivotal points in his life, making key decisions that will affect him for the rest of his life. Struggling with loss, friends, career choices and parental expectations, filled with metaphor and rich, primitive imagery leading us through the protagonist’s tumultuous journey. The very down-to-earth reactions of the people around him serve to reinforce the strangely symbolic emotional moments as he moves past the need to rebel against expectations, to find out what he actually wants from his life for himself.

While the book is an elegantly designed object, Thien Pham’s art has a charming childlike quality which compliments the sparse and subtle writing of Yang. It is this deceptively simple style which makes it all that much more relatable. In classic Scott McCloud fashion, there is so little detail that it is easier to project one’s own personality onto the characters and situations. The simple art gives the story punch, making it feel more personal and intimately human. Pham’s art and layout feels guilessly beautiful freeing up the whole, allowing the parts of the story that are clearly outside of reality to feel oddly substantial.

It is a particularly satisfying comic book to own or reread and loan to friends. Yesterday one of my friends was talking about buying copies of some of the new DC #1′s to pass on to his kids to read. I’m all for propagating our love of superhero lore, but I would definitely want this in the library too. This is the kind of book that I would have really appreciated reading when I was growing up.

9 Comments

Daniel O'Dreams

June 22, 2011 at 11:00 am

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Tom Of Finland had honed his craft drawing superheroes. Not only does the exaggerated musculature support this but the lantern jaws and simple hairstyles. The guy on the right could be Hal Jordan except for the enormous nipples. Perhaps things are just coming full circle?

To be honest Tom of Finland has been influencing popular culture pretty much ever since he started to get published in 50s, he’s pretty much the most important artist to move the image of homosexual men from the androgynous dandy inverts to muscles, leather etc. And it has been broken into mainstream before (e.g. Village People and Freddie Mercury owe him a lot).
But it is true that Morales pic seems to go for that look either consciously or not.

"O" the Humanatee!

June 22, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Yeah, but Superman doesn’t have an enormous wang trailing down his pants leg.

(Also, minor quibble: The Tom of Finland characters have their jeans under, not over, their boots.)

Oh my God I need Level Up right now.

So is gay porn commentary now going to be a regular part of this column?

I think the Morales Superman is more of a nod to Frazetta than anything else.

"O" the Humanatee!

June 23, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Morales has long shown a Frazetta influence. Take a look, for example, at his Black Condor work. One of things I miss about Morales’s earlier art is that it showed more of a sense of humor, a mild “cartooniness,” which Frazetta also had in his comic book art. You can certainly see this in Frazetta’s movie posters, and let’s not forget that he ghosted on Li’l Abner and Little Annie Fanny.

Sorry, but Touko Laaksonen (“Tom of Finland”) didn’t hone his skills drawing superheroes. (Soldiers were a far more persistent influence on him.) With all due respect to the artists of the era, the superheroes he might have seen during his artistically formative years were mostly castrated, sexually bland clones of Hollywood stars. What we’re seeing now is that a generation of increasingly openly gay artists have brought some of Laaksonen’s influence on them into their superhero work, which is also echoed in the the work of some straight artists who are influenced in turn by them.

True that, ToF is too early an artist to be influenced by superheroes (his most active period of drawing was from 50s to 70s), but beside soldiers, construction workers, farmhands etc he was no doubt influenced by the same folks who influenced Siegel and Shuster in their design of Superman, strongmen and early bodybuilders.
But as said, his ideas have been oozing into mainstream for quite a while and superhero comics artists are picking a thing or two…some directly (by gay artists, open or sometimes closeted) and some indirectly.

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