Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Shark-Man by Michael Town (creator/story), David Elliott (creator/story), Ronald Shusett (creator/story/script, original issue #1), Steve Pugh (writer/artist/letterer), and Garry Leach (additional layouts and art assist, issues #1-2).
Published by Thrill-House Comics (issue #1), Thrill-House/Image (issue #2), and then Image (reworked issues #1-2 and issue #3), cover dated July 2006 (Thrill-House issue #1), July 2007 (Thrill-House/Image issue #2), January – February 2008 (reworked issues #1-2), and June 2008 (issue #3).
SPOILERS? But of course!
You have heard the rumors of a comic called Shark-Man. You feel a weird thrill whenever you hear the name of the book, because while it’s ridiculous, it seems also ridiculous that no one has ever come up with such a simple-yet-brilliant idea like Shark-Man before. You begin to anticipate the publication of such a comic, because you’re beginning to build it up in your mind and you can’t believe anything that makes it onto paper can match what you’re imagining. Then you see that Shark-Man will appear in comic book stores. It is the summer of 2006, and your life is about to change for the better in ways you could never anticipate.
The comic company, Thrill-House Comics, is a tiny concern, but they have this ace in the hole. The day Shark-Man #1 arrives, you purchase it immediately, ignoring your other comics from that week and indeed, for many weeks after that. The book is drawn by Steve Pugh, perhaps most notable for a run on Animal Man a decade before but whose work is always interesting. You can’t quite bring yourself to open it yet. What if it’s terrible? What if the interior can’t live up to the dynamic cover, on which a boldly-clothed hero with a grimacing shark mask battles with a scantily-clad woman with energy crackling from her arms as a giant shark bears down on both of them, ready to devour all in its path? But you can’t wait – you must read on! And so you open it.
Something is different. It’s recognizably Pugh’s art, but something about it is different. His style has changed. How has it changed? It appears he’s using more computer effects, and it’s clear that some Photoshop is involved in the creation of this artwork. However, as you flip through the book, you notice that the Photoshop elements are blended very well with the pencil work, so that while it does have a computerized sheen to it, Pugh is so good that it doesn’t look schlocky, like so much lesser art that uses “shortcuts.” Plus, Pugh’s digital paints are amazing – the book is bright, almost gaudy, which fits in with the sci-fi pulp vibe of the comic. When you get to the page with the Shadow-King, you catch your breath, because Pugh’s use of computer effects is so assured – the creature looks like a digital ghost, which is pretty much what it is. It’s an astonishing sequence.
The story is also full of pulpy goodness. You can tell that it’s the future, and in the first few pages, a luxury ocean liner gets attacked by high-tech pirates, who proceed to wreak serious havoc. Enter our hero, who’s arguing with Edgar, a dude back in the “Shark-Cave” who wants him to concentrate on the fact that the bank account of Shark-Man’s city – New Venice – is being emptied. You appreciate that the creators are throwing us right into the deep end – you have no idea what’s going on, but it’s not that hard to figure out: the pirate attack is a distraction so that Shark-Man doesn’t stop the drain of the account. He, of course, chooses to rescue the passengers instead of worrying about the money, and you like the fact that he fails at both, because the sharks are already in the water and the passengers haven’t lasted very long. It’s a bad day for Shark-Man!
After this, the creators slow down just a bit so they can introduce you to Tom Gaskill, who turns out to be Shark-Man’s son. He’s a typical spoiled rich kid who’s dating his father’s personal secretary, and in only a few pages, the creators sketch out a nice portrait of Tom and Jenny. But then things get even worse, and you turn each page with baited breath as Alan Gaskill’s world falls apart. The police have been led to believe that he has stolen the money from the city’s account, as he built New Venice and is the only one with access to it. Bad guys find the “Shark-Cave” and destroy it. The Shadow-King shows up and stabs Alan. Tom sneaks into the office ahead of the police and finds his father dead. You’re not surprised that he pulls the knife out just as the police burst in and arrest him for murder. That’s kind of the way these things work.
This first issue has left you breathless. The creators have chucked a lot of stuff at you, and while it’s a bit ridiculous, it’s also quite crazy – in a good way. It’s reminiscent of Batman, of course, but it’s very different, too. You’re impressed that Pugh has managed to create this strange world from nothing in only a few pages. New Venice is a shining, glittering city that obviously has some problems with corruption, and Pugh doesn’t shy away from the violence of the pirate attack or the subsequent shark attack. Shark-Man is off to a rousing start, and you can’t wait to read more.
Then a year passes.
Where is Shark-Man? What has happened to it? Was it too brilliant for the world to handle? Did it somehow transform into a Platonic ideal of a comic and therefore can no longer exist in this reality? Will you forever be deprived of more Shark-Man?!?!?!?
Issue #2 finally arrives, about a year after issue #1, and this time Thrill-House is publishing it in conjunction with Image. Shark-Man leaps off the cover, demanding that you buy his comic, as perhaps some of the reading public was unaware of the first momentous issue of this new series. You also don’t want to open it, because you fear it will be a lesser comic book, unable to live up to the sheer genius of the first issue. But then you decide that you must know more about the world’s greatest hero. What became of Shark-Man?
The first two pages recap Tom’s arrest, and then suddenly, it’s a year later. Commissioner Raymond arrives at a prison, where she delivers a strange villain named “Gynplaine.” She’s also there to speak to Tom, who’s locked in the lowest level of the complex. Raymond wants to know about “an unusually large shark” that has been seen in the waters around New Venice, and Tom mocks her. Tom claims that he has no idea what his father was up to, and you wonder if he’s really telling the truth. Then Pugh drops the bombshell on you: Jenny is dead. Damn. Obviously, things have changed in a year, but that’s a bold choice, to just kill her off without getting into the story of how it happened. Then, the Shadow-King reappears, opening the sea-gates so that the “Seawitch” can get through. You think that has to be the woman on the cover of issue #1, who never showed up. You learn that yes, it is indeed that woman – she’s wearing a crazy, scaly outfit and an ornate helmet, and she attacks the floating casino the belongs to Roman Capone, who has been able to introduce gambling to New Venice because Alan Gaskill is no longer around. Hmmm, you think. There’s a huge fight on board the casino, and then … Shark-Man shows up? What? Isn’t he dead? Shark-Man and the Sea-Witch battle it out, inconclusively, and then you learn that Tom is somehow able to get out of prison and has taken up the Shark-Man mantle. Well, that’s certainly something. The issue ends with Shark-Man heading off to crack some skulls, because that’s just what he does!
You’re even more impressed with this issue – Pugh is even more amazing on art, as he gives you a brutal pirate attack and a wonderfully choreographed fight between Shark-Man and the Sea-Witch. Pugh’s coloring remains stellar, too – the digital paint adds an almost rusty metallic sheen to the pirates’ vehicles, providing a good contrast to New Venice’s ultra-modern white, while the reptilian green of the Sea-Witch’s scaly outfit makes her more exotic. You love the weird pirate designs, which look so futuristic but hearken back to the “golden age” of piracy. And then there’s one of Capone’s henchmen, a giant, deformed man-child … who happens to be a ventriloquist. Sure, why not? You just can’t get over the insanity of Shark-Man. It’s all that’s glorious about comics.
You hope that the third issue doesn’t take as long as the second issue, and you’re pleasantly surprised when you discover that Image has decided to release new versions of issues #1 and 2, with extra pages fleshing out the story a bit. Happily, Image releases the first “remastered” issue in January 2008, a mere six months after issue #2, and you are there. Of course you are!
Pugh does something clever to begin the issue – he introduces Capone and Gynplaine first, so that their later appearances have some context. Capone is working with someone who is apparently blackmailing him, and this person wants him to use Gynplaine and another villain for a job. Before they can reach the city, however, they’re attacked by a massive shark, and Gynplaine’s accomplice is killed while Gynplaine escapes … only to be captured by Shark-Man, whom Pugh doesn’t show. Pugh’s shark is amazing, and the scene is a good way to begin – it still starts the series in media res, which you think was a good way to kick off the “first” issue #1, but it also provides a bit more background to two major players in the series.
Pugh makes some other changes, too. He re-draws the first page of the original issue #1 to fit a bit more with his art style – the first page looked a bit too cartoony in the original, and now it fits a bit more. He also inserts a page showing Gynplaine escaping police custody, and you get to see why he always has a giant collar covering the bottom half of his face – his mouth opens vertically, all the way down to his navel, and Pugh nails that reveal. The rest of the issue is a reprint of the original issue, but those few pages – six of them, plus the redrawn page 1 – make Shark-Man #1 more astonishing, even though you didn’t think it was possible.
A month later Shark-Man #2 shows up, and you eagerly snap it up, wondering what Pugh added to the original. On the page where Commissioner Raymond heads to the floating casino, Pugh changes a few panels around and rewrites the dialogue – you notice that it’s a bit less melodramatic than in the original, but it also feels a bit more realistic. He also adds a new page right after it to add a bit more context to Capone’s casino, and you notice that with just a few words, Pugh makes it clear that Capone and the governor, Kane, had a pretty good motive for getting rid of Alan Gaskill. You admit that it’s not that complicated a plot point, but Pugh is more up-front about it in this issue than it was in the original issue #2. He also adds a page to the Sea-Witch’s assault on New Venice, giving her a bit more to say about her desire to spread chaos. Once the Sea-Witch arrives at Capone’s casino, Pugh adds four pages that show her power and her alliance with the Shadow-King and how she uses it to turn the casino’s defenses against it. Then he adds four pages showing Commissioner Raymond fighting the Sea-Witch and Shark-Man’s dramatic arrival on the scene. Pugh does a nice job expanding on the fact that the Sea-Witch and her pirates believe it’s a ghost, which was only a brief moment initially. In the original issue #2, Shark-Man appeared and the Sea-Witch blew a hole in the casino so she could get to the hero, and then they fought. In this issue, Pugh makes his appearance far more dramatic, and the Sea-Witch’s blast opening up the casino is the big final page of the issue. You know that this means the battle between the Sea-Witch and Shark-Man will be in issue #3, but will there be more? Will there be more?????
You don’t have to wait too long for the final issue of the arc. It takes a little while, but nothing like the gap between issues #1 and #2 of the original series. Pugh keeps some of the pages of the battle between the Sea-Witch and Shark-Man, but changes some of the panels on the pages and, of course, adds a longer story so that issue #3 ends where the original issue #2 ends, with Tom talking to Edgar in prison and getting out somehow and renewing his fight against evil as Shark-Man. So there’s a page showing the pirates attacking New Venice while Governor Kane sells out the police, the fight between Shark-Man and the pirates in the city is expanded by a few pages, Shark-Man’s dialogue during the fight with the Sea-Witch is changed just enough to show that he has some sympathy with her in her war against Capone, and when he escapes, Pugh draws a full-page shot of the Sea-Witch looking regretfully after him. Pugh also returns to Gynplaine, who lets Tom know that he killed Jenny, and he shows that Commissioner Raymond is having doubts about Tom’s guilt and Governor Kane’s role in all the bad stuff that’s been going on.
At the end of issue #3, Dave Elliott writes a text piece claiming that there will be another arc, although he’s not sure when it will show up. You’re not sure if you really want another arc, especially as Pugh won’t be drawing it. But you’re willing, based on what you’ve read so far, to wait. So you wait. And wait. And wait. After several years, it becomes clear that Shark-Man won’t be returning. Perhaps it’s for the best. Could anything really come close to the one arc that actually exists?
What is it about Shark-Man, anyway? What caused it to be so brilliant? Yes, it’s a bit derivative – it’s Batman in the ocean, basically. Alan Gaskill is a billionaire with a futuristic cave as a headquarters and he dresses like a shark. Even the fact that he is killed and his son takes up the mantle is reminiscent of an old Silver Age Batman story. But just as Batman has his roots in pulp fiction, so does Shark-Man. The series feels like a 1930s pulp/science fiction story, with its fabulous settings and its gaudy costumes and its exotic villains. The Sea-Witch could easily be a villain in a Shadow magazine story, for instance. The dialogue is a bit melodramatic, but it’s not too silly, and Pugh’s reworking of it in the Image issues helps tone that down a bit without losing the essential “comic-bookness” of it all. You love the weird bad guys – Gynplaine’s maw, the Shadow-King’s ethereal yet solid nature, the Sea-Witch’s bad-assery – and the way it’s all played totally straight, with no irony whatsoever. Shark-Man could easily have been a sardonic, hip take on a hero, but Town, Elliott, Shusett, and Pugh want none of that – they wanted to give the world a hero, and they did. Tom might be a bit of an ass in the first issue, but deep down, he’s a hero, ready and willing to continue his father’s legacy. Shark-Man may have some campy elements, but because the creators play it straight, the essential heroism of the character shines through.
You also can’t get enough of Pugh’s artwork. His brilliant design of Shark-Man’s costume – all the characters, really, but especially the hero – is iconic, pushing past some silliness – the shark mouth belt buckle, for instance – to become a dynamic creation. As you noted before, the computer effects are effortlessly blended into the work, so that it never feels like Pugh dropped them into an already-completed page, where they would stick out. Even with the computer effects, Pugh is still good enough to show different kinds of faces and suggest moods with just a cocked eyebrow or a smirk. Many characters are very attractive, true, but that fits with the retro-futuristic pulp aesthetic of the comic. The coloring, as you saw, is amazing, as it makes the book a Pop Art masterpiece, almost surreal in its brightness, and Pugh’s liberal use of reds and blues ties the ocean and blood together very well. Even though Pugh uses a lot of panels, the layouts are very well done, so that you get a lot of information on each page but are never confused about how to read it. The layouts speed the book up, making the pace frenetic and powerful, driving you forward through the book breathlessly.
There are a few problems with the comic, if one wants to pick nits. Jenny’s name is spelled “Jenny” in one issue and “Jennie” in another. “It’s” is used instead of “its” in a few places. “Populous” is used when the writers mean “populace.” Commissioner Raymond’s name changes from Dana to Diana for issue #3. You realize that Shark-Man is like the Bible in that regard – as people copy it, small changes come in, subtly changing the meaning for a new generation. What if people only receive the Word of Shark-Man through the two original issues? The meaning changes from those stories to the Image remastered works. Shark-Man is a living, breathing document, becoming something different for everyone who reads it. You can’t hope to contain Shark-Man in your puny mind, so you don’t even try. Perhaps, you think, it’s for the best that a year elapsed between issue #1 and issue #2. Could the world have handled so much Shark-Man brilliance in so short a time? You doubt it. Only when the world was ready could Image release two issues in consecutive months, and then the psychic backlash from the overload of amazement meant they had to wait several months before the third issue came out. Perhaps, you think, it’s for the best that no collected edition of Shark-Man exists. All three issues contained between one cover might bring about a Singularity of Awesomeness – “awesome” in its original form, that is – that renders all comics and, indeed, all literature and all creative pursuits moot. Perhaps, you think, it’s for the best that the issues are kept separate. That way, others can still experience the wonder and joy of reading Shark-Man without the world coming to an end because humanity has fulfilled its purpose of creating the perfect comic book. A collected edition of Shark-Man would surely be too much for the human mind to comprehend.
You briefly consider becoming a missionary for Shark-Man, walking the Earth spreading the word about this amazing comic book. But then you think that it’s better if readers come to the book furtively, as individuals, so that they can learn about Shark-Man on their own and become dazzled by it in their own way. Only then can Shark-Man begin to heal this fractured planet. You know that day is coming. You hope you will still be alive to see it.
Before that day comes, you can always take a gander at the archives. Don’t be shy!
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