Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
by Liz Plourde & Randy Michaels
It’s easy for me to get into a rut with superhero comics. Superheroes are, after all, what turned me onto comic books—growing up watching Saturday morning X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons, Marvel’s extraordinary world mesmerized me and left me wanting more of its wonderful, addictive escapism. I identified with and clung to characters like Rogue, whose strength I admired, and whose power and dramatic angst hooked me. And for the longest time, these were the only comics that I read.
Decades later, this same sense of the fantastic can sometimes be what drives me away from superhero books. For me, the ultimate purpose of reading a story is to connect with something—a character, a situation, a feeling. If I can’t make any emotional connection to the Justice League fighting Darkseid for the hundredth time—entertaining though it can be—I’m left wanting something deeper … something else.
That search always seems to lead me to independents, and it was the yearning for a pertinent story that led me to discover the likes of Craig Thompson, Terry Moore, Marjane Satrapi, and countless others. Sometimes, I don’t want to escape. Sometimes, I want the stuff that shows me what it’s like to be a person dealing with real life, in all of its joyful, frightening, wondrous, and confusing aspects.
That evocation of the relatable, then, is what makes Liz Plourde and Randy Michael’s Xeric Award-winning How i Made the World such a pleasing read.
The first issue of this book is broken up into two stories, both following the character of Liz, a college student who confides in us through journal entry that she isn’t “a real writer,” but rather a “sophomore struggling not to max out my meal plan before the end of the week.” In the first story, “The Monster,” Liz finds herself struggling to complete an art midterm wherein she is tasked to imagine and create a sculpture of a “seed pod.” The seed pod can take more or less any shape she desires, and eventually her appetite and devotion to a nearby clam hut leads her to settle on crafting an oyster-like sculpture—her own “SEAd pod,” nyuk nyuk.
Michelangelo stated that he could see the statue inside every block of marble—he only had to carve away the material to reveal what was hidden underneath, and this is exactly how Liz thinks her piece will come to her. “That’s how artists create masterpieces, right?” she muses—but as anyone who has spent any time in an art class knows, it’s never that easy. Liz works on her assignment through the nights, forgoing sleep—and when she does sleep, she’s haunted by nightmares of the monster that is her task. The comic then alternates between scenes of Liz commiserating with her friends and fighting to complete her work. What makes those scenes stand out in particular are the supporting characters—aside from buoying Liz at the right moments, they also flesh out the story in such a subtle yet meaningful way. I read them thinking “I know these people,” and I have to tip my hat to Plourde and Michaels for making these characters so lively in so few panels. I immediately fell for Liz’s art instructor—I’m pretty sure she was my own high school art teacher.
I would be remiss not to mention Randy Michaels’ artwork. This book is so clean, and I absolutely love that. It fits the tone of the story so well—anything “dirty” or “scratchy” would have taken me right out. Instead, Michaels draws me in, whether it’s through the detailed background of a building or the more simply-depicted but hysterical scene of Liz’s roommate coming out of the shower. Something about it harkens to Alison Bechdel, and that’s never a bad thing.
In a panel where Liz wonders what the point of her assignment is, her best friend Parker offers that “the point is the experience.” It’s when Liz takes that advice and lets go of her anxiety that she finds the clarity and strength to complete the seed pod. On the surface, while the story is about a commonplace struggle—completing an art project—ultimately, and as any good narrative will address, it’s really about the larger need of finding and accepting who you are. Reading this book brought me inside myself into something relevant—and lately, I want more of that from my comics.
If that isn’t enough for one issue, the second story in the comic—“Catman”—gives us the best of both fantasy and reality. A young Liz is told that her uncle has seen Liz’s cat Wally shapeshift from cat to human and back again. Liz is convinced that Wally must be half-cat, half-man, and spends the rest of the story trying to catch him in the act of shapeshifting. “Catman” is a little bit of whimsy grounded in a down-to-earth, nostalgic story—and that’s the perfect note on which this issue ends.
How i Made the World #1 will be listed in the April Previews (out March 26), for release in June.
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