This article is part of The Reading List, a monthly column in which we encourage you to take your enthusiasm for a particularly groovy film and direct it into a wide array of extracurricular studies. This one begins with the new Netflix film ‘Project Power’ and expands into various thematically-related comic book properties.
The first X-Men film is twenty years old. So much has changed since its release. The average movie-goer has developed a palate for an incredibly eclectic buffet of superheroes. Not only that, but they know which characters taste best with other characters. Give me a little of Iron Man and Hulk, but I’ll pass on the Batman and Superman. Been there, done that.
What if we combine Batman and Iron Man? While corporate legalities will never allow such bliss to exist, filmmakers are starting to learn how to blend flavors while masking them in different costumes. Netflix’s upcoming Project Power is the latest venture in comic book deconstruction, and after a couple decades of dynamic duos and bickering avengers, we’re ready to consume a big bowl of stir-fried spandex.
What you’ll find below are recently constructed tales. Most of the titles come from the period after Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Bringing an “adult” edge to a medium that originated as kiddie entertainment invites a lot of weirdos. These stories tend to be purposefully aggressive in their posturing, but you know what? Batman and his comrades deserve a little spanking.
If you’re craving superhero deconstruction, and you’ve already plowed your way through Watchmen and Batman: Year One, then the next comic book series you turn to is The Boys. This is especially the case now that we have an excellent companion television series to pair with your reading experience. Written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Darick Robertson, The Boys is a crass and joyously adolescent assault on authoritarian costumed crime-fighting.
Look around you. Turn on the television. Watch the news. Do you think our society would birth a Superman or Justice League? No way. We deserve The Homelander, a demon with an angel’s face, corporate dollars, and governmental approval.
The Amazon series and the comic book share the same basic plot as well as a devilish desire to offend (born from the creators’ anger toward the world outside their window), but the source material is somehow even more profane. More sex, more violence, more sex and violence. Not for the faint of heart, unless they’re your enemy, and you’re looking to stir some malicious panic in their psyche.
The Brat Pack
Before The Boys, there was The Brat Pack. Written, illustrated, and self-published by Rick Veitch, The Brat Pack is an equally twisted satire detailing the tumultuous lives of superhero sidekicks. It ain’t’ easy being Robin to Batman, and while Veitch can’t specifically call out the dynamic duo, it’s clear that Chippy and Midnight Mink are stand-ins for everyone’s favorite Gotham crusaders.
For decades, rumors, whispers, and jokes circled the relationship between Bruce Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson. The Brat Pack drags the gossip out of the dark and jams it under an interrogator’s lamp. As underground comix sensibilities started to eek their way into mainstream books, the independent artists were given the excuse to push boundaries of taste even further. In The Brat Pack, Rick Veitch operates like a dog off the leash.
Inspired by the 1988 DC Comics publicity stunt in which the publisher asked fans to vote on whether Jason Todd’s Robin would live or die under the crowbar of The Joker, The Brat Pack begins with a cackling madman calling into a radio program making the same request regarding Midnight Mink’s Chippy. As you already know, a shock jock’s audience is bloodthirsty and unforgiving. Of course, Chippy’s number is up.
Mark Millar made his career deconstructing superheroes. Both Kick-Ass and The Kingsman belong to him, and if you’re looking for his takes on the Justice League or Superman, you should give Jupiter’s Legacy and Huck a read, not to forget Nemesis, Superior, or Wanted. However, the first comic that sprang to mind once I saw the trailer for Project Power was MPH.
After a group of jerkwad teenagers – sorry, just “teenagers” (the “jerkwad” is already implied) – devour a stash of the synthetic street drug MPH, they exhibit super-speed abilities. What do they do with such a magnificent gift? They rob banks and cause all manner of ruckus and mayhem. All of which is fabulously detailed through Duncan Fegrado’s rigid yet kinetic art style.
Problems arise for the teens when the original owners of the drug come looking for them. Once you’ve touched the power of immortals, would you give it up easily? No way. Neither do these punks.
Mark Millar did not invent the super drug. Previously, characters got hooked on Velocity 9, Kick, Miraclo, Venom, Goloka Root, and oh yeah, Captain America’s bootleg super-soldier serum. Some crime-fighting role models can’t, “Just say no.”
In Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s Daredevil: Lowlife, the heroic man without fear discovers that The Owl is attempting to take over the Kingpin’s territory through his endless supply of the Mutant Growth Hormone (MGH). When digested, the drug gives its users temporary access to the super-powered abilities from whomever the hormone was extracted. Meaning, if the drug were mixed with a little Cyclops DNA, the user would have access to his optic blasts.
Like Millar, Bendis came up in the business deconstructing comic book tropes, and his run on Daredevil is his masterwork. Hell’s Kitchen is Bendis’ film noir playground, tackling ridiculous ideas like MGH and dragging them to their logical and often tragic conclusion. The Owl was never going to succeed, but it’s less about the big bad at the finish line and more about all the various New York citizens he destroys along the way. When you reach the source of the MGH, your heart will break.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. In the early aughts, while Brian Michael Bendis was reinventing the concept of Spider-Man in Ultimate Spider-Man, Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) was reinventing the concept of Spider-Man in his creator-owned series Invincible. The set up is similar minus the radioactive spider.
While chucking the trash out at his crappy little retail job, teenager Mark Grayson discovers he has superhuman strength when he accidentally hurls a bag of garbage into space. His body is changing, and while it is exciting to explore its boundless possibilities, it’s also a total hassle when it comes to normal human interactions. School, jobs, girls – how can you bother with the regular stuff when it’s on you to stop the destruction of Earth every week?
Here’s hoping that the upcoming Invincible Amazon series can bring as many eyes to the source material as The Boys and HBO’s Watchmen have done for their original art. While Kirkman reigns over Hollywood thanks to The Walking Dead, Invincible remains his most treasured property. The comic contains multitudes, jumping from exhilarating to gut-wrenching in the space between two panels.
Project Power is another example of an audience eager to muck about in comic book properties. They want to smash their action figures together. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Comics adaptations have taught the average viewer the basics. Now, they’re ready to tear it all down and reinvent the genre.