It’s a shame that superheroes are so intrinsically linked with the creative output of Marvel and DC that great indy output within the genre can often be overlooked. Under the shadow of the Batmans and Spider-Mans of the world, some believe there’s not really anything new to say. I’d disagree, and would suggest that the superhero genre remains a fruitful – perhaps evergreen – source of inspiration for comics creators, its rich history offering a variety of approaches and interpretations, and a broad range of stories.
A fine recent example of this comes in the shape of Breakneck, an intriguing curio from writer Mark Bertolini and artist James Boulton. The first issue sets up a character study, introducing us into the world of cut-rate supervillain Ethan Shade. Bertolini does a commendable job of not only letting us get to know Shade in concise and efficient fashion, but manages to make us like him, too. The plot set-up is that the world’s costumed heroes got sick of all the villains, and so decided to massacre them all, forgetting about Ethan Shade because he was beneath their notice. Seeking to retire, Shade plans one last bankjob, but it goes disastrously wrong, resulting in the death of one superhero and every other superhero coming gunning for him. The success of this story hinges on us getting behind Shade as an underdog, and through his narration and rotten luck, that aim is achieved.
The hook of this comic is to really put us into the mindset of a supervillain, and a crappy one at that. We get a sense of deeply-rooted feelings of inadequacy carried around by Shade, with a notion that it’s what might drive someone like him into the villain game: an impressive metahuman ability combined with a lack of confidence to do any good with it. Tragically, becoming a villain only added to his low self-worth, snubbed and belittled as he was by his Cult of Intelligence teammates. Meanwhile, from Shade’s perspective, superheroes are this vaguely menacing, rarely-seen but seemingly omnipotent force hanging over his head like a storm cloud. And I imagine that if we got a Batman story from the perspective of The Riddler, that’s how we might see the hero too.
James Boulton’s art is tricky, as it is both an asset and a flaw in the book. The scratchy, abstract art gives Breakneck a look and feel unlike any other superhero comic out there. As mentioned earlier, the book’s success depends on us getting inside Ethan Shade’s head, and I think the art does well in reflecting that – everything is a little off-kilter and skewed, coming at us in jagged flashes and invoking a kind of skittery paranoia. On the first page we have a panel where Shade is running, and the buildings practically look like they’re chasing after him.
However, the downside is that there are sometimes issues with clarity. I wasn’t immediately aware that the Ghostwalker had been killed until the narration said as much, for example. And we don’t get a distinct sense of Ethan Shade’s look, either. Though, of course, that could be an artistic decision: making him unidentifiable, the kind of figure that’s instantly forgettable and would be lost in a crowd. Overall, though, I’d say the art is a plus, given how unique an aesthetic it gives the story.
My copy of Breakneck #1 was missing its final 4 pages, so I don’t know exactly how the story ended. Nevertheless, what I DID read was enough to capture my interest, and so I’ll be sure to check out the second issue.