REVIEW: Spandex

At Kapow Con this past weekend, I picked up a good few new comics, as I tend to do at conventions.  But the one that stood out perhaps above all the others was Spandex, a creator-owned UK comic that’s garnered quite a few headlines.  I know that a few people whose opinions I trust have raved about this series, and ranked it as one of the finest comics of last year.  So, I’ve been keen to check it out for a while.  On the first day of the con, I chatted to writer/artist series creator Martin Eden – truly a venerable gent –  and picked up the hardcover collection of the first three issues.  When I could have been out late partying on Saturday night, I instead sat in my hotel reading the volume.  On the second day of the con, I rushed back to get issues 4-6 in single issues.  The headlines aren’t for nothing: Spandex lives up to the hype.

The concept, for those not aware, is that Spandex tells the story of an all-gay superhero team from Brighton.  When first described, it might seem like a bit of a gimmicky concept, and in the first issue that initially seems to be the case.  With an opening story entitled, “Attack of the 50 Foot Lesbian!”, and the tongue-in-cheek manner in which our team of heroes enter the fray, it seems like the concept is being played for laughs, and you might think it’s a joke that would quite quickly wear thin.  However, as the first chapter enters its closing pages, there is a shocking reversal that casts the opening chapter in a new, darker light, and gives the series a significant amount of added dramatic weight and forward momentum.

Martin Eden approaches issue #2 with increased assurance, having seemingly grown as a writer in between chapters.  While on the surface, the story at first appears to be another fun-filled romp (this time involving an army of gay pink ninjas), Eden approaches with a deft hand at characterisation, skilfully balancing the ensemble and demonstrating how  they interact and play off each other.  Any thoughtof gimmickry has by this point just about entirely evaporated, as the team’s sexuality is secondary to their engaging, relatable personalities.  And we’re treated to another shocking ending, albeit shocking in a different way to the previous issue.  It’s around this chapter that it becomes ever more clear that Eden has carefully thought out this world and its mythology, and is letting us catch up on discovering its secrets at the pace of his choosing.

And then the third chapter came along and blew me away.  I’ve noted how Eden improves between issues 1 and 2.  Well, from there the jump in quality between issues 2 and 3 is exponential.  After seeming to establish a wider tapestry for a serialised saga with the second instalment, issue #3 then switches things up with a fantastic done-and-one story about a mysterious alien creature who has caused a worldwide epidemic, turning the entire planet’s population (save for the Spandex team) into soulless drones, their existence depicted in the comic through stark black-and-white.  The way this creature – named Nadir – does this is by making people perpetually experience the worst moments of their lives, which of course gives us an avenue into the darker corners of our heroes’ psyches.  In particular, this issue serves as a fascinating character study for Glitter – previously set up as one of the weaker characters on the team, and more of a joker than a serious fighter, here he really shows some incredible feats of grit and inner strength that should be inspiring for any reader, demonstrating what being a superhero should be all about.  As one by one, he protagonists we’ve come to care about fall to Nadir and their plight becomes seemingly insurmountable, Eden manages to do the nigh impossible: craft a superhero story where we worry about how the heroes are ever going to be able to win.  In this single chapter, we get a full story with shocks, twists, cliffhangers, and ultimately a highly satisfying resolution, all condensed into a single comic rather than decompressed over a half-year of issues like the Big Two might do.  This classic, incident-packed, old-school superhero adventure tinged with a poignant, emotional core put me in mind of Scott McCloud’s Zot!, and the people who know my mad love for that series will be aware of what high praise it is for me to compare any comic to that work of genius.

Eden’s art is pretty good.  There’s not much in the way of anatomy, and his scenery is very much of the “I’ll draw just enough to give you a basic idea of where we’re supposed to be” school, but very quickly it reaches a point where this doesn’t matter.  What Eden does very well with his simplistic characters is make them “act”, through facial expression and body language, which proves to be the most important aspect to be able to pull off in this story.  And before long, once you’re immersed, you couldn’t imagine these characters being drawn any other way.  But while I grew fond of Eden’s art, and he pulls off a couple of ambitious tableaus over the course of the series, ultimately it’s as a writer that he really impressed me, and marks himself out here as a creative voice to really look out for in the years ahead.

Issues #1 and #2 are very good, but truly issue #3 alone is worth getting the graphic novel for.  And after you finish reading, you’ll want to continue with the single issues that follow.  And issue #4 might actually be even better than #3.  The first chapter of a multi-part arc entitled “OMFG”, in which the lurking-in-the-background Big Bads of the series – an all-lesbian team of villainesses called Lez Girls – finally make their play, from beginning to end this is just a perfectly structured comic.  We begin with a nice dose of action, which is then paced out and balanced against some meticulous, informative character work, as we see the various protagonists on their downtime in quiter moments.  But things are not what they seem, and as the issue nears its conclusion, we see all the disparate threads start to coil together like a web, an intricate trap sprung for our heroes.  And by the shocking end, Eden has managed to reach dizzying Final Crisis levels of “The good guys are totally screwed!  How are they gonna get out of this!?” suspense.  Here, Eden shows real mastery of the form, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better-plotted superhero comic from the past year not just on the indie scene, but anywhere.  A couple of Morrison/Snyder Batman comics might nip past it, but the very fact that these are the kind of names I’m comparing  Eden to demonstrates how well he’s done with Spandex.

However, issue #4 remains the high-point of the series, as I fear issues #5 and #6 stumble a bit.  Issue #5 doesn’t lack in excitement: it’s an all-action extravaganza.  But if anything, there could be a bit too much action.  After doing such excellent work setting up the dire plight of the various characters we’ve grown to care about in the previous issue, I don’t think Eden gives us enough time with them here, instead introducing us to scores of new heroes and villains that show up to join the big battle royale on the streets of Brighton.  I think this could be deliberate, Eden wryly commenting on event comic plotting: “Look, loads of heroes in a big splash page, and so-and-so’s got a new costume!”  But to comment on that practice the issue still has to engage in it a bit, and by issue’s end I felt that – while still an enjoyable comic – issue #5 perhaps tried to do a bit too much with its page count, and thus not all of it made as much impact as it should.

This is a problem that carries over into the most recent chapter, issue #6.  Here, everything comes to a head, and as if Eden has suddenly realised the end is nigh, the steady unveiling of character’s secrets is replaced with us being bombarded with revelations.  Again, I think there’s a bit of sly commentary in the execution, with one of the Lez Girls villainesses having a power that makes people reveal their deepest secrets in a concise manner.  But as not just the heroes, but the villains lay out all their cards on the table, it becomes a bit like information overload.  Villain after villain hits us with a shocking truth about themselves or about their relationship to one of the heroes, and while any one of these revelations could have made a compelling motivation for an antagonist and catalyst for the narrative as it enters its third act, having all of them competing for space dilutes their impact.  And I didn’t like the big shock ending here, either.  Earlier on, I compared Spandex favourably to Final Crisis, but it could in fact share the same problem that series had with its closing chapters.  Namely, that as the endgame approaches, instead of drawing everything in and focusing on a precise, ideally character-driven conflict at the core of all the fireworks, the scale just kept getting bigger, grander, more expansive, the story trying to do more and more until it was just doing too much.  But this is a really admirable shortcoming.  There are a lot worse problems for a story to have than too much ambition and an overabundance of big ideas.

I should emphasize that, while I’m nitpicking about the last couple of issues, they still make for entertaining reading, and I have high hopes that Martin Eden will stick the landing and bring it all together for the final chapter, the upcoming issue #7.  I’ll definitely be keen to buy that last issue to find out.  The whole series makes for quality reading, and in particular issues #3 and #4 are absolutely stunning.  The plots are cleverly constructed, but what makesSpandextruly stand out from the crowd is its cast of well-realised,, likeable, nuanced characters, who I’d love to read more of.  One of the best creator-owned titles I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing.  Gay superheroes seem to be all over the headlines right now.  But before you get caught up in the hype of when Northstar is going to marry over at Marvel or who is coming out of the closet over at DC, do yourself a favor and read a comic that tackles the issue of gay superheroes in a way that’s sure to far surpass either of the more heavily-marketed efforts from the Big Two.

Spandex: Fast and Hard is available to buy from Amazon. The single issues are available from the official website.

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