Prior to American superheroes like Superman and Batman, there were the pulp magazines where The Shadow and Doc Savage that would influence not only the entire superhero genre, but franchises in other media like Indiana Jones and The Rocketeer. I’m always interested in the revisitation of those kinds of stories, such as the big-budget film flops in the nineties or comic book writers like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison reinvigorating the tropes of a modern readership without having to be some dark deconstruction.
Matt Fraction, who has done exceptional work in superhero comics, has decided to go all-in with the pulp in his latest Image title, now that Sex Criminals is officially over. In Adventureman, the eponymous pulp hero, along with his fellow heroes of Adventure, Inc., fights off a supervillain invasion. Eighty years after his apparent demise, single mother Claire and her Adventurefan son Tommy seem to be the only two people alive who recall the hero’s history, which now exists as adventure novels. However, this memory will spark the return of both the heroes and villains from decades ago.
The volume opens with an oversized issue featuring a variety of super-powered people battling it out, and no matter how well-drawn Terry Dodson achieves with those pages, problems appear right away. Despite the level of diversity in the character designs, the members of Adventure, Inc. never stand out as people, because the creators are just rushing to the action where so much visual noise is thrown in every page that we can never really engage with any of them.
Although these characters pop up here and there throughout the four issues, the central focus is on Claire, the hearing-impaired single mother and her adventure-yearning son. Given the comic’s title and the shift of focus in terms of who the main character is, I don’t know if Fraction is trying to subvert our expectations, or if it’s a case of misguided misdirection.
Having read a number of Fraction’s other work, Adventureman feels like an unsuccessful retread of ideas he has explored before. Using another hard-of-hearing protagonist after his Hawkeye run, it may shine a positive light on a certain community, even during an action sequence where she outsmarts a pulpy robot, but there is a lack of agency in Claire herself. Despite maintaining a somewhat healthy relationship with her family, the book doesn’t know where its heart lies. It also doesn’t help that like Fraction’s Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, which initially reads as schizophrenic until you start seeing the pieces coming together, Adventureman feels all over the place.
The one saving grace is the art by penciller/colorist Terry Dodson and inker Rachel Dodson, both of whom worked with Fraction on Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men. Known for their wide range of superhero covers, their classical style fits nicely with the pulpy conventions of Adventureman, even if the majority of the story takes place in a modern city setting. The supplemental material of this hardcover edition does give insight in terms of the pulp influence and descriptions about each character, even the story doesn’t showcase the world-building that the creators intended.
Things do happen in this first volume of Adventureman, but it never really matters, because the story and characters never go beyond the surface.
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