A Substack original, Chip Zdarsky’s Public Domain #1 is now available in comic shops courtesy of Image Comics. It’s a series about a journalist whose father helped craft comic book stories for a character that’s now part of a movie universe. In the first issue, we learn all about Miles, his brother David, and the problematic nature of creating comics stories in an age when the movies are all that matter.
Set in a world not too different from our own, Miles lives in the shadow of the superhero The Domain, having grown up from a young age encountering the character in all its joys and frustrations. Zdarsky is very good at capturing the realities of the situation making the world highly relatable and understandable. If you’re a comic fan like me or have at least followed Marvel movies and how creators are shafted on pay, this book will resonate with you. The Domain is a fictional superhero, but creators who helped craft stories that became billion-dollar films are all too real. That makes this book feel important as it tells a truth about an industry that more or less preys on its creators.
Zdarsky also does an exceptional job making us care about these characters. The premise is relatable, but so are these characters who live and act in each scene in a very believable way. The first issue introduced us to Miles, who races to get on the train only to have to face a belligerent man that’s actually less annoying than the posters for the new Domain movie.
Soon we’re introduced to Miles’ mother and father and there are complexities explored between these characters. Zdarsky efficiently captures the awkwardness of the mother who has had enough of the Hollywood premieres and the father who really loves the limelight and attention even if he’s not making a dime. One can imagine Zdarsky wrestles with these complex feelings like writing a legacy character that brings you joy, while also facing the fact that a giant corporation makes most of the profits.
As Miles is reeling from his own issues from childhood and his relationship with Domain, there are other factors in this issue alone. That includes his problematic brother who means well enough but also lies to get out of things. Miles also has to interview someone for work that is callous and pushes buttons Miles isn’t willing to get pressed on.
This is a bold sort of comic story because Zdarsky plays by his own rules. Could it have used more conflict or a set-piece that shocks or delights in a visual way? I’d argue so, but it’s also playing by its own terms and reads differently from an average comic. That’s exciting for anyone who reads a lot of comics.
Running a bit longer than a conventional comic at 29 pages of content, Zdarsky also does an exceptional job with the art. His style is super clean and paces things so well that they move exactly right. That’s important in a story about people and relationships. The zip and bang of an action scene can’t save a boring conversation, and the art doesn’t have to do that kind of lifting. It does take some interesting visual twists and turns, like a white silhouette used to show Miles walking down a few stairs. The nine-panel grid is used in a few places and the story always seems to push in closer as needed.
Public Domain is very good at pace, character, and the tensions between characters. At its heart this is a family story, but that family happens to have ties to comics and by extension comic movies based on them. Those elements come together in a narrative that’s relatable to our current climate of comics and superhero “mythology”, adding up to an enjoyable story.
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