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'Self Help' #1 tackles noir and empowerment with ample wit and power

Comic Books

‘Self Help’ #1 tackles noir and empowerment with ample wit and power

A tale of doppelgängers, SoCal, identity, and the best kind of spoofing.

There comes a point where satire goes too far up its own rear. And in that moment, the movie/comic/book gets absorbed into the thing you’re lampooning, and it creates this gelatinous monster. The self-help cottage industry is a great example — think about how many things you’ve read and watched in the last 10 to 15 years that’s been about sticking into people who make billions selling self-actualized hope to regular folks via books, conferences, and pointless apps. You can often become part of the problem if your solution is “let’s pile on en masse like lemmings off a cliff.”

Luckily, the new Image Comics series Self Help is perhaps in on the joke, and what we get is a takedown of the culture that’s fun, fresh, and just a little bit dark.

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Self Help is co-written by novelists Owen King (The Curator, Sleeping Beauties) and Jesse Kellerman (Sunstroke), with art from Marianna Ignazzi (An Unkindness of Ravens), colors by Fabian Mascolo, and lettering/design from Ian Chalgren. (It’s also part of the Chris Ryall-led Syzygy Comics line.) In it, Jerry Hauser is managing his freshly-shattered life as a rideshare driver…until he meets his doppelgänger, self-help guru Darren Hart. Could this be a chance for ol’ Jerry to turn it all around, or is their space for his life to get even worse?

There’s lots of things going right for the book, and while a heap of that’s from a narrative or thematic direction, you can’t deny the work of the art team. Visually, the book’s take on Los Angeles is both sun-kissed and appropriately dark and grimy, a perfect balance of the City of Angels’ multifaceted dynamic. There’s a firm and distinct energy akin to pulp novels, which plays up with the story’s genre interests (more on that later) as well as informing us of the blend of playfulness and drama to expect. (I also think you can make an argument that the pulp aesthetic is a kind of satire in and of itself, and an encapsulation of something over-the-top about the human experience even as maybe it never intended to be so self-aware.)

Self Help #1

Variant cover by Ashley Wood. Courtesy of Image Comics.

There’s a power and warmth to the way the team captures daily life here, and whether it’s Jerry’s busted car, Darren’s garish mansion, or just the ins and outs of eccentric West Hollywood, all of it has that same mix of glamour and cracked facade, and that’s how you set the tone for the story without announcing your intentions or feeling heavy-handed.

The pulp stuff plays nicely into what this book is ultimately about: a SoCal noir a la Hollywood Nocturnes or The Lady in the Lake. That very specific tradition is played out nicely here, and we get a chance to both yearn after and see the nasty underbelly of this place and its people — that’s not only a great aspect of solid satire, but it also helps augment this story’s thematic end goals in the rather robust and entertaining canon of these sunny crime/mystery stories.

The fact that this is a crime story is such a massive deal, and why so much of its spoofing ways feels so effective so early on. Because, yes, the self-help genre is overplayed, but pairing it with something as direct and familiar as a noir just feels like a way to rethink these questions and ideas in a new way. (Even as this “formula” isn’t especially novel.) It’s there to interrogate not only our endless obsession with being happier, better people (at the cost of our own personalities and personal savings) but also the marked threads of individuality that define noir, and what the genre really says about us. (I have a few ideas, and while they may or may not be true, it’s worth mentioning that these kinds of stories are also about making people feel special by placing them at the center of some dire event/conspiracy.)

Self Help

Variant cover by Stephen Byrne. Courtesy of Image Comics.

Through that process, everything feels new again, and we avoid the trappings of a hackneyed dissection of both self-help and noir and come to appreciate their connections and differences in a new way. It’s almost like noir is somehow too big and too beloved for critical dissection, and it creates a kind of protective barrier around self-help to ensure that its takedown isn’t just some hacky commentary about our lame, depressive society but that so much of life is about meaningful investigation to break through the layers and arrive at some shimmery truth.

Similarly, the messaging the book offers up is just as important as it being suited in an armor of a really solid, extra gritty noir. I don’t want to spoil too much of what made Hart such a proper guru, but what I can say is that it’s not what you’d expect from these Tony Robbins types. It’s maybe a little more harsh or avoidant of stupid cliches about self-love and empowerment. In that way, I think Self Help does two key things: 1) it further plays into the noir focus of this book by keeping everything deeply human and extra gritty and 2) doesn’t just lambast this empowerment crowd but maybe even offers something nearing a “solution.”

Self Help

Variant cover by Steven Russell Black. Courtesy of Image Comics.

And by solution, I mean a bit of commentary on the whole approach of improving ourselves. Yes, it takes down the asinine nature of L.A. and people paying for help to be basic humans, but it does so in a way that offers a measured approach to the madness it’s trying to highlight. It’s as much interested in poking holes in something as offering us measured life lessons, and it does so not in a way that’s not preachy (that’d be counter-intuitive) but rather with the heart and mettle of any story worth a damn. In that way, it doubles on the power of a good crime story to both interrogate, comment, and expand on some important aspect of life in this weird, wild world.

Self Help ultimately comes off as funny and thoughtful; silly but cerebral; and wise without being insulting or pandering. It’s a story that wants to show you something peculiar as much as it also doesn’t try too hard to prove it has any of the answers (maybe just some clarity and self-awareness). It may be early still, but its proper balancing of ideas and energies is already a massive success, and proof that you can do satire the very best way with a little compassion, heart, and consideration. Unlike The Secret, I’d read Self Help every damn day.

'Self Help' #1 tackles noir and empowerment with ample wit and power
‘Self Help’ #1 tackles noir and empowerment with ample wit and power
Self Help #1
The debut of 'Self Help' sets up a thoughtful, funny, and satisfying crime story that takes down the empowerment community with grace and skill.
Reader Rating0 Votes
This is satire done with heart, integrity, and an aim to be deliberate and measured.
The art nails the L.A./SoCal vibes with such ease and overt joy.
We ultimately get a really human story about regret, second chances, and life's many what ifs.
If you've had your fill of crime stories, 'Self Help' may not be enough to fully stand out.
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