Some people say that Citizen Kane ruined cinema upon its release, because nothing anybody made afterwards could ever live up to it. I wonder what those folks would say when they heard that the first comic I ever read was Alan Moore’s Watchmen? While it obviously hasn’t ruined the medium for me I do have to admit that it is still a little strange sometimes to step back into the simpler worlds that exists inside most books by the big two; their stasis since being hit with that most scathing of satires is such that you have to wonder why they still bother making new books. Thankfully then there are other publishers out there printing books that have a definate purpose, among them Australia’s own Gestalt who this week followed in Mark Waid’s footsteps by descending into the realm of digital releases with Unmasked (The individual issues will be online only and when they are finished a physical trade will be collected). You may well be wondering what the hell that seemingly unnecessary spiel has to do with Unmasked and the answer is this: though it is an utterly unfair comparison to make, to my mind the release of this issue sees the birth of a bizzaro-Watchmen, that tales true progeny.
There have been multiple attempts made at re-capturing Moore’s magic over the years, including many by the man himself and yet if Watchmen were first published today I feel that it would still be seen as a strange and subversive story. Though its concept is constantly being repeated the unique angle of approach that Alan took towards the world of superheroes is still for the most part fresh and that is because these copies make the mistake of assuming that it was the destination that mattered most; it is how he told the story and not the story itself that is so singular. Unlike other controversial imitators of late it is the former trait that Unmasked applies to its original, but admittedly orbiting, universe. The crazy, cackling antagonists have always been the more fascinating and complex of comic book characters, so its strange that they have yet to be given a similar deconstruction and this is just what Unmasked attempts to provide. Funilly enough though this book also seems to borrow the What from Watchmen, basing its breakdown within the story of some supers who are forced by a faceless authoritarian figure to take off the masks, capes and cowls and step back into reality; only their Big Brother is applauded by crowds and flies around in a cape.
Another point of similarity is that of the setting, the world within Unmasked is one of steam, strip clubs and big fish that bully the littler ones. Though there is no direct Rorschach analogue (there is though a conversation with a prison psychologist of sorts, though I’m not sure when or where this was meant to take place) Unmasked still manages to steal the sleazy style of social justice that Scorsese and Schroder (More big names to be next to) started with Taxi Driver in the same way that Moore did. This perversion pervades the characters as well; though they may be supers the people on these pages were and are still human beings so they share our standard set of psychological sins, they just have to carry their literal ones alongside these. Speaking of literal the ‘perversion’ works in that sense too; these villains have that same sexual kink as the heroes of Watchmen – they are only able to get off when in character – but here this means that taking lives leads to sex, not saving them.
Unmasked though is drastically different to Watchmen in as many ways as it is the same: While Watchmen may have been written about as realistic it was actually set in a world as foreign to us as the MU or New 52, it takes its seedyness too far and becomes stylised; whereas this book’s world sits a lot closer to our own, despite actually having a prevalence of powered beings. And though their demons seem so much bigger, their pasts so much more damning, these people almost seem better balanced than their courageous counterparts in that comic masterpiece, for one they’ve managed to make a marriage work; and so we’re not entirely alienated from them, we can still empathise to a certain extent. That sexual thrill of the super life that was touched on in a titillating way by Watchmen is given a franker fleshing out here as the protagonist gives an extended speech about the addictive adrenaline high of starring in actual action scenes and the overextension that occurs in the search for the next bigger hit (pun).
All of these factors contrast, combine and culminate to create the story of the book, scattershot such as it is this early on. While brawling with the big guys may make your life electric, here in reality even the superpowered have to think realistically, have to realise that their position is untenable. This couple that we follow did and choose to be the tenant that vacates by choice; going instead into a life of petty crime, which given their location means that they blend right into the background, inconspicuous for the first time in a long time and its killing them. So when seen as a whole Unmasked not only shakes all accusations of over-deprevation but distinguishes itself further from the norm; there are borrowed elements in the book, but it takes those existing tropes and subversions and uses them to tell its own story. More evidence, to balance the scales? Unmasked also tells the story of only one character in only one time frame, give or take a few flashbacks. It’s pacing and structure are also much looser, whereas Moore’s work was a tightly contrived construction in which every panel held a prominent purpose here the pages unfold in a much more natural way, events simply occurring as they would in real life, and a lot of that is also due to the art.
Emily Smith’s artwork is stunning; stylish and gritty in the exact right ratio for this mad but mundane material. Every one of her panels reads perfectly on the first flick-through – it’s clear, cohesive and almost incorporeal comic art – but on second inspection you start to notice all the subtle details, strong facial expressions and the almost expressionistic use of shadows in the composition and wonder how it was that you read through at such an accelerated speed when each image is as interesting as this. That question’s not entirely rhetorical and the answer is coming soon. Now this is not quite a negative – though it does still counteract that praise somewhat – but I have to admit that Emily’s layouts lost me a little at times; pages switch from the standard framed panels to intricate insets over a page of bleeding background images. There are times when this second style works by say setting the separate streams of the story or splitting characters onto unique planes, but its implementation isn’t consistent enough and these useful examples are unfortunately offset by the number of times it confused.
Part, if not most, of the blame for this needs to go to Graphicly; the way that you read a digital comic is piecemeal and so layouts such as these aren’t as succesful as they would be on the physical page. Smith seems to have drawn without digital in mind which is both entirely understandable and dangerous in this modern day market; a different style is required. The awkwardness of the current Graphicly ap, or lack of as it were, is also the answer to why some of the art’s positives eluded me initially; this wasn’t the easiest reading experience. The provider are already undergoing changes and the publisher cannot be criticised for something that is out of their hands, but nor can I entirely remove the impact of this from my reaction. Though if the biggest flaw in a book is its distribution format, then that’s probably a positive. Now back to the book.
It’s hard to say at this stage just what Unmasked will be because this issue serves mostly as a delivery of introductory material for a future story, but as you can tell from the length of this review there was obviously plenty of interest packed in to those twenty-odd pages. Throughout these thoughts i’ve compared this comic to some of our biggest cultural milestones and although it’s impossible to say whether or not it will have an impact akin to theirs – and failing to is really not a failure at all – I think that Unmasked is set to stand strong beside them qualitatively. Both Watchmen and Taxi Driver were classics long before many of us got our hands on them but here you have a chance to get in on the ground floor of something just as good and when entry is no more than the better gold coin why wouldn’t you want to?
And if you do, then you can do it here: Grapicly Store – Unmasked #1