I had been interested in reading Madman ever since I had made a grand flip of opinion on Michael Allred’s art. I used to think he drew eyes weird or that his figures were stiff before turning nineteen and reading his run of X-Force. Suddenly, I got it. The eyes were wide and expressive, being used to act as much of the emotion of the story as possible, while the figures weren’t stiff but, rather, were posed for maximum efficiency. His work is like German Expressionism as pop art. So Madman, being Michael Allred’s creator-owned passion project for the past two decades, held a certain fascination for me.
Reading the early Madman works was… interesting. For this article I read the original short story that Frank Einstein debuted in, the initial miniseries, and the second miniseries Madman Adventures. If I asked a true Madman fan for advice on where to start, she or he might have suggested somewhere else because these early stories don’t have a lot about them that feel classic, but there was something else that made the experience feel like more than just doing homework. These stories have heart. And in this case, heart makes up for a lack of clear narrative or structure.
The original Frank Einstein story “For the Record” is probably the strongest out of the whole bunch as it has a reduced page count that forces it to be more concise. It’s really early Allred so artistically and from a writer’s standpoint it is pretty rough but, as I stated earlier, it makes up for it by sticking to a strong message. The story follows Frank as he attempts to retrieve a record he ordered only to be ridiculed for his appearance but, rather than seeking reprise, chooses to take his record and go. It’s a story about people being treated differently based on disabilities, proudly wearing the fact that some people are different, and turning the other cheek. Frank’s a likable character but, without the iconic exclamation bolt costume, he isn’t Madman yet.
Frank finally becomes the titular character in Madman #1-3, published by Tundra Publishing in 1992, with the appearance of the full costume. Over the course of three issues, Frank goes on a journey to resurrect his mentor/caretaker Dr. Boiffard and prevent the villainous Mr. Monstadt from gaining power over life and death. Not a bad pitch for the miniseries but the book drags thanks to an extended page count (forty-eight pages!) that creates the need for various paths for Frank to run down before finally getting back to his original goal. I’ll admit that I had actually forgotten the original thrust of the book until reminded in issue three when Frank and the book return to the setting of Snap City to deal with Monstadt.
The best part of the initial Madman miniseries is what carries over from “For the Record” with its themes of humanity’s general inhumanity towards itself. Frank is often derided and harassed for his appearance, whether it be for his face or his costume, and is antagonized in the miniseries by prototypical “good ol’ boys” that call him unpleasant words and attempt to take his life. Frank hides his face not just from people like that but even from those he loves because he assumes that everyone thinks like the former group. When treated like a monster, Frank acts like a monster by eating eye balls and ripping out hearts because his self-esteem is wholly dependent on what others think. So in the final issue when his love Joe admits to loving him even with his scars, Frank is able to accept her love and transform into something more. Frank transforms into a legitimate superhero, leaping through the air and fighting bad guys, once he’s able to love and be loved in return. He’s finally able to see what’s been shown to him all along: not everybody’s as rotten as the worst.Madman Adventures is more focused but still prone to flights of fancy with plots that read like Simpson’s episodes that start with a simple A-plot before heading in a drastically different direction. For example, what starts as a camping trip in the third issue leads to Frank tracking down an alien in an ambiguously South American jungle while attempting to reason out the existence of God. The major through-line that appears in that issue and the series as a whole is Frank’s hang-up on the big questions of who, what, and why. Who am I? What is existence? And why are we here? It’s in these moments of intense philosophical wonder that Allred reveals his Madman to be a rather moody fellow with a philosophical bent. He reads at times like a more naïve and optimistic answer to Nexus.
Even though I mentioned Nexus, it feels important to note how Madman as a character feels like he was almost created in a vacuum. These books don’t read like someone that was swept up in the deconstruction or reconstruction of the superhero genre. It feels as if Michael Allred simply grew up reading comics, formed an idea of what they were at an early age, and decided to put a weird spin on that idea as an adult. Look no further than the exclamation bolt on Madman’s chest with its echoes of Captain Marvel for proof of the lasting impact of such iconography and storytelling on Allred. His Madman is a character that may eat an eyeball or gruesomely kill someone when off his game but he’s still a character that’s defined by his innocence and naiveté with his “aw shucks” attitude towards relationships and his physical inability to swear.
I spent so much of my reading trying to figure out what Madman was reacting to that it didn’t occur to me until much too late that it may not have been reacting to anything in particular at all. And that is far rarer in the world of superhero comics, especially post-Watchmen, then one would hope. It’s that above all else, I believe, that makes these early Madman stories worth a reading.