I’m a really big fan of Mike Allred. I have every issue of his Dark Horse run of Madman, avidly collected his run on X-Force/X-Statix, and treasure my copy of Superman/Madman: Hullabaloo. Unfortunately, I haven’t developed a love for the new Madman Atomic Comics. Part of my problem might be in the subject matter of this new series. In these first few issues, Frank Einstein, the ultimate outsider, is having an existential identity crisis that is brought on my his arch enemy Mr. Monstadt. With the help of his childhood comic book hero Mr. Excitement, Madman literally is on a journey to find himself.
Mostly, the first few issues of this series have seemed kind of thin and plotless. It’s awfully hard to depict an identity crisis in comics form without the series dragging badly. This issue is the most self indulgent of the three, with Allred making an interesting choice: as Madman and Mr. Excitement journey to find Madman’s true self, they proceed through page after page, panel after panel in the style of some of the most prominent cartoonists in the world. We see Allred’s version of Madman as illustrated by Dr. Seuss and in the style of a Warner Brothers cartoon. We see takes on Madman in the style of Herge, Jack Kirby, Moebius, Jim Woodring, Robert Crumb, Joe Quesada, Tony Harris, Sam Kieth, and literally dozens and dozens of other prominent cartoonists. Part of the fun of this issue is in trying to figure out which artist Allred is channeling in each panel. Nearly every time, Allred successfully channels his influences, choosing iconic looks from each artist as filtered through his eye. It’s an amazing achievement as cartooning that, as Allred talks about in his letters page, was a terrific experience for him.
But the question remains for me: is this a stylistic exercise or just self-indulgent wanking? Is Allred stretching his muscles or wasting the readers’ time and money? Is this an artistic tour de force, a case of Allred showing his talents with note-perfect renderings that channel the work of his heroes and colleagues? Or is Allred just wasting readers’ time, goofing off with material that would be better left in his sketchbook?
I have to fall on the side of saying this was self-indulgent. It’s fun to see panel after panel of Allred channeling his influences, but the story really doesn’t amount to anything. After a while, all the images get a bit dull, as the spark of fun (Look! That’s a Will Eisner image! And that’s a Jim Steranko image!) fades (oh, look, now it’s Chester Brown. And this is Ken Steacy). The story in these first three issues is already slow, and presenting an issue like this only slows it down even more. And to me, Allred’s playing is interesting only to him and his hardcore fans.