This is about as fun a comic book as you can ever ask for.
Jim Valentino’s normalman (and yes, it’s supposed to be in all lower-case letters) is a fun and exciting romp through comics history and clichés, an utterly charming and silly parody of various eras in comics history.
normalman is the story of norm, a refugee from the planet Arnold who is rocketed away from the planet when his CPA father thinks the planet will blow up. It doesn’t–and norm’s mother shoots his father for the mistake. Meanwhile, norm is rocketed to a strange planet called Lavrem, where everybody has superpowers. Everyone, that is, but our hero, norm.
It’s a clever framework for a highly satiric story because the possibilities are literally unlimited. This framework gives Valentino the freedom to parody a very diverse group of comics. For instance, he delivers a silly take on EC horror comics in one chapter and then on the French comic strip character Asterix in another. Perhaps even more fun, though, is when Valentino delivers his take on comics that were popular at the time of normalman’s original publication in the mid 1980s.
These parodies create an unexpected effect that I found really exciting. This book works as a kind of time capsule for the industry, as Valentino highlights and parodies comics from various different eras. For instance, he delivers a dead-on take on Howard Chaykin’s legendary American Flagg! The parody still works for me because I remember Chaykin’s series so well. However, I suspect it would also work for readers who are unfamiliar with American Flagg! because Valentino’s parody is very cleverly done.
The thing that makes this book more than just a series of parodies is that Valentino is committed to presenting a solid story of his own. He does a clever job of using each of the parody scenes to drive his own story forward. For example, he uses a parody of political machinations in Cerebus to play up the political machinations that were happening in normalman at the time. He also uses a parody of Will Eisner’s The Spirit to ratchet up the melodrama and energy of his own story.
The protagonist, norm, actually grows and changes as his story goes on. He grows from being a confused naïf to becoming accustomed to living on Lavrem. He actually finds some measure of love and happiness as the book ends, giving the story a nice sense of closure.
Valentino’s art isn’t quite chameleon-like. Most every scene shows his art in its cartoonish splendor, which gives the overall work a nicely consistent feel. And his storytelling, especially in the satiric scenes, is wonderful. It often feels like Valentino is channeling the styles of Eisner, Chaykin, or even Ernie Colon. It’s a cool balancing act that Valention plays, and it gives his book a nice sort of energy.
normalman is a real treat for any comics fan. You’ll probably get most of the references, and you’ll probably enjoy exploring the references you don’t get.