Earlier this year some friends and I, after being sufficiently stuffed at a restaurant, were presented with a bill. We whipped out our smart phones, began calculating who owed what while discussing the means of payment: would we pay in cash, will we give cash to the member of our party with the credit card, etc. A pretty common scene for us. It's routine and, admittedly, irksome to anyone bearing witness. In any case, our waiter came by and, acknowledging our respective devices, bemusedly asked "Is anyone using their brains?" We let loose a collective polite chuckle and coughed up the cash. Now, the waiter's etiquette is neither here nor there, but we must acknowledge his slight as a now commonplace societal criticism; smart phones make us dumb. Hur hur hur. See the irony? See what I did there? Smart phones make us dumb. Get it?
I hope my sarcasm is palpable. I like social media, I like smart phones. I take great joy in infinite access to information and I laugh at pictures of cats and the derivative memes thereof. I silently scoff at old codgers and the ironique Luddites who dismiss this useful tech as a distracting invasion of privacy. I am not evangelical in this, but I am steadfast. That being said, Dean Haspiel's dystopian The Last Romantic Antihero initially rubbed me the wrong way. Key word: initially.
It is infinitely frustrating for the finicky reviewer faced with great art communicating an opposing morality. However, one must have a stiff upper lip and ultimately set aside trifles and get down to an objective critique. Haspiel has been making comics for a long time, and he knows what he's doing; the varying monochromatic asymmetry of his panels are fantastic. Haspiel's lack of continuity in form mirrors the unrest of Billy Dogma's dystopian world. Consider the contrast in style between the open page and what follows:
See how Haspiel knows movement? Marvel at Billy's bounding form juxtaposed by his steady figure in Jane's presence. The book is full of this stuff; offset panels filled with forceful and elegant movement. Whether it's a satellite falling for the sky or Billy bounding down the street from the cops, Haspeil shows us how to move. Better yet, Haspiel is aware of how hyperbole can not only fit into an action comic, but enhance it. This book is full of poetry and, although I initially chuckled at "She was a girl with bee-sting lips, magnesium thighs, and a skeleton heart," I quickly recovered and sensed a trace of Basin City's surreal all-American grit. Miller would approve. Come to think of it, there is no dialogue in this comic that isn't poetic.
Yet even after reading and rereading this "Harrison Bergeron" –esque story, I am still caught up on the conflict. The populace have allowed themselves to become self involved zombies glued to their social media devices and the distributors sneak the devices "into our homes and under our pillows." I get what Haspiel is saying here; status updates, tweets, memes and whatever else we spew out are lessening our quality of life and making us selfish. A collective empathy for others is preferable and we desperately need to find that again. It's not completely out of touch, but the message is so heavy handed it distracts from the incredible quality of this work. Haspiel has created a dynamic story in a well rendered setting while utilizing a brilliant style; it's no short of epic. That level of quality, however, just feels a little wasted on a story where iPads are the primary antagonist.
Ryan Anderson shapes malleable young minds as a tutor in Seattle. When not committing that dubious act, he can be found overcome by the abundance of comics out there catalyzing thought and evoking emotion. He wants to make sure you read those comics, too. Pithier reviews, devoid of any real gravitas or credibility, can be found on Twitter at @TheRyanReview.