Zombies, you might find some competition as the subgenre most in danger of being completely wrung out, provided people keep making comics about subverting the tropes of Superman. Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Mark Waid, Chris Roberson, Garth Ennis and countless others I’m forgetting have all done it or are currently doing it in comics, and the subgenre has even moved into cinemas with movies like Megamind. If it hasn’t happened already, “It’s like Superman but…” is growing dangerously close to being a major groaner of a pitch.
Avatar Press, besides producing delightfully disgusting horror comics and publishing work from men who don’t want to make mainstream superhero comics, has dabbled in turning the superhero genre on its head with Christos Gage’s Absolution and Warren Ellis’ trilogy of Black Summer, No Hero and Supergod. So Hero Worship by screenwriters Zak Penn and Scott Murphy and artist Michael DiPascale is in good company. It’s just a shame it’s so by the numbers.
Hero Worship follows Adam Robeson, a young dude with the kind of out-of-control goatee that makes him look like a member Nickelback (and thus instantly hatable) and a love for the Superman-like hero Zenith (not that Zenith) that borders on fanatical. He wears a WWZD necklace and rushes to Zenith sightings like a teen in ’60s Liverpool — both fanboy tendencies that, according to Penn and Murphy, signal a person such a failure at life that he can’t even make it with a chubby girl, who tells Adam, on his way out the door, to “Go hang out with your little fanboy fags.” If you were afraid the sub-Mark Millarisms would end, there is indeed a reference to TMZ a few pages away.
In all seriousness, the big problem with Adam is that Penn and Murphy don’t bother to show us why Adam even likes Zenith, besides the fact that he’s the first superhero to ever exist outside of comics and movies. Adam and his internet friends try to get a glimpse of Zenith at a vague construction accident situation, where they disregard the human lives hanging in the balance to get a glimpse of Zenith. Soon after, he manages to win a chance to visit the headquarters of the superhero’s own charitable organization, the Zenith Foundation, where Adam judges the other fans around him and couldn’t be more bored during a dramatization of Zenith’s origin. Straight up, I don’t care about this guy — not even when he starts feeling sick, has a seizure and then develops the ability to fly.
One gets the sense that the writers are keeping Adam’s personality and desires to a minimum so that the reader can just project himself* onto this superhero obsessive as he slowly becomes just like his idol. That’s a fine way to make a video game, I suppose, but a terrible way to tell a story when audiences generally like to see well-defined characters with motivations they can understand — especially in a comic that’s full of internal monologue from its main character. Not everyone’s going to like you or or character, so it’s a futile endeavor to create any kind of universal character. Even Millar’s characters can be defined beyond their “everyman” quality — that is, their disdain for women and minorities.
Either way, Hero Worship is one of those “what if a superhero existed in the real world” kind of stories, underscored by Michael DiPascale’s art, which shoots for “photorealistic” but mostly feels like digital illustration over staged photographs, which never looks exciting or dynamic as sequential art. Apparently DiPascale has been illustrating Hero Worship on and off for three years and assures that the art will improve as the issues go on. If nothing else, I’ll say this about the art: I really dig Zenith’s costume.
It’s not clear yet if Penn and Murphy are cooking up yet another deconstructive superhero story or something more universal about what happens when a fan finds himself not only in the same room as his idol, but also on equal ground (so to speak). If it’s the former, I’m not sure the writers (despite Penn having worked on several superhero films) are capable of doing something that hasn’t been done to death already. If it’s the latter, it prolly would have made a better movie.
*And I do mean “himself” — women in this comic seem to exist only to emasculate, from the girl who calls Adam gay to the Zenith foundation employees who say that no, Zenith won’t be here and insist that Adam’s just feeling overwhelmed by his presence in the Foundation.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, “Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men,” over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.