The American Dream is said to be a lot of things, but in comics it often comes down to franchising. A lone creator, or a pair of creators, or a small team of creators dream up a character which then becomes popular. Popular enough to warrant more series, which then require more personnel who then perhaps create their own characters leading to more series which then require more personnel and so on, ad infinitum or as long as infinity lasts in this fickle field. By that standard, Mike Allred has been living the American Dream for some time with his signature creation, Madman, functioning as the center to this particular franchise universe. Long before Robert Kirkman was zombifying indie comics, Allred and his wife, the superb colorist Laura Allred, were capturing a zeitgeist with Frank Einstein, a superpowered bebop Frankenstein's Monster with a heart of gold. Madman himself was the American Dream incarnate, a hip roadster given a second chance despite a shadowy past, standing out as a charming juxtaposition to the more cynical, punk rock zeitgeist figure from across the pond, Tank Girl.
Even Madman's publishing journey has reflected the American Dream, traveling across nearly the entirety of the continent of indie comics, with stints at Tundra, Dark Horse and Oni before settling at Image. But Madman has slowed down over the past few years, leaving room in his franchise empire for supporting characters to pick up the slack. Or at least that's the theory behind It Girl and the Atomics, a new series helmed by Jamie S. Rich and Mike Norton, themselves no strangers to franchising, with Rich serving primarily as an editor on series like Queen & Country and Powers as well as a slew of Madman-related properties while Norton has handled art on series as diverse as Runaways, Queen & Country and his own Battlepug. Given Rich's past with the characters of Madman and his Atomic Comics brethren and Norton's bonafides, It Girl and the Atomics seems like a no-brainer for extending your American Franchise Dream: a veteran you've hired from within and a rising star artist working together on a series prominently featuring one of your more popular supporting characters.
And yet something isn't clicking in It Girls and the Atomics' first issue. Those familiar with the world of Madman know it's defined both by Allred's beautifully nostalgic art and the rhythmic surreality of his prose. Allred is a master at connecting the two worlds seamlessly, making the acid trip visuals match up with florid but cohesive phrasing while the bright, regular adventuring is enlivened by heady language and counterculture riffing. It Girls' major issues stem from the disconnect between Rich's attempts to mimic Allred's phrasing — which is no small feat — and Norton's attempts to keep his own artistic identity apparent in a world that isn't his own.
It's a basic problem that faces many franchises, a desire to stand out as unique while also remaining faithful to the basic principles of the core franchise and it's understandable that in the first issue Rich and Norton don't quite have the chemistry down pat. Norton does unveil some nifty albeit overplayed tricks, like the fake out grim 'n' gritty opening and the late '90s Marvel-style supervillain brawl towards the middle of the issue, but for the bulk of the first issue his art falls a little flat, looking more Venture Bros than legitimately Silver Age influenced. Allan Passalaqua's coloring plays a large role in that, since his bright hues contain the artificial smoothness of that area of animation; it works where movement is concerned but in the more intimate moments there's a disquieting thinness to the panels.
Pairing that with Norton's reliance on rubbery expressions works against the series as it emphasizes slapstick, pushing the balance too far in the direction of the Farrelly Brothers rather than the harder to peg metaphysical comedy Rich otherwise seems to aim for. This is an issue where the climax comes when It Girl uses her abilities to channel a plastic bag to scout the city for trouble, which lands her in a classic "hero acts in haste and mistakes an innocent act for a criminal one" situation, but it's surrounded by moments of ennui that are undercut by the contortionist positioning of Norton's characters and the constipated facial expressions they make while talking. Granted, it doesn't exactly help that Rich's plot is focused on It Girl being bored and the writer could have done more to play up the irony of a superpowered being surrounded by other superpowered beings in a city where odd things happen all the time complaining of boredom.
Madman is more or less already proven as a franchise, so the stakes aren't as high for It Girl and the Atomics as they could be, and the environment of Image by its nature grants the series more room for finding itself. But with the dearth of Madman content available in the past few years, a smart, engaging series set in this world would be a godsend. Rich and Norton still have some development to get through before they're entirely filling that void but flaws aside, their passion is clear in every panel and more than anything else, that's what will allow them to reach that goal.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to Spectrum Culture, No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Hanover.