I love it when a comic sucks you in, makes you feel complacent and then — BAM — shocks you with a hit right between the eyes. Something unexpected happens, maybe an interesting revelation about a character or an intriguing moment in a story, and then suddenly your perception changes completely. What you thought was simple and straightforward and relatively easy suddenly becomes something much more interesting and thoughtful and really freaking wonderful.
The latest example of this sort of idea is Martin Eden's Spandex: Fast and Hard, the first collection of the British cartoonist's latest superhero series. CB's own Kelvin Green is a big fan of this series, and his enthusiasm for it made me want to pick up the new Titan Books collection of the first three issues.
On the surface, this comic seems to be perfect mainly for a bit of a laugh and a giggle. The heroes in Spandex are all gay or lesbian, and their happiness with being gay is a big part of what makes the first story in this collection seem so breezy and light at first. This first story is called "Attack of the 50 Foot Lesbian" and is full of events that really do spark humor — jokes about sex, and disappearing heroes, and weird superpowers, and silly adventures, and, oh yeah, sex. The titular 50 foot lesbian, on a rampage through Brighton, "gay capital of the UK", as the omniscient narrator tells us, is defeated by a kiss on the lips from a beautiful heroine. At the end of this wacky battle I was expecting a very silly, very gay-friendly little action romp in the rest of this book.
And then after the battle action dissipates, Eden knocks the reader between the eyes. Readers are presented with a series of character-building moments in the back section of the first story that dramatically change our perceptions of the characters whose story we have just read. Suddenly, as these scenes unfold, these men and women who had seemed so simple begin to get fleshed out in fascinating ways. And yeah, fleshed out is exactly the right word to use for this section of the story, as flesh plays a big part in this section in both its carnal and its mysterious sense. No spoilers here, but the amazing character moments — followed by an intense and thoroughly shocking final page — really knock readers between the eyes.
The second story follows the same kind of idea. Nominally involving a group of pink-clad ninjas fighting our heroes, the story ends up being about a lot more than what we expect it to be — as so many character elements are changed thoroughly in this story. There are shifts in gender roles and in relationships; in characters being heroes and villains and characters being straight, gay or bisexual. As the story plays out, readers are thrown completely off guard, confused about how these characters are all so different from our preconceptions of them, and glorying in the fact that Martin Eden's comics have the ability to surprise us in magnificent and complex ways.
And then the third story comes along and fucks with our minds in different ways. This third story is all about what happens after the villain actually conquers our heroes' fictional world, and how completely fucked up things can get. Only a small band of heroes are ready and able to fight back against the evil Nadir and his/her strange plans (the gender of the villain is deliberately left ambiguous) — and the heroes who fight the hardest are not the ones who you would expect to do that at all.
After the bright stories in the first two-thirds of this book, this much darker and more intense story in the final section completely leaves readers off balance. Once again Eden has hit the reader between the eye, shocking us with a story that feels organic and right, both plotwise and character-wise, but also is spooky as hell.
Martin Eden succeeds with these twists and turns because he plays fair with the readers. He is honest about his characters and their limitations; he does not cheat the reader in any way as the story twists and turns relentlessly. It’s all organic, which makes it all even more shocking as things change.
Eden's art style is a big part of what makes the story so wonderful as well. I'm really not sure what words to use for his artwork. Eden's character work looks a bit crude and amateurish at first, but as the story goes on, you realize that he has a great eye for layout and for the perfect character moment. Eden's art has a power and intensity to it that is perfectly suited to his story — you seem to be sucked in by the simplicity of the art and then bam – there's a character moment or scene that's so interesting or intense or clever that it just takes your breath away.
It seems appropriate that I keep coming back to physical metaphors to describe this book because so much of it is about physicality: powers, sex, the disconnect between mind and body, the ability to push one's body beyond its limits to be able to transcend the world that we live in. Spandex: Fast and Hard is just another example of that metaphor: don't judge the body of work in this book on its surface; judge it by the real version of itself that is lurking just below this book's surface.