The first chapter of Get Your Freak On begins moodily on a rainy night in Brownsville, Texas. A man with flippers for arms and legs has been murdered, and a black albino detective, Agent Kilcrop, has come to Brownsville to try to solve the crime. The detective is assigned to take the body to the town of Aberrance, a kind of amusement park-cum-freak show in the middle of an atomic bomb test site in Nevada. Within that town is a society of freaks, human mutations that have changed in all kinds of odd ways.
In Aberrance, there’s a whole town full of strange characters, including a ruthless businessman whose son is attached to his back, a beautiful one-armed woman with wings, and a bizarre brain attached to a human hand. The murder brings Kilcrop hip-deep into a bizarre mystery that will utterly consume and change the way he looks at the world.
I really had trouble getting into this book. Part of the problem is, I think, that it tries to be so many things that it just doesn’t succeed at any of them. It’s not quite a horror story; despite the very strange look of the characters in the book, this comic is seldom scary. It’s not a detective story; despite the presence of an interesting detective, his investigation really doesn’t feel that involving. It’s not quite a satire of American society’s obsession with celebrity; despite the fact that the monstrous un-men are slated to be on a TV reality show, that aspect of the plot is underplayed. It’s not quite a look at the banality of modern American culture or a black comedy either.
The one thing Whalen and Hawthorne are successful at is in establishing the town of Aberrance. The town is incredibly strange but, at the same time, plausible. If the government created a bunch of freaks, it makes sense that they would be moved, like a group of Native Americans to a kind of reservation in Nevada. And it makes yet more sense that the society in the town would be rather complex and dysfunctional. Clearly, the real star of this comic is the town it takes place in, a town that is just different enough that it seems both strange and realistic.
This is a very ambitious comic. John Whalen obviously has many interesting ideas to explore in this series. However, none of the ideas really seem to play out completely in this book.
Part of the problem is that I read this book as a standalone set of issues. I honestly didn’t expect the characters to continue into a volume two. Surely such an odd comic wouldn’t be on Vertigo’s ongoing schedule. Yet a quick look at DC’s website reveals that Un-Men is, in fact, now an ongoing series. Therefore, I have to expect that Whalen will reveal some of the themes buried in this volume in future issues of the series. Unfortunately, I’m faced with looking at this first volume all by its lonesome–and, as a standalone story, it’s less than satisfying.
For instance, the reality show angle, which I thought was very interesting, is under-explored in this book. In this age where reality TV shows like The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover try to tell any viewer that they have the ability to be conventionally beautiful, it’s easy to imagine that a show like American Freak would become highly popular. This ground seems fertile for satire.
Unfortunately, Whalen only seizes on the least interesting aspect of such a concept–a sleazy promoter who’s all about sacrificing people’s lives for the almighty buck. I wish there had been more scenes that showed people trying out for the show–scenes that showed desperate people looking for their moment on TV regardless of what kinds of literal hell they would have to go through to make that happen. However, the only character Whalen shows getting made into a mutation is a homeless man in chapter one who is horrifically made into a centaur.
We also don’t get much characterization in this book. Neither Kilcrop nor Niko Parish, the “flightless angel,” have more than a surface appeal to them. As readers, we know that we’re supposed to like and follow these characters, but the story gives us precious reason to do so. Aside from a date rape scene–perhaps the most compelling scene in the book–Niko, in particular, feels like a cipher. She’s beautiful and manipulated, but why should we as readers care about her?
The only characters who actually stand out in this book are the bad guys. The evil Mr. Janus and his allies are scenery-chewing evildoers whose nastiness makes them rather interesting. The younger Janus, for instance, is the instigator of the date rape, and his sneering evilness makes him oddly compelling.
And worst of all, the most interesting element of the story is barely explored. It seems there’s a split among the freaks between Janus’s cadre that have created this crazy freak Disneyland, and the oppressed mutations that live in the town. Led by a firebrand named Inkabod who has the Bible tattooed on his body, this group of freaks is fighting to capture the true legacy of their nature.
This plotline promised to be an intriguing story of conflicting ambitions–a satire of the Bush-era split between rich and poor, or between the classic Haves and Have-nots. In chapter three, we get some exploration of that storyline, and it’s really intriguing. Regrettably, though, we don’t get nearly enough of that world to be satisfying.
I’m focusing much more on John Whalen’s script than on Mike Hawthorne’s art in this review, and I shouldn’t do that. Hawthorne does a competent job of drawing the characters and settings in this book. The characters’ appearances are consistent throughout, and they have a compelling design to them. Hawthorne draws Niko beautifully, and the freakier characters look appropriately spooky. I liked how he downplayed the strangeness of the characters, which gives them an oddly realistic feel. Even the brain-on-hand character seems somehow realistic in Hawthorne’s hands.
With all my complaints, I’m still giving this book three bullets because there’s a lot in here that’s intriguing. The town of Aberrance is a great idea, and the idea of using freaks as sort of post-modern heroes is really interesting. Whalen has done a great job with setting up the strange and interesting world of the Un-Men.
One of the reasons I felt frustrated with this book is that there are a lot of clever and intriguing ideas that never quite get explored. John Whalen has set himself an interesting canvas to work with in The Un-Men. I hope that future volumes will explore that interesting canvas in more detail.