Posted by Don MacPherson on November 16th, 2011
Just the Usual Superpowers softcover collection
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Faith Erin Hicks
Price: $12 CAN
In the world of comics, rarity is a frequent topic of conversation, at least among collectors (as opposed to readers). I fall into the reader category, but I was thrilled to get my hands on a truly rare sample of comics storytelling, but the real treat isn’t its rarity, but the strength of the craft within its pages. Just the Usual Superpowers is a collection of comic strips that ran in an arts culture newspaper in Halifax, Nova Scotia (where Hicks lives), and she’s collected them. But the book isn’t in wide distribution. As I understand it, Hicks brings copies with her to conventions for sale directly to comics fans. The one exception is Strange Adventures in Halifax, an Eisner award-winning comic shop that she frequents. Well, the owner of Strange Adventures actually started his business where I live in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and he finally brought some copies for sale in his original shop during a recent visit. I quickly grabbed one up, as I’ve been anxious to read it. Hicks has impressed me with her previous graphic novels, and she doesn’t disappoint with this collection of strips poking fun not only at the super-hero genre but at life in one’s 20s.
It’s not easy being a super-hero, as one young, would-be heroine operating in a Canadian city is discovering. She finds she’s still without an arch-nemesis, and the closest thing she’s got to it is a skeptical, sarcastic hipster who enjoys critiquing her exploits. Even her successful defence of the city from a giant alien monster doesn’t bring the respect she craves. On top of that, her money is running out, and she’s forced to look for a job, only to be stymied in her efforts by an unlikely competitor.
In the past, I’ve compared Hicks’ style to that of fellow cartoonist (and a one-time resident of the same area) Hope Larson; others have noted similarities as well. But after reading this particular project, I’m reminded of another artist’s style. The energy and personality Hicks instills in the visuals here to accentuate the humor is reminiscent of the sort of thing we’ve seen in the past from Lea (Killer Princesses, Cathedral Child) Hernandez. Maybe it’s because the manga/anime influence in Hicks’ work is more apparent here than in some of her quieter, more character-driven work (such as The War at Ellsmere). I enjoyed the panel layouts for these strips, and there’s no denying she captures the youth, frustration and carefree qualities of people in their early 20s in this book. The design for the main character is simple and convincing, but perhaps the greatest design in the book is the one she crafted for the giant monster (as seen on the cover). The odd mix of feline and cephalopod qualities is cute and surreal all at once.
The super-hero genre comedy/satire worked incredibly well. I loved the running gag about the protagonist’s forgetfulness about her mask and failure in her vigilance to protect her secret identity. Furthermore, the King Ninja strips were a blast, as they reminded me a great deal of the sort of thing one might find in early Tick comics by Ben Edlund. The more effective moments of humor, though, stem from more grounded elements in the storytelling. Superhero Girl’s inferiority complex stemming from her older brother’s success, her awkwardness in social situations and other slice-of-life elements not only entertain but allow the reader to connect with the main character, even in such a goofy book.
It’s not rare for comics artists to develop self-published items for sale at conventions. I’ve seen some fairly basic mini-comics and sketchbooks, made with photocopies in my past travels up and down con aisles. Hicks has arranged for a professional-quality book with this project. She’s invested in this a bit, and it doesn’t feel the least bit disposable. The price I cite above is just the price I paid for this book. There’s no cover price printed on the trade paperback, though I expect Hicks charges something in the same neighborhood at cons. It’s well worth seeking out, not only if you’re a fan of this up-and-coming cartoonist’s work, but for anyone who appreciates humor comics, be it genre satire or slice-of-life observational humor. 8/10
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