Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Mudslinging (and I Mean That in a Good Way)

Posted by Don MacPherson on November 20th, 2011

Mudman #1
Writer/Artist/Letters/Cover artist: Paul Grist
Colors: Bill Crabtree
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.50 US

When I saw a promotional image for this comic book (which I think was the cover image), I was drawn to it immediately. Obviously, I had an interest in any new project from Paul (Jack Staff, Kane) Grist, but there was something more to it. The title and concept comes off as fairly simple, but there’s also something… innocent about it. I think, like me, many young readers of super-hero comics have created their own characters, drawn them on lined looseleaf and brightened those crude sketches with colored pencils. A friend and I built a whole universe — Energy Man, Tornado Man, the Cougar and more — in homemade comics drawn on newsprint that just happened to be the right size for a standard comic book. Not that I’m suggesting there’s anything childish about Grist’s craft here. He offers a charming tribute to the Silver Age while concurrently turning some of those decades-old super-hero conventions on their head. Grist has instilled a sense of mystery and history into this origin story. It’s clear Mudman (at least the costume and the power) has been around for some time, and I look forward to Grist’s construction of a myth for the title character as well as fun adventures.

Owen Craig is a regular kid, though he sometimes gets into trouble, running afoul of school administration for horseplay and sneaking out at night to indulge in pointless but harmless acts of vandalism. But when he and his pal start poking around in what they thought was an old, abandoned mansion estate, Owen makes an unbelievable discovery, one he keeps to himself. It’s also one that’s changed him. Weird things start happening, but dangerous things as well, including a threat to someone close to him.

Grist does an excellent job of conveying the main character’s adolescence, as well as that of some of the supporting players. He conveys expression quite well with his simple style, and his portrayal of motion is oddly appealing. His characters are often gangly and awkward, so there’s a kind of spastic but nevertheless convincing quality to how they move at times. I think what I find most interesting about Grist’s work, and especially here, is the minimalist approach he takes to the backgrounds. Sometimes, the action takes place in odd voids. Look at the Craig kitchen; it sits on a field of black. But they never feel like shortcuts. It feels instead as though Grist is punctuating the moments and focusing our attention on characters.

The cover artwork is a simple but striking one. According to a sketch and note on the inside back cover, the cover image is not far removed from Grist’s first concept sketch for the character. Spelling the hero’s name out in the muck in which he stands is a wonderfully Eisner-esque touch, and Grist, despite his use of simpler lines and shapes, manages to convey the texture of the mud from which the property derives its name and premise. The design for the protagonist, most clearly apparent in this issue on the cover, is weirdly cute and mundane at the same time. The flat, brown color motif is in keeping with the hero’s earthly, elemental powers, but it’s not exactly the kind of bright, fun kind of display one expects from a super-hero book. But that’s OK, because though this comic and premise clearly take cues from earlier traditions of the genre, it’s also a little off-kilter for a super-hero book, just a little different.

The chief difference is in the main character, and I don’t mean his heroic alter ego. Owen Craig is Grist’s Peter Parker, but he’s not Peter Parker. He’s a relatively average kid — nothing stellar in terms of school and perceived as a troublemaker. And in part, he’s earned that reputation. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly exceptional about him. He’s not overcome some great tragedy or adversity, and he’s not particularly gifted. He’s just likeable enough. He’s much more of an everyman (or everyteen) than many of the archetypical heroes who’ve come before him. The mish-mash of influences in his origin story is fun. Mudman #1 is like Spider-Man meets Scooby-Doo, immersed in the culture and sleepy pace of a modest British town. It’s undeniably fun, and it merits a look by all who enjoy classic super-hero fare, especially those who don’t venture outside of the Marvel or DC universes to get their genre fix.

In a nice, heartfelt essay on the inside front cover, Grist confesses to his love of serial fiction and how waiting for the next episode in a series — be it a comic-book title or TV show — is part of the experience, part of the fun. He hails anticipation as a worthy and even important part of the experience, and I agree with him… to an extent. There also comes a point when the wait interferes and mars how one experiences a story. I found such was the case with Grist’s previous foray into the super-hero genre, Jack Staff. I loved the colorful and diverse array of characters, and how he merged disparate genres into one world. However, I found it was published so sporadically, I’d lose track of the plot and characters. Of course, that wasn’t aided by Grist’s unconventional approach, opting to shift the focus from one character and story arc to another from issue to issue. In any case, it’s my hope Mudman sees a more regular release schedule. I’m willing to wait for and to anticipate the next episode, but only for so long before I lose interest. 7/10

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