Writer(s): Charles Soule
Artist(s): Allen Gladfelter
US Publisher: SLG Publishing
An old retired Mexican “luchador” receives a chance to redeem himself in a US city. But the enemies from his past have a knack of coming back to hunt him, like his old memories.
Here I was, full of bags overflowing with signed prints, autographed comics, albums, graphic novels, when I arrived at a stand where Charles Soule was signing his comics. We had a pleasant and intelligent chat for a while, covering topics of publishing and trend in the comic book market. After a while, I perused through some titles and decided purchase the first volume of Strongman.
My greatest regret is not having picked up Strongman 2. My second greatest regret is that it took me two days to get to it.
Let me clarify one thing off the bat: This comic may be considered Independent, but only on distribution terms. It can compete with the best graphic novels out there.
I mentioned in other blog entries that I have a shelf full of comic masterpieces, and Strongman went right up on the shelf right after I finished reading it. (Wrightson and Corben are there, next to Preacher, Watchmen and V for Vendetta among others) (Note to self: Make a blog entry about my Top Shelf).
Strongman is a graphic novel so complex at so many levels I would need more than 10 pages to go in depth into all of them aspects that make it a masterpiece.
This is not a superhero comic. It is a fantastic tribute to a fantastic character that rises above its creational purpose to become a symbol of a whole country and lifestyle. Because believe me when I say, my fellow Americans, that if we like our World Wrestling Federation and our wrestling matches, our neighbors south of the border have us beaten hands down on their devotion to their wrestlers (Luchadores).
This book uses as its central plot device a cultural phenomenon from Mexico that is not that well known among Americans, the culture of the luchadores, wrestlers. All throughout the 1960’s and 70’s this Mexican pop phenomena grew in popularity throughout the country and these wrestling icons took fame and popular exposure to a degree all-encompassing. From the ring they moved onto movies, onto animation series, onto action figures; their masks were used for costumes and sold in poplar stores. The main reason these characters were able to expand their fame and exposure in the Mexico of the 1970 is because although in the 1960’s these show started as localized events, (traveling shows) the introduction of TV and movies managed to catapult these heroes to amazing heights. Also, their plights were simple, and the masses usually respond to simplicity, no matter what country you are referring to. Good VS Evil… light Vs. dark… Handsome Vs. Monsters… and lets remove all ambiguity and depth from the confrontation. Another reason for their success is that Mexicans prefer their culture to foreign influences. The majority of the Mexican population will always prefer local heroes, local legends, local icons to those imported from the US neighbors. A friend of mine living in Mexico DF (capital) told me that even though most of south and central america speak Spanish, when soap operas are exported from other Latin-speaking countries into Mexico, the studios dub the soap into Mexican accents to ensure acceptance by the public.
It helped the fact that these wrestlers had very savvy marketing managers, who created elaborate stories behind the characters, some with soap opera connotations, and chose for the characters different totemic animals and archetypes. The most famous among them was El Santo, but there are many that warrant a special mention: El Mil Mascaras, El Ultimo Guerrero…
Well, if you want to catch up with the (thick) history of Mexican wrestling, you can start searching Google to your heart’s content. Enough to say that this comic deals with one such icon, a Mexican wrestler that now is down on his luck.
Unlike a DC or a Marvel superhero, the protagonist of this book lives as an icon, and tries to embody all the facets of an archetype, while struggling with all the implicit shortcomings that being a human being brings. Here is where Charles Soule stands out as one of the best comic book writers I’ve enjoyed in a very very long time. Charles Soule sets the right tone and the right tempo, using the right literary and comic devices to add the right amount of pathos, the perfect degree con conflict, the exact quantity of confrontation and puts everything in a bowl and mixes it with the right amount of Mexican Soap Opera to achieve this very enjoyable product. I realize anyone could write a tale about a clichéd hero, and the exploits to conquer evil, or defeat his nemesis. But here we are presented with the tale of the man behind the mask, and without ever removing that mask, we are made to care for this broken man. The degree of humanization of this archetype makes it stand out from the crowd of masked heroes.
The book is in black and white, and half-tones. Remember,this is a story about a hero from the 60’s and 70’s so Black&White is not only acceptable here: It is a perfect match, in the lines of cheap fummetti or low-brow pulp!
Allen Gladfelter’s art captivated me from the first panels.
This is a text-book example of how the dynamics between two artists contributing 100% of their skills to one project make said project stand out as a masterpiece!
The writer Charles Soule waves effortlessly between imagery of the Mexican wrestling genre, and social clichés, but does it with a strong sense of nostalgia, nitpicking all the precise elements that contribute a sense of pulp and 70’s cheesiness to the plot. Soule writes a contemporary book that is a strong homage to pulps and 1970’s comics.
Then Allen Gladfelter steps in.
Holy molley, what an artist! After we established that he is working with an amazing script, we get to lay back an count the ways in which Allen Gladfelter makes amazing art.
For example, the format of the pages is small, something like 8 1/2” by 5 1/2” or so. I know this was not the artists choice, but still, it falls on his plate to work with this constrains and make this format work. Allen Gladfelter manages to cram lots of panels onto each page, and still not make this small pages look cramped or confusing. His average is 7 panels but I’ve seen him do 5 panels and in some instances even 9 panels. I repeat, and can’t emphasize this enough: the amazing thing is that he manages to do this without cramming the page, and without making it look congested!!
Why do I stress this so much? Nowadays in the comics done by The Big Two, we constantly get these artist who can barely do two panels per page without inserting splash pages all the time. The easy way out. One illustration, boxes (or balloons) doing the narrative. These artists seem to forget the “Graphic” part in Graphic-Storytelling. Or they think that one splash page per page is enough. And last time I checked, they were not Berni Wrightson to impress me with detailed splashpages, much less to give me splashes every other page. They come across as boring Graphic-storytellers, and lazy professionals.
This is not the case of Allen Gladfelter. He reads the script, makes it his, and starts splashing in all the pages the flavor of paneling that used to be so common to yesteryear, where one page could contain 6, 7 or even 10 panels. He even keeps the gutter between the panels, something that Manga recently has shown us they have given up on doing, and in making it so, those manga artists cram the page to a degree that makes your eyeballs explode from looking at it.
Then there is the mastery that Allen Gladfelter displays on filling the panels. Not only does he know how to fill up a panel walking that fine line between giving us diverse points of views, but he also employs different thickness on his choice of inking pens with disconcerting ease. Such an ease that we almost don’t notice him using in every panel, switching from thick blacks back to hairline thin traces, and adding the half-tones in between as a balancing artifice. It works wonderfully.
Because when I mentioned half-tones Allen Gladfelter provides is a mastery of the use of half-tones and greys to a degree that I haven’t seen in US Comics in many many years. I would have to say that the last time I remember enjoying it this much was in the Warren magazines of the 1970’s, and maybe Bratpack, by Rick Veitch in 90’s.
What Allen did in this graphic novel is the reason why I love black and white comics so.
What the combo of Charles Soule and Allen Gladfelter do in this book is the reason why I admire comics as a graphic story telling medium without equal.
I was turning page after page and thinking to myself “I want to draw a graphic-novel like this someday”
You see? That is the difference between a Master artist, and a Master Comic book artist. The former could be Neal Adams, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, and a long list of etc. These artists mentioned here have amazing techniques and seeing a panel done by them makes you wonder how can anyone draw that good! The latter are a collection of masters such as Frank Miller (Up until 300) Milton Canniff, Alex Toth. Guys who may not be the most technically strongest, may not master all the styles possible, but when they start paneling a page, and composing a story, the reader gets transported to another world and ends up enamored of the tale, and forget they are reading a comic. They may even forget that they are reading word balloons around panels. They may forget that the images are static. That’s the power of a comic book Master, and after reading Allen Gladfelter, I just added this name to my list.
My regret is that it took me this long to discover this modern masterpiece. Then again, I don’t have a comp list from any of the big two, nor publishers are knocking on my door throwing me free issues to review. I go the old fashion way, buying my own, or relying on word-of-mouth to find titles.
I went to the website of http://www.slgcomic.com/ and found a nice collections of titles I would love to get my hands on. And I already compiled a list, and prioritized the items I am most interested in, so I hope I will get around them one of these days.
If I were a kid who is into wrestling I would be yelling “Ma! I want to be a luchador when I grow up!” But since I am not a kid into wrestling, I actually am a kid into comic, you can find me yelling “Ma! I want to write comics like Charles Soule and draw comics like Allen Gladfelter when I grow up!”
Rating this comic as an Independent , I am glad to give Strongman,
9.5 STARS out of 10
Great interview with Gladfelter at http://www.comicon.com/ubb/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=536960
PS. Wanted to extend my thanks to Charles Soule for exchanging info on Facebook and clarifying a few questions about his autographed copy of Strongman! Thanks Charles!