Personal Issues 4 – Oh Shit
Wow, it has been a while. Sorry about the last two weeks when I should have posted a Personal Issues. The first one I missed there were site issues I had to deal with. The second week I missed has a reason that segues nicely into an intro paragraph for this week, because by God there will be one this week.
Anyway, I read a lot of comics. If I’m not reading 80% of the new comics that come out in a week I feel unfulfilled. There are multiple reasons that I give to rationalize this mild obsession I have, like it’s kind of my job. The one reason that I do seem to find the most true, however, is that I am just looking for something great. Something I can rave about on the podcast, something I can recommend to someone who wants to get into comics, something that will introduce me to a new writer or artist I had never heard of before. But because of this quest I occasionally stumble upon garbage. Something where the art is horrendous almost constantly, the writing is bleh, and the characters are developed to just below the level where I give a shit. That shitstorm of a type of comic is not what we will be talking about this week, however. That would’ve been last week had I wrote about Grimm Fairy Tales. This week I’m talking about a comic that for me, at least, falls into the former category. It’s a fantastic book. It’s The Strange Talent of Luther Strode.
Luther Strode is a six issue miniseries from 2011. It’s written by Justin Jordan, drawn by Tradd Moore, colored by Felipe Sobreiro, and published by Image. That’s probably what drew my interest to this series in the first place. I am a huge fan of modern Image Comics. They drew some much deserved heat back in the 90’s for producing some prime examples of that era of comic books. That’s not a good thing. A lot of comics in the 90’s had really bad art and stupid superheroes. But after the 90’s Image started to produce better and better material. With titles like Chew, Elephantmen, Hack/Slash, and Saga, Image quickly became my favorite publisher. Even if this series didn’t have the Image logo in the corner I still would’ve picked it up for the cover of the first issue. It’s just Luther standing there, but he has on that awesome bandage mask and is dripping in blood. That immediately got my attention. So, let’s take a look at what I found behind that cover, as well as every subsequent cover, and dig into Luther Strode.
The hero of this book is, strangely enough, Luther Strode, a kid who looks like Kick-Ass when he’s not wearing the costume if he was stretched out like Silly Putty. Luther is the typical kind of nerd. He’s smart, reads comics, plays video games, has a crush on a girl that he never has the courage to ask out, and has a bully who literally has nothing better to do than wear a sports jacket and pick on Luther. It’s actually kind of sad, really. One day, in an attempt to change himself, he orders a bodybuilding plan from the back of a comic book. It arrives and he starts doing the program. Oddly enough, it actually works. He builds an insane amount of muscle mass in a really short amount of time and gets many other nifty tricks, like having some level of precognition and being able to see everyone else’s musculature. A bit weird but still pretty cool.
But something wicked is coming for him in the form of a buff, British librarian. As a character the Librarian is alright but kind of meh, for me. But as a plot device he is great. Every other scene with him reveals some new plot detail, either about the Hercules Method or the world the comic takes place in, and it helps the give universe some life to it. When he talks about the history of the Method, you get the sense of awesome that this thing has. It has been around since the beginning of man, according to him, and while we get some idea of its origin through the art, we don’t get that much. That is one of the biggest strengths of this series. We are given just enough to be really interested in what’s happening and nothing else. There is one scene in the first issue where the Librarian is talking to what I’m guessing is the High Council of the Method or something. We have no idea who any of these people are or why they are wrapped up like mummies and chained to walls. But because we have no idea, it made me want to keep reading in the hopes of figuring out who these people are and what they did. I didn’t learn who they were, but that’s totally fine. A little ambiguity goes a long way sometimes, and this is definitely one of those times.
So now let’s talk about Luther. He is actually one of my favorite protagonists now for one simple reason: He’s a good guy. I don’t mean like superhero good guy, I mean like person good guy. He’s nice and doesn’t want to hurt anybody. Not even Jacobson, the bully who has been torturing him for years. When he first gets the Hercules Method, Pete is talking about how awesome it will be for Luther to beat the fuck out of Jacobson. Speaking as someone who was bullied I can attest to that. But Luther isn’t doing this for vengeance. Any time he does attack someone it’s either in self-defense, defense of someone else, or the powers take over. He ordered the Method because he wanted something to change. On top of the bully, his father was abusive to his mother and he couldn’t do anything to help, so I’m guessing that’s a factor in all of this.
Even if Luther is a good guy, with most stories like this when someone gets powers they usually abuse them first, make a terrible mistake that leads to someone they love getting hurt, and then use the guilt from that mistake to drive them to be heroes. Luther doesn’t have that arc. He starts out as a good guy who’s very wimpy and looks like a strong breeze would blow him over and when he gets the powers he’s a good guy who can bench press a car and knows 18 different ways to kill you with one of your own teeth. It’s a nice consistency to the character that I really appreciate.
But, he isn’t one of my favorites just because he isn’t a total dick waffle with his powers. He’s one of my favorites because he has probably the best superhero costume I have ever seen. Also, he doesn’t even want to become a superhero. Pete, once again, nags him into it because that’s what Pete does. He eventually gives in and suits up. He puts on some dark pants, a black hoodie, and really cool looking bandage mask. That’s it. No garish colors, no symbol on his chest. Just stuff you could find at a second hand store. And it looks great. I am a huge fan of simple designs, and you couldn’t get much more simple than this. That’s what makes it work, though. Every other superhero gets sewing as one of their abilities and makes these really elaborate costumes, which are totally fine. I’m not knocking superhero costumes. But this one is just so simple and it looks way cooler because of it.
With Luther out of the way, let’s move on to the side characters, starting with Pete. You ever have one of those friends who’s ungodly annoying but you still hang out with them because they are still good people? That’s Pete in a nutshell. He’s a nice guy and I can see why Luther hangs out with him. But at times he can just be really annoying. I can’t pick out any specific moments, though. There’s just something about the dialogue given to him and the way his face looks in some scenes that really bug me.
Like I said above, Pete is why Luther dons his awesome costume and takes to the streets as a superhero. He is a bigger geek than Luther is, taking all of the comic shit he reads why too seriously. When he gives Luther his costume, we actually see a fantasy of his with Luther in traditional superhero garb fighting off a horde of ninjas. He even quotes directly from comics, saying that “criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot.” While he can be annoying, you can tell that Pete is a good guy and would probably be a really good friend if you are geek, which I’m assuming you are if you’re coming to this site.
Next up, Petra. She is Luther’s love interest and my favorite side character. She is awesome. She’s a snarky punk rock looking chick with a thing for geeks and no fear. With a group of hardened criminals surrounding her with knives and guns, she just laughs and kicks one of them in the nards. God, I love her. We don’t really get much character development from her because it is mainly focused on Luther. We do learn that she lives in an abusive home and that is probably why she is the way she is, but other than that I didn’t see much. What I did see I really liked. I do have a soft spot for punk chicks with sass, and Petra is definitely one I would like to meet.
Now Luther’s mom, Mrs. Strode. Again, not much in terms of development because pretty much everything we need to know about her character is right there in front of us. Mrs. Strode was beaten frequently by her husband. At the time of the series he has been taken away and has no idea where she and Luther are, but she is still scared that he will find them so she stays locked up at home. But I do like her. From what I did see of her she seemed like a great mother. Not really much else to say on her. Moving on.
Jacobson, the bully, is the most underdeveloped character in the entire book. His entire life seems to revolve around beating up Luther and sometime Pete. I’m fucking serious. There is one scene of him at home working out after getting the shit beat out of him by Luther, and all it shows is him saying “Fuck,” but muffled because his jaw was wired shut so it’s actually “Fug,” and thinking about beating up Luther. That’s it. I said that it was actually kind of sad, and it really is. If the point of your existence is picking on one nerd and his friend, after school is done your life has no purpose. I guess what the Librarian did to him could be seen as an act of mercy.
Speaking of the Librarian, I mentioned it earlier but I am kind of lukewarm about him. Don’t get me wrong, he has some really great scenes, like with the Jacobson family, but he feels less like the arch-nemesis that Pete labelled him as and more of a plot device. He is there to flesh out the world this comic is set in and drive Luther to where he ends up. He doesn’t have any grand plans to take over the world, or even the city. He is just there to turn Luther into what he is at the end. He’s not a bad character, I just thought that maybe more could’ve been done with him.
With the character’s out of the way, let’s talk about the Method itself. The way someone comes to possess the powers and what the powers do to them seem to be at odds with each other. As the comic says, “The key to the Hercules Method is to focus your mind, body, and spirit towards one goal. By bringing all three into alignment, the physical enthusiast can bring all of them under conscious control. Such control is the key to change. Extraordinary change.” From that description and what I see in the comic, the Method is all about control and concentration. Meditating may look simple, but it takes a lot of time and concentration to get it right. So with all of this control-centric training, why are the powers and everyone who has the powers fucking kill crazy? The Librarian, the chained up mummy guys, even Luther at points go fucking bananas and kill everything in their path. Why does a pretty peaceful exercise regiment result in bloodlust? The book does explain where the powers come from, and while I won’t spoil it, I will say that I love it for the same reason I love Luther’s costume. It’s just so simple.
Now to finish things off, I’m going to talk about my three biggest complaints with the series: The writing at points, the art at points, and the couple of very sudden tonal shifts. The first two of these, as a whole are really, well done. Justin Jordan is a good writer who can mix the bloody action and the sarcastic humor of this comic really well and Tradd Moore does some really great, kind of cartoony art that gets across the viciousness of some scenes but still makes look kind of funny with the Dead Alive/Evil Dead levels blood that are shown. But both of them do a couple of things that I do not like.
For Jordan, it’s the overuse of jokes. A running line in the series is “Oh shit.” In a couple of issues, multiple characters rattle off that line in quick succession with various contexts on it. For the first few times it was pretty funny. But after a while it just got kind of grating. Nobody can think of anything else to say except “Oh shit”? A lot of the humor also comes from the sarcastic banter between Luther and his friends. It makes sense they would be this sarcastic, what with them being teenagers and all, but they are all the same kind of sarcastic. In some scenes you could swap their dialogue around and it wouldn’t make much of a difference in the conversation. It would have been nice if they had different levels of sarcasm or if one of them wasn’t sarcastic at all.
Jordan also puts a ton of emphasis on the word “talent.” Every time it is used it is preceded by an ellipsis and is usually in bold lettering. It’s like those really obvious title drops in movies that make you groan at how obvious it is. Only it’s done three or four times. It comes across to me as really awkward in conversation and feels really forced.
For Moore, it’s mostly lines. Every once in a while a character will have a bizarre amount of lines on their face. I have no idea why. Are they age lines? Are they supposed to be shadows? What the hell are they? However, this is a very small complaint. The art is still really great and a fantastic fit for the series. It’s just a very small pet peeve of mine that bugs me whenever I see it.
Finally, there are points in the story where the tone just shifts from the usual of pretty bloody yet pretty funny to something entirely different. The first one comes at the end of the first issue. Luther and Pete are confronted by Jacobson and his cronies. Jacobson insults Petra, so Luther breaks his fucking jaw. The next four panels are Pete and the cronies looking horrified and saying “Oh shit” with the last panel being Luther looking down at his fist dripping the blood of his enemy. Luther has this insane look on his face like he enjoyed what he just did way too much. But then in the next issue he is saying how he shouldn’t have done it because of how it made people look at him. That fits into his character. The other part did not.
The next bit comes in issue five. The friends of a drug dealer that Luther put in the hospital take Petra hostage to use her as bait. Luther shows up and fighting happens. Yeah it was kind of dark a little earlier, but Petra kept the same attitude and when Luther busts in he’s still talking with a bit of levity. Then they shoot him and shit changes instantly. The art on Luther’s face gets way more intense and as he is tearing these guys apart, Petra has this look of terror on her face and passes out at the sight of what Luther had done. From there on it’s just dark. Jordan put a letter at the back of issue five explaining why the violence was so intense in this issue, and while I do understand it from a writer’s standpoint he could have done a better job easing into it instead of just going from kind of goofy looking violence to “Holy fuck, this shit is insane” violence.
These three things are my biggest problems with the series, but in the grand scheme of things they are small. The book is still fantastic. The artwork fits the writing really well, and the writing is still solid for most of the book. Luther is a completely likable character to me, the supporting cast could have been fleshed out more but what we did get from the was still pretty good, and the reveals the book makes about its world are ambiguous enough to be really intriguing but still tell you enough so that you aren’t totally lost. If you have the chance to get this book, I highly recommend you do so. And better do it soon. The follow-up to this book, The Legend of Luther Strode, drops next week. I am so excited for it.