Monday, August 10, 2009

Johnny monster 1-3

"Johnny Monster" was a creator-owned mini-series, written by Joshua Williamson, pencilled and inked by J.C.Grande, and published by Image comics' Shadowline imprint. Edited by the company's founder Jim Valentino, the line concentrates on black and white genre offerings by the up-coming creators, with "Sam noir" and "After the cape" being the highlights so far. Deciding to publish "Johnny Monster" in color, Image seemed set to give those titles a commercial successor.

On the face of it, "Johnny Monster" is a high concept book, marrying the monster movies iconography with the format of a Marvel superhero comic. It's easy to see why Image decided on allowing the creators to expend on their initial pitch, presumably consisting of the whole of the first issue. Within the space of a regular comic book, the creators have managed to introduce the entire cast, while getting the premise across, going so far as to establish the plot of the entire opening arc. Well-served by fast-pacing, Williamson and Grande use the simple, yet carefully chosen characters to get across the exposition in order to introduce their take on familiar pop-culture phenomenons.  

In a nutshell, the basic idea is that Johnny is a monster-hunter, who secretly lives with the huge creatures underground, protecting them from some of his more brutal colleagues. Despite the all-around absurdity around him, he is an idealistic, if somewhat naive, young protagonist in the typical Marvel fashion. This explains why Image got behind the project, deciding to further integrate the hero into their mainstream superhero universe.

Thus it was, that starting with the second issue, boasting the cover announcing a team-up with the Firebreather, that the company started trying their best to convince the readers that "Johnny Monster" justifies their need for fun, offbeat superhero comics. At their most commercial, they went so far as to tie the concept with "the Invincible", Robert Kirkman's best-selling answer to Spider-Man. 

Surprisingly, the approach worked, with the book losing nothing by having it's framework be rearranged to accommodate the Image universe power players. With the exception of the monsters suddenly claiming Firebreather's father as their king, it's as if the creators purposefully devoted all of the first issue to spotlighting the title character, before allowing the broader superhero universe elements to sink in.

All these external decisions did not stop the series from telling it's own story. The third issue is, thus, even more of a return to the plot-heavy style, tying up all of the series most immediate story threads in a fair and well-executed way. Thankfully, Johnny never becomes sidelined by the extensive cast, and his role as the protagonist is even more cemented in the conclusion. The supporting players, on the other hand, all end up with a concrete role, with each of the distinctive characters having their own character arc, and a clear place in the plot, no matter how small.

Likewise, the story introduces the concept in a very visual way. Dealing front and center with the idea of the secret identity, it is at a core a dilemma whether the hero will embrace the way of his biological cousins, or stay with his monstrous adopted family. By the end, the many action scenes actually add up to Johnny making a choice that will seemingly alter his life forever. He actually states his goals very matter of factly on the last page, but the possibility of readers seeing more of his adventures is perhaps a little more unclear.

The cover for the final issue makes it very clear what the creators want the concept to become, crossing over Silver Age sensibilities with the monster movie-inspired comics that preceded them. Updating these kind of ideas for a presumably teenage audience, even with Image's support, is no easy feat in today's market. 

Several decades ago, and with a much larger audience, Marvel could afford to spend years developing a bi-monthly magazine, until it developed a more concrete identity. Today, the writers and artists seemingly have to work it all out in advance, without the advent of trying out a slew of villains and locale changes, until they find the sub-genre and the thematic backdrop that fits the basic idea behind the concept.

With "Johnny Monster", Williamson and Grande have clearly spent a lot of effort in making their mark a fully developed series right from the start. Yet, a lot of it is unnecessary exposition, along with the art that tries its best at giving a lot of definition to the images. The unfortunate bluntness of the approach is not softened up by the bland character designs, that, although distinct from one another, retain a generic cartoon TV series look. Even the names of the characters are too obvious, in a not very ironic way, giving the whole project a rather clunky feel.

Where it should have gone with the charm and subtlety, to take the edge of all the rushed Godzilla-like figures, the dialogue goes for obvious one-liners that call too much attention to themselves. The campy trappings should have been the gimmick to entice the readers in a story that is original on several more interesting levels, but none of this is really to be found in "Johnny Monster". As it stands, the title has all the characteristics of a projects developed in multiple media by a corporate entertainment company, despite being the work of a couple of creators, developing their own idea, without the need to confirm to the sponsors' expectations. Such as it is, the book may have little chance of attracting that kind of multi-platform development on it's own, being published with little marketing, in the medium long abandoned by it's younger readers. 

Even if the ultimate goal was getting the major superhero publishers to hire it's authors as the talent for developing their long existing properties, it's doubtful whether this was the right approach. Despite all of the book's storytelling proficiency, "Johnny Monster" never becomes the slick and original idea that Williamson and Grande so obviously wanted it to become. If they ever get a chance to continue with the concept, much more care should be devoted to making it a distinctive and engrossing read beyond the level of presenting an interesting adventure story, and telling it in a clear way.

Until then, the character will likely be relegated to background scenes in the company's core superhero titles, along with "Astounding Wolfman" and "Brit", new characters that even Image partner Robert Kirkman couldn't find an audience for.

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