Comics review: Adventureman by Fraction / Dodson / Dodson / Cowles

(cover image courtesy Image Comics)

If you’re going to go on adventure from the comfort of your own home, and let’s face it, necessity has made this the only real option in a time of pandemic, then the only way to really make it worth your while is to plunge into the steampunk-esque, Art Deco brilliance of Adventureman, an Image Comics publication from writer Matt Fraction (Hawkeye) and artists Terry and Rachel Dodson (Uncanny X-Men) which whisks you on a gloriously invigorating deep dive into that fetching place where the real world and fantasy meet to life-changing effect.

A project a long time in the making, with Matt Fraction noting that his earliest file relating to the character of Adventureman dates from 2009 – each comic comes with a fascinating post-final panel musing on real and fantastical events that is well worth any reader’s time – this comic book series begins with the dashing tales of Adventureman and the brave team at Adventure Inc. including Phaedra Phantom (Ghostly Saint of the Burlesque), Lonnie Langlois (Brawler of the Bowery!), Akaal (The Timeless One), Chagall (Superpharmacologist Science Witch) and Jim Royale (The Gentleman) who spend their days fighting the insidious evil of Baroness Bizarre (The Devil’s Own Daughter) and her team of nefarious nasties from the Ultravoid, among whose number dwells the bombastic evil of the Abbathexiddion.

It is action on a grand and epic scale, saturated with the breathless adventurism of 1950s cinema serials and over the top pulp comic sensibilities, all of them coming together to narratively beguiling effect.

Escapism is the name of the game in a world which appears quite normal on the surface, at least at first, with secondhand bookstore owning Claire Connell, an ex-policewoman with hearing loss, having her hands full with her prodigious ten-year-old son Tommy who is none too pleased to discover that the Adventureman stories he and his mum have been reading together don’t come to an expected, definitively conclusive end.

After all, as he says to his mum, with a mix of screamy outrage and petulant sadness:

“But you always say ‘Everything will be okay in the end, everything will be okay in the end’ and okay but — but — but everything is very much not okay in the end of that story and so that must mean that it’s not the end because it’s not okay and so I was wondering –‘”

(image courtesy Image Comics)

To shut her loud and exuberantly inquisitive son up, Claire simply says “It was the end of his adventures; not ours”, a hopeful throwaway line that is best to reassure and quieten Tommy enough that Claire can get some peaceful reading time in at the end of a long day.

But as is the way of fateful things said in passing in adventure-laden stories, this phrase soon comes to haunt Claire who is convinced she is destined to live a quiet, uneventful life, the kind which does not lend itself to the kind of larger-than-life than everyone in her polyglot family of seven diverse adopted woman are obliged to share at their weekly Friday night shabbat dinners.

Hers is a family of high achieving brilliance with sisters Rita (a heroic medical worker), Ursula (groundbreakingly innovative engineer), Sera (military hero), Evie (nurturing cook), Bitsy (a one-woman library of Alexandria) and Regina (lie piercing lawyer extraordinaire) and her loving father all seemingly endless founts of breathtaking capability and fulfilment.

What can she possibly offer to counter that?

Quite a bit as it turns out with Claire turning out to have far more fantastical pedigree that she could possibly imagined, the kind that always pops up when protagonists least expect it but need it most, and which transform their lives in such profoundly seismic ways that things can never be the same thing.

Quite what that persona and resultant destiny is is best left to the spoiler-heavy reading, which has brilliantly conceived and executed twists and turns, the kind that have you perched precariously and happily on the edge of your seat, quite literally much of the time, but suffice to say, Claire suddenly has lots of stuff she can talk about at family dinners.

(image courtesy Image Comics)

The sheer stunning brilliance of Adventureman is the way in which Fraction and the Dodsons marry their writing and art together so utterly seamlessly.

You would think this is the sort of thing that any comic book series should be able to manage with aplomb but that that’s not always the case, with the lack of marriage between words and drawings quite marked, detracting from overall enjoyment of the story at hand.

No such issues exist with Adventureman which feels one gloriously realised whole, a coming together of long gestating ideas that owe much to classic adventure storytelling while still being very much an thrillingly exciting creation of their own, and artwork that feel like art deco splendours sprung vividly and arrestingly to life.

You feel as if you are living Claire’s wholly unexpected adventures right along with her, the art so fearlessly and vibrantly alive that there are many moments when you could step right into the panels with the characters who are, without exception, compellingly alive with a heady mix of cartoon exuberance and grounded, emotionally resonant humanity.

That is a rare feat indeed, imbuing Adventureman with a depth of character and emotional accessibility that elevates it above many other titles which give you plenty of narrative boom and bang while forgoing the very humanity that would make them truly memorable.

Adventureman has action and heart, a rare combination that gives you all the escapist thrills and spills you could want but with sage lessons about humanity including the idea, in the words of Tommy, that:

“… it isn’t magic, or punching, or cooler machines that save the day. Or at least this particular day. It’s that the good guys like each other. They’re all, y’know, best friends.”

And, dear fellow readers, is that makes Adventureman such a pleasingly rewarding read – lots happens, and it’s all immersively, wonderfully good to experience, but it all happens against the background of people who love and care for each other, and don’t forget how important that is, making this the most emotionally rich adventure you could ever hope to have and the kind that stamps your life as someone well and truly worth living.

(image courtesy Image Comics)

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