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Superheroes have long been the life blood of the comic book industry. For almost seventy years, the brightly colored, spandex clad ubermensch with their black and white morality have stood for the best in humanity as well as the worst, starting with Superman in Action Comics #1 and deteriorating into the mainstream comics mess we find ourselves in today.
But superheroes have always been an integral part of the indy, art, and "proper mainstream" comics arenas, from the graphic literature of Chris Ware to the romantic comedies of Andi Watson, as well as countless other young upstarts and old masters. Many, if not all of today's creators were turned on to comics through superheroes, and there still exists an iconic nature to the heroes, and if not that then at least there is a certain nostalgia for a simpler time.
Project: Superior is a new anthology, the follow up to Project: Telstar, that features a plethora of indy creators doing superhero stories in whatever way they like. Given six pages and two colors (with some exceptions), the creators were seemingly told to cut loose on this pillar of the comics medium.
The first problem with this anthology is that the premise has been done many times before. Indy creators often riff on superheroes, most recently and successfully in Eightball #23 by Dan Clowes, and it hardly seems a year goes by without a new ironic/deconstructionist/nostalgic take on take on them. This isn't even the first alternative superhero anthology of the year, as DC's Bizzarro World, itself a sequel, came out very recently with a higher caliber of creators. Jeffrey Brown, who contributed a piece to the anthology, recently released his superhero book, Bighead as well as a few pages from an X-Men story he drew, and James Kochalka is beginning his series about a hero-team, Superf*ckers. For Project: Superior to succeed, it would have to be, to steal a phrase from one of the more popular superheroes, the best there is at what it does, and it simply isn't.
Many of the works in the anthology feel slight and lack substance. The ones that do, however, are the ones that shine. The book features strong work from Nick Abdazis, Mike Dawson, Paul Rivoche, R. Kikuo Johnson and Jamie Tanner, but the story that really stuck with me was James Jean's contribution, Superior. Before reading the book, I flipped through it and was struck by his artwork; it is one of the few that is in full color and it is gorgeous. After reading it, I was struck by the elegance of the telling of a truly frightening story. Drawn in pencils and mixing soft colors with stark halftones, the story addresses the silent crimes we all commit, often without realizing it, and the horror within everbody by multiplying them to superheroic levels. It is terrifying and heartbreaking and a major work from an up and coming creator. This story typifies the type of work I was expecting from Project: Superior, and was one of the few to truly deliver on these expectations. It seems that Pitzer knew this, as it is sort of the "title track" of the anthology, as well as the centerpiece and climax of the reading experience; everything after it felt limp.
Of course, superheroes aren't all doom and gloom, and an anthology of this sort is bound to have some good fun with such an inherently ridiculous idea. The aforementioned Jeffrey Brown, a creator mostly known for his autobiographical work, but mostly known to me as one of the most exciting and hilarious superhero creators around turns in a story titled Aw Shit, It's Cyloctopus!, which is surreal and quite a crack up. There is a cute little piece about a gift exchanging critter by Jay Ryan with Joe Meno, and Bryan Lee O'Malley's story is funny, warm, and pogniant. Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca seem to have the most fun with their contribution, Shock-a-Con, about a blaxploitation, Luke Cage type vigilante. The drawing of lesbians dancing on him while he's tied to a chair is the funniest thing in the book.
The biggest disappointment is the lack of a Paul Hornshemeier story. Billed as one of the contributors to the anthology, he only draws the cover and end-pages, and as good as they are, he was one of the more interesting creators advertised, and it's a shame not to have an actual story from him. Jim Mahfood, whose work I usually enjoy, has a painfully unfunny six pages about how he doesn't want to draw six pages for an anthology. It looks great, but is otherwise awful. And a Spanish artist Fermin Solis draws a whole lot like Andi Watson, and the visual punch-line for his story is uncomfortably close to something from Watson's Love Fights. The rest of the stories are good, some better than others, but nothing truly memorable.
Project Superior is, as anthologies go, a very mixed bag, although perhaps moreso than most. Of the creators that were new to me, only a few impressed, although the ones I did recognize excited me. Ultimately, it seems that Chris Pitzer could have done a better job editing the book. Even though many of the themes and stories overlap, too many in fact, there still lacks a single vision linking these stories other than superheroics. While that may be the point, it left me wanting more from bits I enjoyed and regretting reading the soggier entries, rather than appreciating the entire anthology as a complete, successful unit. The name, Project Superior, aside from being a subtle hint at the copyrighted term "super-hero" and the title of its strongest piece, implies that it is better than something, in the same way that superheroes are better than you and me. But without explaining what, exactly, this project is superior to, it becomes relative, and ultimately, the quality of this anthology is relative to which piece you happen to be reading when asked. As a whole, it is underwhelming but interesting.