Forty-Five graphic novel review
Michael gets his hands on Andi Ewington's Forty-Five and finds that it's offering something just a little bit different...
It’s easy to mumble and grumble about superhero comics: endless reboots, reinventions and wallet-draining events, seemingly tailored to maintain a semblance of a status quo and to not provide something truly different. Some readers have to look to the independent or creator-owned sectors for innovation, but even there it is hard for some properties to stand out.
With its bold premise and off-the-wall concept, not to mention an impressive list of contributors (including artistic powerhouses Jock, Lee Garbett and Sean Phillips), Andi Ewington’s Forty-Five makes an intriguing first impression.
Facing the birth of his first child, journalist and soon-to-be-dad James Stanley ruminates over what the world will bring for his son or daughter. This being a society brimming with superheroes, some exhibiting their powers from birth, Stanley is particularly anxious about fathering his own super-spawn. To quell his worries, he engages in an ambitious project to interview dozens of heroes, families and fans, in order to find out if it is possible for these people to live a ‘normal’ life.
In the process, Ewington recalls graphic novel titans such as Watchmen and Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels, in an attempted representation of super-powered characters in a ‘real world’ context, bounded by more true-to-life socio-political structures, psychological backgrounds and familial relationships. More tangibly, Stanley’s interviewees fill various demographic criteria, are sorted by age, from birth to death, and represent differing pressures and lifestyle choices that these super-beings have to face.
This approach can feel a little tokenistic and unsubtle at times, with gay couples, working mums and long-lost fathers, but there is a welcome warmth to Forty-Five that is quite endearing. Some of the characters do stick, particularly an Iron Man-esque sell out called Roll Cage, whose high-powered suit and crime-fighting career is bankrolled by a transmedia circus, encompassing books, merchandise and a kids’ television show.
Writing in a purely dialogue-based interview style is an unforgiving task – even actual interview articles with interesting subjects can be a slog to read – so Ewington has his work cut out for him. Not only is he tasked with crafting just shy of four dozen distinctive characters, but they have to be defined by voice and narrated through purely expository speech. All the strings are on full view at all times.
This is especially the case as Ewington deviates from the book’s stronger themes in favour of highlighting XoDOS, a shady organisation that enlist and exploit heroes the world over in order to further an agenda of conspiracy and domination.
Not only does this development sit uncomfortably within Stanley’s supposed project – to get to the heart of super-hero experience – but it inflates Forty-Five, turning something personal, charming and in its own way socially realistic, into something a little more pompous and overworked.
This subplot soon becomes the main narrative drive, as Stanley meets incognito ex-operatives in bars, and experiences a XoDOS-enacted hit on the immortal SkyLine. This is all narrated in bold text and jagged dialogue, the least-suited style imaginable.
Forty-Five takes the atomic aspects of the comics form, namely, the creative marriage of words and pictures, and splits them apart. A typical double spread is rigidly defined, with slabs of prose and often gorgeous splash page artwork segregated by the Maginot Line of the central gutter. One would think this almost defeats the purpose of sequential art, but in a smart move from Ewington and editor Eddie Deighton, each interview is accompanied by an illustration from a different artist, building up an impressive and diverse roll call of talent from across the industry.
Indeed, the book’s most immediate strength is as an interpretive art project, with the artists bouncing off the text as they see fit. Some work more traditionally, providing a straightforward comics page that narrates parallel to the interview, while others opt for atmospheric mood pieces, sumptuous character sketches, or artwork that is a little more ambitious. It’s a treasure trove of styles and approaches.
At their best, they expand the text’s restricted perspective, with particular stand-outs including evocative images from Dom Reardon, depicting the terminally ill StateSide in hazy green tones, and Seb Antoniou, whose illustration for Jim Maloney has a homely texture, as the man is dwarfed by his superhero memorabilia collection.
By contrast, the twinned image for BlueSpear, by Calum Alexander Watt, is bright and manga-influenced, and pursues a different angle, reflecting the interview with Akira Tomikawa, brother of the hero, with a progression of snapshots linked by sound that build up a short, touching narrative of estrangement.
However, while Forty-Five is an affirmation of the avenues of expression to be found in comic art, it also highlights how these pieces are, in some integral ways, anchored to the text.
Unfortunately, the word-y side of the equation seems stretched and uncertain. As character ideas and world-building – potential pitches for further series down the line – this is all serviceable, but there’s the feeling that Forty-Five could have been a much tighter, consistent read as a Twenty, or even a Fifteen, with a sharper focus and maybe a bit of textual variation to match its artistic scope.
As a community art project, however, Forty-Five is undeniably beautiful.
45 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek store.