BEFORE THERE WAS WATCHMEN, there was SUPERFOLKS.BEFORE THE INCREDIBLES, there was SUPERFOLKS.BEFORE DICK CHENEY, there was SUPERFOLKS.Introduction
I’d been writing comics for money for more than ten years when I first heard about this mythical, inspirational ‘Superfolks’ book but none of the local stores knew what I was talking about when I went looking for the damned, elusive thing. In the end, someone finally palmed me a battered US paperback edition, with a cover painting of a morose, chubby man in spandex. There he was, slumped by a miserable yellow table light, as if all wonder, all hope and joy had been leached from his useless life. It didn’t look like much but I’d heard good things and the idea of a prose writer tackling superhero comic ‘themes’ in a semi-serious manner was enough of a novelty for me to give it a go.
Behind the unpromising pulp facade, I was happy to uncover some of the aboriginal roots nourishing the 80s ‘adult’ superhero comic boom. I’ve always enjoyed tracking the developing fashions and styles of comic book writing and art across our branching tree of influences and progenitors, and in ‘Superfolks’ I’d found a barely-acknowledged contribution to the vivid and explosive evolution of the ‘mature’ superhero story which characterised the 80s and 90s. Here too, by extension, can be found one of the throbbing taproots of the latest vogue for black-humoured, violent and controversial cape dramas. In his bittersweet portrayal of the middle-aged Captain Mantra, with that half-remembered magic word always hovering somewhere on the tip of his tongue, I could see that Mayer had prefigured the era of so-called ‘deconstructionist’ superheroes, which in turn spawned many of the medium’s most memorable and ambitious works. In the conspiracy themes, complex, twisting plotlines, 5th dimensional science, thrilling set pieces and reverses of ‘Superfolks', we can almost sniff the soil that grew so many of our favourite comics in the 80s, 90s and beyond. In its wicked humour, we hear the ironic sneer of a whole new generation of comic book writers and their successors. Historians of the funnies will find in ‘Superfolks' a treasure trove of tropes. Everyone else gets a good laugh and a good story as Mayer takes us to a wonky Earth-Nil parallel universe of downtrodden urban supermen and clapped-out cartoons. Back in the day when comic book heroes were mostly still innocent of the ravages of time and cynicism, these fallen, fallible men and women of clay must have seemed monstrous parodies. Now they’d fit right in with the locals in any comic book universe. These days no-one would be know how to tell the joke from the real thing.
With much to recommend it to scholar and casual reader alike, it’s way past time ‘Superfolks' had a chance to shine for a wider audience. As super-superheroes replace cowboys, detectives and spacemen on our screens, in our hearts, our minds and imaginations, there’s always room for a note of caution, humanity and mocking laughter in the dark. This is a daft and beautiful little jewel of a book and should be savoured like silly wine. It would, in fact, make a very good film, Hollywood-san.
Oh, and Mister Mayer, you really should be writing some comics yourself. Our heroes have finally caught up with you. I think they can handle it.
Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Superfolks' by Robert Mayer…
Glasgow Aug 2004