Tuesday, July 24, 2012

This Exists!: Carbon Knight

This Exists! is a semi-regular column about particularly strange, ridiculous, and/or obscure comicbooks I happen to have stumbled across. 

Carbon Knight was published by Lunar Studios, an independent company from Elysburg, PA that I can only assume was formed for the sole purpose of producing this book. Elysburg's biggest claim to fame is an amusement park that anyone who isn't from the region has never heard of and can't pronounce: Knobels. (No, the K is not silent). The story of Carbon Knight is set in the even-smaller Centralia, PA, and literally the only thing you need to know about that place is that it's had an unstoppable underground coal fire burning beneath it since the 60's. What I'm getting at is that this series is pretty Pennsylvania-centric, and I only even know about it because I happen to be from the area, and when I was young enough to be impressed by anyone at all who made comicbooks, I got to go to a tiny local convention and meet the creators and get signed copies of all three (at that time) issues. Something like a year later they put out a fourth and final oversized chapter, but I never tracked it down, because by then I took my comics slightly more seriously.
      And Carbon Knight is not to be taken at all seriously. Even as a child I managed to suss that out. Bulky 90's art, unnatural dialogue, illogical plot beats, and uninteresting ideas pile on top of each other to create a less-than-impressive whole. Throw in the locally-based historical fiction aspect of the story, and the undoubtedly low-volume printing and limited distribution considering the publisher, and the fact that the title had four whole issues and got to do a proper finale becomes sort of impressive. The creators clearly wanted it to be an ongoing series (see below), but ended up with a mini-series, which, I guess, is something. It's a shame, though, that I never sought a copy of issue #4, if only because now, more than fifteen years later, I am able to appreciate the series for the earnest if amateurish effort it was, and I genuinely wish I knew how the narrative wrapped up. I can pretty much guess, though, because it's a dry, simple, predictable story.

Fire Chief Kyle McKnight---who, if you couldn't tell from his last name, is the man who eventually becomes Carbon Knight---is maybe the most extreme version of the noble boyscout character I've ever seen. He will sacrifice life and limb to do the right thing and/or save another, he's a loving and capable husband and father, and he stands up to corruption and foul play wherever he finds it. And this is all before he becomes a superhero. 
Chris Ring, who writes and draws the entire first issue himself, does this kind of broad character work with everyone, and the addition of his (I assume) brother Brendan Ring to the creative team in Carbon Knight #2 doesn't ever add any notable depth to the cast. They are largely archetypal characters who say whatever they are thinking out loud in the plainest possible language, even if it means pointing out something weak about the plot.

And it is a flimsy plot at best. After McKnight's mysterious, clichéd supernatural accident while trying to stop the Centralia fire, he is transformed into a being with skin like coal, super strength, and, inexplicably, flight abilities which involve his legs creating fire. He then sleeps for thirty years, buried in a collapsed coal mine, until he is finally awoken and, through a string of ridiculous coincidences, ends up rescuing his now-grown police officer son Daniel from the same corrupt politician who had a hand in McKnight's original accident. The coincidences include things like McKnight deciding that, even though he knows it's not a good call, he'd rather take a late-night flight to clear his head than work with a scientific genius to figure out what the hell has happened to him.

While out, he's lucky enough to arrive at his son's capture just in time, which also happens to occur on that same night for no particular reason. This sort of happy accident isn't uncommon in even major superhero books, but in Carbon Knight it's kind of all there is. McKnight's grandchildren and daughter also wind up involved in the adventure in their own ways, all through dumb luck. And always, more than anything, through the most unnatural, expositional of dialogue.

Chris and Brendan were not shy about the long-term plans they had for the book. In the back of the very first issue, we get this never-explained teaser:

And Carbon Knight #3 has a whole sketchbook of "upcoming characters" who never got to have their stories told:

But while making plans for the future, the Rings never took the time to craft a sturdy opening arc, and so the only tale they ever got to tell ends up being a bust. There's no reason this character couldn't have been a fresh, locally-inspired take on superhero tropes. The foundational concepts for that kind of story are here. Yet instead of being original, Carbon Knight just feels irrelevant, too derivative of its predecessors in the medium and from too insignificant a company to ever have any hope of gaining a large enough following to keep it alive. Even as a ten- or eleven-year-old fledgling comicbook fan, not yet jaded by the industry or reading with anything resembling a critical eye, I wasn't excited enough by what I saw in these three issues to notice or care when a fourth was produced.
     Though here I am, more than fifteen years after first being underwhelmed by Carbon Knight, not just revisiting it but writing about it long-windedly. I wanted for it to be better than I remembered. I want to know what lessons the Ring boys learned from their failed attempt at self-starting a comics career, and if they're working in the medium in any way today. Even though I don't like the series, it interests me. Yes, a lot of that is its ties to my past and its connections to some of my earliest comic-related memories, but also...I admire the ambition if not the talent of the two young men who tried to write about their own characters in their own world on their own terms. They got ahead of themselves, it's true, making long-term promises they couldn't keep because they had not fully grasped the basics of solid storytelling. But they stuck their necks out and accomplished more than any number of similarly aspiring creators, and they made it into the formative reading years of at least one lifelong comicbook fan, so hey. Good on you, Chris and Brendan, wherever you are today.
     As a final thought, I've never seen worse hair in anything ever.

1 comment:

  1. I like your comments on this. The only thing I'd disagree with is Knoebels is well known nationally and internationally. Largest food free admission park in the states and holds the only wooden Flying Turns in existence.