Monday, October 7, 2013

Reality Check #1 vs. Reality Check #2

The first issue of Reality Check wasn't an amazing comicbook, but I liked it enough to look forward to the second. The debut had a few really good jokes, a pathetic yet sympathetic lead character, and an art style that meshed well with the writing to create an entertaining whole. So when I read Reality Check #2 and hated it from start to finish, I began to wonder if maybe I was misremembering issue #1 or if I had given it too much credit or something. So I waited a couple days and then reread both issues back-to-back, and my opinions of each remain. The first one is a fun read with definite potential, and the second is an obnoxious waste of time.
     I actually wrote a short review of the debut last month, but I'll recap it here nonetheless for the sake of comparing it to what followed. The narrator is Willard Penn, a lonely, broke, socially awkward comicbook creator. The great defining moment of his life is his brother Timmy's death during college, which is what pushed Willard to devote himself entirely to his comics. He has no friends, and is extremely juvenile when it comes to his attitudes toward and interactions with women. He views them sexually, but not in an actively degrading way, more with an I'm-not-worthy awe at their beauty. Even so, it's inappropriate and immature, but the first issue isn't trying to present it as anything better. He's innocent enough to be a character I like, but Willard is upfront about his many insecurities, neuroses, problems, and failures. He's not trying to better himself in these areas, because he only cares about one thing, and that's making comics. I can get behind that, and the little bit of Willard's newest project, Dark Hour, that we're shown within the first issue of Reality Check is good enough for me to be happy when he sells it to a publisher. The best jokes are all in Dark Hour or Willard's descriptions of it. He may not be the greatest guy in the world, but at least he's got some talent as an artist and writer.
     And Willard is honest enough with himself to have some of his own lack of romantic ability spill over into his hero. Dark Hour the character gets dumped in both his superhero and secret identity personas in the same night, because splitting his time as both men has left him too busy to pay attention to either woman. Demonica, basically Catwoman to Dark Hour's Batman (or Black Cat to his Spider-Man, based on her costume), is the best character in either Willard or Dark Hour's world, and the fact that she isn't in issue #2 at all is the first tiny thing I'll point too as far as what makes the first issue better. Anyway, Dark Hour the comicbook is basically classic-superhero-meets-classic-romantic-comedy, not the first time that mash-up has been done, but an example of it being done right, at least for the few pages we see. Again, nothing set up here is boiling my eyeballs with awesomeness, but there's promise coming from everyone, and the final page has Dark Hour the man show up in Willard's apartment, somehow having escaped his creator's mind into the real world. That's certainly a hook, and I was excited to see how these two communicated with one another.
     Then Reality Check #2 arrived, and it showed me that Dark Hour and Willard can't communicate, because Dark Hour has such an arrogant, forceful, grating personality that it's impossible for Willard to say or do anything counter to his new friend's wants. The whole issue is Dark Hour railroading Willard into helping him pick up women. The reason Dark Hour escaped Willard's brain at all is that he was so mad about losing both of his girlfriends in the same night that he decided to take it up with his creator. How he accomplished that isn't explained yet, but that's his motivation for escaping the comic-within-the-comic and entering Willard's reality. And he's so bullheaded about it, way more aggressive and baselessly cocky than Willard, who basically tried to stay hidden from the women he was attracted to. Dark Hour inserts himself into a high speed police chase because the criminal is good-looking, and tries to set up a date with her as she's being loaded into a squad car. It's an uncomfortable scene, because Dark Hour uses dangerously excessive force to catch her, and she seems to be mutually attracted to him anyway, none of which makes sense. Also he gets away with it because Willard gives the police a really flimsy lie about the whole thing being for a movie (not the crime itself, just Dark Hour's involvement) which he explains hand-wavingly after the fact, and is a difficult detail to swallow.
     Dark Hour also says annoying shit like, "babage" (as in "babe-age", but spelled in a weird way that makes me want to mispronounce it) and, "You need to show a little respect to the man that holds the key to the honey tree," a line Willard even points out as stiff and awful. Dark Hour is just a loudmouth jerk who has no concern for how he's uprooting, invading, and generally ruining Willard's life and career just so he can get laid without having to wait until Dark Hour #5 (which is when Willard says he would have most likely introduced a new romantic interest for his protagonist). He's got all of Willard's immaturity and none of his self-awareness, making him a far less welcome presence in this story.
     There are other things about Reality Check #2 that bug me. John Skinner, a nemesis for Willard, is introduced (and, I suspect, will eventually be revealed as the person responsible for Timmy's death) but the flashback scene that is supposed to establish why Willard hates him so much is weak. John makes a typical frat boy joke about genital size, and Willard completely overreacts, so in that particular moment I'm not really on his side. Later in the issue, we see John in the present, now a successful dubstep musician and dating Willard's college girlfriend Alison. John and Alison have a conversation where neither one quite sounds like a human being, and that's all we get of him, so I feel no animosity toward the dude so far. He's boring as sin, but not evil in any way I've been shown.
     The art isn't as strong in issue #2 as it was in #1 either. Artist Viktor Bogdanovic has a doughy style. Everyone looks sort of pudgy and has rounded features, which works for the comic tone the narrative wants. And stylistically, I guess there's not much difference between the two issues. But the second has a couple panels of Dark Hour carrying Willard through the sky where it's not clear how he's holding on and swinging at the same time. And when Willard falls, Dark Hour catches him in ways that seem impossible, too. In the John Skinner flashback, the panels get smaller and smaller for all three pages, but there's no clear purpose behind that. The events get more significant, but their stage shrinks. On their own, these would be relatively small problems, but coupled with the dip in story quality, the artistic mistakes only add to the disappointment.
     Pretty much every scene in Reality Check #2 had something I didn't like. Most of it was based on Dark Hour acting a fool in spite of Willard trying damn hard to help him out and explain why he needs to return from whence he came. But writer Glen Brunswick seemed to lose some of his humor and sense of fun with everybody, making the whole issue more about people sniping and griping than anything else. It ends on a villain arriving where Reality Check #1 ended with a hero arriving, and I think that says a lot about the differences between them. The first issue wanted everyone to enjoy themselves, readers and characters all. The second issue seemed to have the opposite goal, and definitely had the opposite effect on me.

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