Sunday, October 26, 2014

Kill All Parents: Awesome Idea, Awful Comic

Kill All Parents is a one-shot comicbook story, basically a graphic novella but done in the format  of a typical monthly issue, just with more pages. The decision to make it look like your average ongoing comic is deliberate, since the whole thing is essentially a commentary on a specific superhero trope, so having the book resemble any average superhero series on the shelves plays right into that. Sadly, the limited space the creators give themselves in which to relate this narrative ends up being one of its biggest shortcomings, because none of the interesting or complicated aspects of the story ever get properly developed. Neither does anyone on the cast, for that matter, nor the world in which they live. Kill All Parents moves too fast and is too small to provide any more than the most superficial look at its themes and characters, which is a drag, because there's clearly a ton of potential in those themes and characters to be extra impressive, and instead they all fall flat.
     Throughout its first act (meaning the first 9 pages—the three acts are not at all even in terms of page length, going 9,7, 19 by my count), Kill All Parents pretty much rocks, more or less living up to the aforementioned potential. Writer Mark Andrew Smith takes a well-recognized fact of the superhero genre and adds the tiniest wrinkle to it to create something new but familiar. Lots of superheroes are born from loss: Batman's parents, Spider-Man's uncle, Superman's entire home planet. These are the three most prominent examples, and also the three Smith chooses to parody explicitly in Kill All Parents (though in the opening scene the Spider-Man stand-in character, Ignition Jones*, actually talks about the death of his girlfriend Stacy, an obvious allusion to the death of Gwen Stacy, rather than that of Uncle Ben, which comes up later). The twist in the reality of Kill All Parents is that these formative losses are not tragic accidents but carefully planned, orchestrated events carried out by an evil scientist and his shadowy organization, intentionally making kids into superheroes by putting them through such horrible things. We eventually learn that the Scientist (the only name he's ever given) created a device that allowed him to look into the future and, not liking the widespread destruction and doom he saw there, he decided to do something about it by giving the world a bunch of superpowered defenders to keep humanity safe. So all of the major heroes are effectively the Scientist's creations, people he manipulated into heroism by murdering their families and otherwise secretly steering their lives.
     Even knowing how poorly Smith communicates it, and what little he does with it once it's been established, I remain in love with this foundational concept. It immediately opens the door to a difficult, complex moral debate. Is it ok to give a handful of people horrible childhoods and lifelong emotional issues in exchange for saving all of mankind from itself in the long run? How is what the Scientist did—deciding what was best for the rest of us and then using his incredible knowledge and resources to push the planet in that direction—fundamentally any different than what all superheroes do every day, hiding behind costumes and codenames while setting themselves outside the law in order to inflict violence upon anyone whose morality conflicts with their own? In both cases, it's a matter of those with power choosing how those without should be allowed to conduct their lives, and though the intense secrecy and the murder of innocents do set the Scientist apart from the "good guys," there's definitely room to argue that they're all equally self-important and full of shit, none of them having any real right or qualifications to make these kinds of decisions for everyone (or anyone) else.
     What most disappoints about Kill All Parents is that none of the theoretical debate I'm outlining is given any serious consideration or attention whatsoever. The Scientist (or, more accurately, a robotic decoy version of the Scientist) does try to state his case when the heroes discover what he's done, but nobody listens. Because they are his victims, the heroes rather understandably don't care about why the Scientist did what he did, or how horrible a future he believes he prevented through his actions. They just want revenge, because what they really want is to have their parents back, and since that can't happen, they'll settle for murdering the guy who took them away in the first place. Which is what ultimately happens; the Superman analogue character Tomorrow Man throws the Scientist into the Sun (classic), Ignition Jones blows up his lab, and then the whole gang of heroes walks away feeling vindicated, satisfied, and righteous. It's an understandable reaction to finding out the Scientist killed all their parents, but it's also too simple and dull a resolution for the reader, and one that ignores so much of what makes the story interesting in the first place.
     Part of the problem is wasted space. After a scene where Tomorrow Man complains to his therapist about how, for superheroes, Mother's Day and Father's Day are the worst because none of them have parents, we get a double-page spread of a bunch of heroes at a graveyard on Father's Day. Yes, this leads to one of those heroes, the Locust (a.k.a. not-Batman) being delivered the confidential file outlining what the Scientist has done, but that could've happened anywhere, and even if it was going to be at the graveyard, there's no need for the establishing shot to take up two pages. It's not a bad image, because Marcelo di Chiara's art is generally strong pop comics stuff and his character designs are a lot of fun (though not without their own issues, see below), so seeing a whole bunch of new-but-recognizable superheroes at once is delightful. And if Kill All Parents had more room to tell its story, I'd probably be lauding this visual. As it stands, though, the spread bothers me because it feels like more could've been done with those pages than merely establishing a day and setting, particularly when the concept of Father's Day being rough on heroes was spelled out for us immediately beforehand. It's always best to show and not tell, but if you've already told then also showing is pointless.
     While we're talking art problems, there are two other two-page spreads in this comic, and both feel needless. One of them is a badass action shot of all the heroes bursting into the Scientist's base and messing up his robot minions but good, an important moment no doubt, but the fight scene gets another page-and-a-half after the spread, too, which are just as good if not better. Again, it's not that di Chiara draws anything poorly, it's that three-and-a-half pages are way more than enough room for him to accomplish what he needs in that scene, and at least some of them could've been saved so the story could do more. Similarly, it takes three whole pages, including the third two-page spread, just for the Scientist to float into the Sun after Tomorrow Man throws him. That could and should have been a one-page moment or less, but it gets stretched out for no reason.
     These could be Smith's pacing choices rather di Chiara's, but whoever is responsible, it's a bummer to see. What I definitely blame on di Chiara, along with colorist Russ Lowery, is the complete lack of non-white characters. The closest we get is a knock-off Aquaman who's skin is, like, aquamarine, but I'm reluctant to count that because I don't even know if he's human. Granted, most popular Marvel and DC superheroes are white, and all of the people in Kill All Parents are based on/inspired by those characters, but when given the opportunity to build a completely new universe from the ground up, including zero POC is just irresponsible. And I'm not just talking the major players. Every background hero with no lines, non-super extra, and bad guy henchman in every panel in this book is a white person. No, thank you.
     Along the same lines, the only woman who is even close to mattering in this story is Wonder Woman stand-in Fabu-Lass. When I say she matters, what I mean is that she has a handful of lines, is given some attention in the big fight scene, and then when the Scientist tries to defend himself, she's one of the people he singles out while explaining how bad the heroes' lives would've been without his meddling. But here's the thing: while the Scientist claims that Tomorrow Man would've been a fat guy in his parents' basement, and the Locust would've been a spoiled and shallow party animal, Fabu-Lass is told that she was destined to be a slut, "giving out handjobs and head to anyone who bothered to give [her] the time of day." There's even a cutaway scene of her going down on a guy in a car, complete with a super uncomfortable "Glug glug glug" sound effect. That seems like such an easy thing to put on the one female character, it shows a lack of imagination and underlying sexism on Smith's part. There are so many possible terrible things that can happen to people, but when the time came to think of one for a woman, the best Smith could do was "she has a lot of sex." Weak sauce.
     Eventually I've got to stop mining Kill All Parents for more and more specific examples of its suckiness and just consider my point made, so I guess the time for that may as well be now. I just want it to be so much better than it is, and the nugget of a great idea is right there, just waiting to be well-executed. Unfortunately, the creators responsible for that idea did a lot of phoning it in, skimming over the details, and relying on a handful of half-assed referential jokes to carry the story (the planet Torpkyon, for example). The end result is not just underwhelming, it's a little infuriating and, in places, offensive.

*Ignition Jones is actually a mash-up between Spider-Man and the Flash, having the former's backstory and the latter's superpowers.

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