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Indie rules 

Underground comics keep stretching the boundaries of pop art

Reading independently published comics is one of the best ways to escape the monotony and soap operatic format of the big-name superheroes. Indies deviate from the norm, take risks and in many cases straddle the line between high and low art. Underground comics began during the height of hippiedom in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, where iconic images such as R. Crumb's Keep On Truckin' dude were born. With innovative artists such as Art Spiegelman and Paul Pope moving comics further toward fine art, indies are now the breeding ground for some of the best ideas and new talent in the comic world. Below are a few recent offerings from the indie presses.

STREET ANGEL by Jim Rugg, Brian Maruca (Slave Labor Graphics)

This graphic novel is a kickass thrashin' ride through creators Rugg and Maruca's dirty world of Angel City. Set largely in the ghetto of Wilkesborough, our superhero is the uncanny Street Angel, a 12-year-old homeless girl who is the daughter of a ninja queen and skate lord. Her superpower? It's pretty much bashing people's heads in with a skateboard. Rugg and Maruca take chances with an erratic and rapid pace, a la the wild (and wildly popular) Tank Girl. Echoing the punk rock Do-It-Yourself stylings of 'zine comics, Street Angel succeeds in its risky behavior.

Largely self-aware of the tropes and clichés of modern comic books, Rugg and Maruca stop at no boundary to mock what has become typical of the comic industry. From a silly tale of Afrodisiac, a blacksploitation hero gone bald and old, to an invasion by Cortez that gets busted up by the first Irish astronaut, Street Angel consistently pokes fun at comics while keeping a plot moving.

The book truly reads like it's on speed, whipping through Jesus appearances and the constant support of Street Angel's sidekick, Bald Eagle, a one-armed, no-legged urchin with a positive attitude. There's never a dull moment, but there is an unfortunate bout of confusion every now and again. Despite the interesting subject matter, the stories generally go ape wild and never pull back in. Oddly, it's the one- or two-page shorts that show any depth to Street Angel's life as a homeless child.

I wish there was a way for Rugg and Maruca to bring those charming, poignant and human moments to the full stories and not tack them on at the end as a sort of afterthought.

NATE AND STEVE by Nate Bowden, Tracy Yardley, Brandon Page (Fish Stick Comics)

This comic from Bowden, Yardley and Page epitomizes the term "self-aware." The star characters Nate and Steve are comic book fans and art students studying to be comic book artists. The pages of these books are cramped with references to comic-related trivia and humor and most of it comes out as nerdy commentary rather than humorous dialogue. Furthermore, their superhero world is stricken with the dull irony of artists on the edge of breakdown. The super villain in issue #3 is an inker who goes mad and becomes an inkman, slicking his publisher/editor with ink and threatening a load of precious comic cargo. While this pulls a slight grin from me, I don't see how it could be accessible to a more general audience. Add on the glib dialogue and sometimes static art and these books are an unsatisfying read.

The only redeeming feature is the twenty-something feel of the comic. The characters aren't rich or happy, and that's a nice thing to show as the comic world burgeons with college kids enjoying themselves amongst superpowers. I especially liked issue #2, which had the kids running down a street racer with a crappy clunker of a car. However, the obvious and ridiculously referential panel of Nate lifting the car as Superman did in his premiere destroyed the fun and humor of watching a racer get bested at his game by a crap car.

It's a decent first try, but the team needs to solidify their dialogue and theme before finishing their 3-part manga series for TokyoPop.

KADE by Sean O'Reilly, Allan Otero, Steve Cobb (Arcana Studio)

Kade is a classic fantasy comic with a twist. The presence of elves, dwarves, demons and swords initially swept me into the cliché of Tolkein mythology. While I'm a fan of the Hobbit creator, I'm not so big on spin-offs, especially since there are so many of such bad quality. In that respect, Kade is similar, though the art is a bit darker and the new race of whitish people with black hair and tattoos is interesting. What's original is Kade's dilemma: at one time, this hero was unable to experience any sort of touch. It was while he was out of touch (literally) with the world that Kade was charged with being its hero, seemingly the only guy in this world with a destiny.

I have to say I love the concept. It is original, a nice stretch, and fun to go for. Unfortunately, it is not well-done. Most of the plot is given in exposition, and Kade's emotions are too often told to the reader rather than evoked through the text and art. This is a major mistake of many comics, when the writer relies on the exposition boxes to create understanding rather than using the visual work itself. In Kade, the art and action were rushed, from the confusing jumps in time to the half-baked characterizations. This book goes too fast and loses its story along the way.

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