Jay Faerber’s comics writing is always chockfull of high concepts, high drama, and killercliffhangers, whether working in superheroes (Noble Causes, Dynamo 5) or crime noir (Near Death, Point of Impact), but he may have outdone himself with Anti-Hero, a taut crime thriller that just happens to be about superheroes. It stars Paragon, the shining hero of Rainier City, who is forced to compromise his high morals when a low level mobster named Callum Finney discovers his secret identity. Callum uses this info to blackmail Paragon into moonlighting as a villain named Bludgeon. Knowing Paragon still has a strong moral code, Callum convinces Paragon to steal for him as long as it’s only from other criminals, Paragon not realizing their primary target, mob boss Liam Quinlan, is actually Callum’s boss. When Liam discovers what Callum is up to, naturally everything goes to hell in a handbasket.
Anti-Hero was originally published via Chris Roberson’s Monkeybrain Comics, a digital comics imprint that offers short chapters by a variety of established comic creators at the killer price point of 99 cents. Faerber, ever the king of the cliffhanger, excels in the format, utilizing the brief chapter lengths (each of the book’s ten chapters runs about ten pages) to tell a story that careens from peak to valley to peak to valley to “holy cow, I did not see that coming, what happens next?!” The collected edition, complete in one volume, breezes by, its constantly twisting plot making it hard to put down and its moderate length making it easy enough to digest in one sitting. What’s truly impressive is there is not an ounce of fat to the plotting, with every single scene adding new wrinkles to the plot or establishing seemingly small bits that pay off later in a big way. This crime thriller is a model of efficiency.
Helping with the book’s readability is artist Nate Stockman, a killer find who, since Anti-Hero wrapped, moved on to the vastly underrated fantasy/sci-fi Image series Reyn and a run on Marvel’s kid-friendly title Spidey. Stockman’s style would feel at home in a late 1980s Marvel or DC superhero comic: bodies are idealized but generally realistic while faces are cartooned enough to allow for exaggeration of reactions to amplify the emotion behind each scene, ultimately playing like a toned-down Todd Nauck. (His work on Anti-Hero in particular reminds me of Tom Mandrake’s contemporaneous work on the J.Michael Straczynski-penned Sidekick.) Most important for a comic that moves this briskly, his layouts are clear as a bell. Working entirely in rectangular panels laid out in simple grids, Stockman concentrates on his characters and their actions and reactions rather than trying to merely show off his artistic chops. While Stockman’s style is classic, Paul Little’s colors place the book as a modern work. Little (who, full disclosure, is a longtime friend of mine) bridges the gap between the story’s superhero and crime elements by using a more neutral color scheme, one where even the primary colors on the superhero costumes are muted. This approach blurs the line between the fantastical superhero elements and realistic crime elements to great effect.
We’ve been living in a crime comics renaissance since the arrival of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal back in 2006. Faerber has made his contributions in that direction, but Anti-Hero stands a his best work in the crime genre yet, blending the story structure of a thriller and the trappings of the superhero genre to tell a story that’s impossible to put down.