Written by James Robinson
Art by Greg Hinkle
Published by Image Comics
Airboy, no matter how you slice it, it an utterly unique comic. When I first got ahold of it, I had no idea what I was getting into. The title sounded like some kind of fantasy adventure comic, Amy Reeder’s Rocket Girl for boys, maybe. If writer James Robinson (“The Starman Guy”) had played it straight, that might just be what we’d have ended up with. Instead, what we got was either an alarmingly frank portrait of Robinson bent on self destruction, a send up of self-serious autobiographical comics, or a speedball of both.
I played around with a few different ways of wrapping my head around Airboy while I was reading it. The Kaufmans’ Adaptation as a comic. A heroin snorting riff on Steven T. Seagle’s It’s a Bird… Then I reached the last pagel and it all fell into place. It’s a bare knuckled revisitation of Flex Mentallo. As it turns out, Airboy is an actual Golden Age comic that fell into the public domain about a guy who flies a plane that flaps its wings like a bird and fights Nazis. The comic opens with James Robinson, probably best known for his iconic run on Starman and more recently the New 52 Earth 2 series, whose protagonists were the viewpoint characters for the recently ended Convergence event at DC, taking a call on his cell phone from Image Comics’ publisher Eric Stephenson while sitting on the toilet completely naked.
In what is basically the only thing I can’t accept as probably being true in the comic, Stephenson is introduced in his office looking like he stepped right off a page from Matt Fraction’s Casanova. I wanted to hope Stephenson’s office really does look like the lair of a Roger Moore era James Bond villain and uses a cellphone that looks like it came off the assembly line in 1989, because that would be pretty awesome. Unfortunately, Brandon Graham was both awake and available while I was writing this and was kind enough to dig up photographic evidence to the contrary.
The basic origin of this comic is probably not too far off from what drove Seagle to write It’s a Bird... He was offered a plum writing assignment, Superman, and instead wrote a seminal autobiographical graphic novel charting how he overcame his deep dislike of the character. What Airboy lacks relative to It’s a Bird… in engagement with it’s eponymous subject, it makes up for with what I presume to be an uncomfortably intimate portrayal of Robinson’s self described decline as a writer and embrace of self destructive consumption of drugs and alcohol, which he drags his artistic collaborator Greg Hinkle right into the middle of.
Up until the very last page of the comic, I just plain was not engaged with it. It reads better assuming most of it really happened, so I’m not really interested in interrogating the veracity of it, but at the same time I don’t know that I have room in my life for another narrative about a writer coping with his midlife crisis by drowning himself in booze and drugs. I endured three whole seasons of Californication, and I’m still not really sure why I did that to myself, but the prospect of going through something like that again makes me want to go back in time and murder Charles Bukowski like all those crappy sci fi stories that wring their hands about doing that to Hitler.
In the interest of full disclosure, I say that as someone with a Transmetropolitan themed tattoo and a pretty extensive collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s work. Maybe it’s because I’m a trans woman and my experience of gender and sexuality fundamentally alter my relationship with the creative process, but I really just plain do not get the prevalence of stories about rakish yet talented writers who need to punish themselves with excessive amounts of booze and drugs like it’s their equivalent to Popeye’s spinach. It could also just be that they’re all Scorpios. One of life’s mysteries I guess. The mystique around those kinds of shenanigans died for me when I read that Stephen King was so far gone on booze and cocaine at the time that he has absolutely no recollection of writing Cujo. I calmly considered this information and decided that it explained why I thought Cujo was shit, then got on with my life.
The last page sure is something though. After stumbling awake from a night that included accidentally snorting heroin, Robinson and Hinkle stumble out of the bedroom of the woman they had a threesome with the night before to find Airboy himself waiting for them. It’s a brilliant trick that changes the stakes so dramatically that I’m absolutely hooked in for at least one more issue, which is exactly what the last page of any comic should do. (Not that many seem to these days until they hit the last issue of a given arc.)
I have absolutely no idea what Robinson intends to do with Airboy’s incursion into the narrative, but it potentially places the comic in a similar space to Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Flex Mentallo or The Filth (with Chris Weston and Gary Erskine), which is a heady prospect. Morrison inserted many autobiographical details in both comics, up to and including the death of his cat and his suicide attempt in The Filth, but never inserted himself so fully into the narrative. If Robinson is attempting to interrogate his ambivalent relationship with golden age comics by baring himself on the page both figuratively and literally, Airboy could turn out to be something truly unique.
Where the comic truly and absolutely shines without reservation is Hinkle’s art. He strikes a careful balance between capturing likeness and remaining cartoonish, keeping it in the exact space between reality and fiction that it needs to occupy to remain effective. In the comic Hinkle may be dragged straight into Robinson’s abyss, but it’s Hinkle who gets to evoke that abyss through his artwork. His layouts, use of perspective, and overall design savvy are phenomenal, but it’s his colouring that truly sells the overall experience of the comic. His use of highlights, shadows, and brutally effective deployment of complementary colours put him in a class of his own. It’ll be pretty great if next year’s Eisner nominations include one for Hinkle’s lovingly rendered depiction of Robinson’s penis. That’s a distinction that not even the reigning bad boys Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky can currently aspire to.
Beyond just the combined efforts of Robinson and Hinkle, Airboy stands as another significant achievement for Image in securing their position as the the most fearless and uncompromising publisher in comics. Their second Renaissance began with titles like Saga, Sex Criminals, Glory, and Prophet that sought to re-define what the company- and mainstream american comics as a whole- is capable of and has only intensified since. The pursuit of more adult content and a willingness to push forward in how their comics are allowed to portray sex and nudity has been one of the most valuable aspects of the publisher’s current campaign. It began with controversy swirling over the depiction of breastfeeding in Saga but carried forward to doggedly stand by Sex Criminals as it was shunned by Apple and perhaps reached its pinnacle with the inclusion of a reprinted porn comic in Brandon Graham’s Multiple Warheads. As oddly endearing as Hinkle’s carefully detailed penises and erect nipples in Airboy are within the comic itself, they’re also a bellwether for Image and the current state of American comics as a whole.