The Good Guys Get No Respect : Bryce Martin’s “The Onaut”

Any way you slice it, saving the world has got to be a raw deal. I mean, let’s say you’ve got super-powers and can do that sort of thing — is there really any way you’re ever gonna get the thanks you deserve?

The Ditko-esque figure of the brave hero who saves a person/city/planet only to silently watch, powerless, as his own life either gets no better or in some way becomes appreciably worse is, of course, a shop-worn trope by now, but it remains an alluring one for cartoonists to deploy. I mean, pathos doesn’t get much simpler or more unsubtle — or more effective. Consider the ultimate example, Spider-Man : after Ditko’s departure, when the character of Peter Parker became a much more standard-issue “good guy” who saved the day, got the girls, and exuded so much confidence it was tempting to think he’d forgotten all about his arrogance leading to the death of poor old Uncle Ben, were things ever as interesting? Short answer : of course not. Even people who grew up on the “Flash Thompson in a lab coat” iteration of the character that persists to this day (hell, Parker and Thompson even became friends) are generally blown away when they read those early-days Spidey adventures of a hero who risks it all and generally gets nothing in return.

Fast-forward to the present and we find Bryce Martin, one of the more interesting voices in contemporary cartooning to emerge in the last couple of years, still mining the “tragic hero” figure for all it’s worth in the pages of his new comic The Onaut, but doing so in his own way, which is to say : this is as much Ultraman as it is Spider-Man, featuring as it does a protagonist far more likely to tussle with Kaiju than with the Kingpin. The Ditko parallels are obvious enough that the publishers — our friends at Strangers — even point it out in their promotional blurb for the book, but they’re not so obvious that the encumber Martin from delivering his story in his own authentic voice.

Which isn’t to say that there’s not a fairly noticeable Brandon Graham vibe to Martin’s cartooning — particularly when it’s in service of a fairly straightforward narrative as it is here — but there’s a lot more personality, in my view, that comes to the fore in Martin’s comics, this one included, than there is in Graham’s sometimes too-polished-for-its-own-good work. Don’t take that to mean this is “rough around the edges,” though — rather, it’s fluid, occasionally amorphous, with figures and backgrounds coalescing into new and intriguing shapes and forms and ideas in pursuit of what is still, at the end of the day, a fairly traditional super-hero yarn, albeit one with many of the usual sub rosa thematic tributaries bumped right up to the foreground and dialed up to 11. In his afterword, Martin says that he never actually thought he’d do a super-hero story, but given how clearly fluent he is in the genre’s psychopathologies, I’m honestly wondering why he didn’t do one a lot sooner — and also hoping he’ll do another one again at some point.

For now, though, there’s plenty to enjoy — as well as unpack — with regard to the one he’s just made. One of the things I always find fascinating in Martin’s comics is the nature of the environs in which they take place, and the “City Of Causion” here is no exception : culturally it appears to be a high-tech melting pot, but whether or not it’s utopian or dystopian in its conception and execution is very much an open question — we know the people there seem to be a bit self-absorbed and dismissive of their ostensible protector, but he’s so self-absorbed in turn himself (not to mention whiny) that you really can’t blame them. Nobody likes folks who are constantly polishing their own “good guy badges” for all to see, but the fact that our guy Onaut would appear to have genuinely earned his makes the situation more complicated : he can’t be written off as a garden-variety braggart embellishing modest accomplishments up to gargantuan dimensions (“you wouldn’t believe the size of the fish I caught!” — no, asshole, I wouldn’t), but at the same time there’s something inherently pathetic about a guy who can do just about anything needing to beg for affirmation from the very people he feels superior to. There’s narcissism at play here, sure, but also infantilism, and both are positively Trumpian in their proportions.

In a delicious twist, however, it turns out that ultimate architect of Onaut’s troubles may be the “hero” himself, specifically his lack of intellectual curiosity and general over-confidence. I’ll say no more for fear of depriving you the pleasure of coming to the work with a reasonably fresh set of eyes — I try to be one of those critics who informs a prospective reader’s expectations without over-informing on the details, but hey, maybe that’s just me being overly boastful myself —but I will say that even readers completely burned out on irony (hell, isn’t that everyone?) will at least find this an effective utilization of it.

I guess if I can point to any “beef” I would have with this comic, it’s in the fact that it’s more self-consciously clever than Martin’s more purely experimental minis, but that’s not a bad thing in and of itself — in fact, I find it rather interesting that a cartoonist best known for really idiosyncratic stuff is trying his hand at something more accessible here. And given that he appears to now be working on a long-form “graphic novel,” perhaps a project like this allowed him to “cut his teeth,” so to speak, in the world of traditional narrative on his way to a more ambitious project with an even greater scope. I hope he hasn’t left more interpretive, non-narrative work behind entirely, but hey — if he has, then at least he can move on secure in the knowledge that he made some damn fine weird-ass comics.

And, honestly, if weirdness is your bag, there’s still a hell of a lot of it here. As well as just fun, cool, imaginative visual storytelling. Rodney Dangerfield in tights and a cape might make for a good “elevator pitch” if we’re looking to break this down to its fundamentals, but of course there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that. Besides, too may people who complain about lack of respect tend to forget that it has to be earned — rest assured that Bryce Martin has certainly earned mine and will more than likely earn yours, as well.

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The Onaut is available for $8.00 from the Strangers website at https://strangersfanzine.bigcartel.com/product/the-onaut-by-bryce-martin

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

2 thoughts on “The Good Guys Get No Respect : Bryce Martin’s “The Onaut”

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