Comic books have always been the realm of the selfless hero. A man or woman receives super powers, and immediately makes a vow to use those powers to defend those without. Heroes sacrifice their own safety, security, and sometimes even happiness just to protect those who cannot protect themselves. This is what heroes do, or at least it was in the golden age of heroes.
Today though, superheroes are not so cut and dry. It really started with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who reinvigorated Marvel comics by creating superheroes with emotional trauma and deep, personal flaws. Suddenly heroes were doing what they did not because of an innate sense of justice, but because of guilt and grief, sometimes even shame. The lives of heroes and the way they interacted with the world shifted, but at their core those heroes were still trying to do what they thought was right, even if that mean making choices they knew were wrong.
And then the world shifted again. As comics moved into the 90’s the heroes got darker and even less heroic. Stan and Jack’s heroes were flawed, but they were still good people at their cores, trying to overcome their limitations to be better people. But by the 90’s our heroes embraced the darkness in ways we had never seen before, paved by works like Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta, which gave us characters who were no longer just flawed, but broken entirely. If they managed to do good deeds it was almost incidental to their true motivations of vengeance or glory.
Which brings us to today, where even those classic, shining heroes of yesteryear like Superman and Batman are dragged through the dirt of real life. Instead of being supportive and nurturing parents, films now portray Pa Kent as cynical and afraid, willing to let children die rather then let the world know that his son is different, and showing Ma Kent telling Clark to let the world burn if he wants. Batman on screen is no longer a clever detective investigating and stopping crimes, but instead a brutal vigilante searching the night for thugs to brutalize, and threaten with further violence.
The most popular comic book heroes are anti-heroes like Deadpool; Batman is gunning down criminals with automatic weapons, and the violent psychopaths on The Boys who hunt and kill superheroes are some of America’s favorite good guys. It’s enough to make one think we somehow ended up in the darkest timeline, where nothing good can ever thrive again.
Now, I want to be very clear here. I’m certainly not sitting in the dark clutching my pearls in horror. I like dark stories, really. Sitting behind me right now are trades for Hellblazer, Preacher, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Transmetropolitan, and yes, even The Boys. Dark, antihero deconstructions have an important place in comic history and many of the titles I read today would find a very happy home in that genre, but there also needs to be a balance. Heroes should still be fun. Comics should make people cheer and root for the heroes, not just root against the bad guy. And if you’re going to do a deconstruction, for the love of God have some fun with it! Every deconstruction does not have to be Watchmen. (Seriously DC, let it go).
One of the first articles I ever wrote was about the phenomenal indie series The Wrong Earth by Tom Peyer. The series, a brilliant send-up of Batman and all his varying incarnations over the decades, was easily one of my favorite comics of the year, and its prequel follow-up Dragonfly/ Dragonflyman was just as much, if not even more, fun. So when I saw that Peyer was going to be writing a new superhero send up, this time one more focused on a certain “super” man, I knew I was in for a treat.
The book, titled PenultiMan, is about a depressed, self-loathing superhero who is eons beyond the humans he has sworn to protect, while at the same time not quite as evolved as the future human race that created him. See, he’s a man out of time, with phenomenal cosmic power, and some serious emotional, and parent issues.
Here’s the blurb:
Back from the future! Penultiman, The Next-To-Last-Stage In Human Evolution, is the greatest, best-looking, and most admired super-hero in the world! So how can he stop hating himself? His android understudy, Antepenultiman, thinks he knows the answer! Created by Tom Peyer (THE WRONG EARTH) and Alan Robinson (PLANET OF THE NERDS).
In the hands of a lesser writer, this premise could have ended up just as dark and grim as anything Hollywood is putting out today, but Peyer once again shows why he is one of my favorite comic authors. His deconstructions celebrate comics, and the characters we love. He mocks, but it clearly comes from a place of affection and respect for the heroes, and rather than blunting the satire, I feel that actually makes it sharper. It’s easy to mock heroes you dislike or find ridiculous, but it takes a skilled hand to send up the flaws and foibles of comics and still show the reader why people like this deserve our admiration. We don’t revel in his darkness, we instead want him to seek the light.
Penultiman actually first appeared a little while back in a one shot issue from Ahoy titled Steel Cage. The issue had three stories and the readers got to vote for which ones they wanted to go to series. At the time, Penultiman’s origin was the story that I enjoyed the most, and so I was very excited to see where this title would end up going.
That initial story told the tale of a superhero, created to be a single evolutionary step back from the current stage of future human evolution, ultimate humans that look like the guardians from Green Lantern, complete with overly large heads and psychic powers.
Disgusted by this evolutionary throwback, Penultiman’s parents are forced to exile him in time, sending him to our timeline where his amazing strength and mental abilities make him the world’s premier superhero. The only problem is, he is filled with doubt and self-loathing. Everyone thinks he is fantastic, but he keeps fixating on how he’ll never be good enough for his parents, and that rejection poisons every moment of happiness he manages to achieve.
Fans of Antony Starr’s portrayal of Homelander on The Boys will see a lot to love in this series as well, but where Homelander’s experiences made him into a monster, Penultiman’s experiences drive him to be an actual hero, even if it is part of a desperately cry for acceptance. You feel bad for him, and much like his recently built robot doppelganger, you want him to stop looking at himself through the eyes of others.
You can revel in the evil excesses of Homelander’s crapulence, but deep down you want to see him fail. With Penultiman, you cringe at his failures, but deep down want to see him succeed.
Issue one of Penuiltiman just hit the shelves last week and, as you can no doubt tell, I am already 100% on board. As I said, Peyer has once again shown why he is a brilliant comic talent, and I am all in on where this story goes. And with the announcement that Wrong Earth is getting another volume released soon I can’t help but hope that one day we get a crossover between these two broken men. Wrong Earth’s Finest? I’ll add that to my pull list in a heartbeat.
Penultiman shows us that, even if we are trapped in the darkest timeline, there is still joy to be found, and that anger, violence, and brutality are not the only tricks one needs to properly spoof the comics genre. If you love comics, and love Superman, you owe it to yourself to check this series out.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay safe!