In Depth: LESS THAN HEROES
Like a blend of sitcom absurdist and inspired fanboy, Yurkovich simultaneously deconstructs the conventions of super-heroes while paying homage to the genre.
Less Than Heroes is a fitting name for this collection of David Yurkovich's quirky, self-published Threshold series. The four slackers that make up the super team, Threshold, are definitely far from heroic. In an interview with CBR, Yurkovich—a UGO columnist/contributing editor and writer/artist of the recent Altercations: A History of Super-Hero Activity in 20th Century North America — described the group as "the Discount Drugs version of super-heroes." Not a bad description for the not-so-fantastic four who spend far more time bored and befuddled than bashing things.
Threshold, later known as Super-Heroes of Philadelphia or S.H.o.P., is the city of brotherly love's non-union super group. Other cities across the country similarly employ super-hero teams. These other groups, however, are unionized and more illustrious, assembled by a Los Angeles-based firm known as The Establishment. Rather than battling time-traveling despots or galaxy eaters, the members of Threshold mostly munch on sugary snacks while relaxing in their comfortable loft on the corner of 18th and Market. Philly, as it turns out, isn't the busiest place for the superhero trade. The small roster of heroes includes Mr. Malevolence, the group's nice guy heavy-hitter; the obligatory female member, Meridian; Cosmopolitan, the "Ric Ocasekesque" mage; and Recoil who doesn't seem to do much but floss profusely.
Like a blend of sitcom absurdist and inspired fanboy, Yurkovich simultaneously deconstructs the conventions of super-heroes while paying homage to the genre. Yet Yurkovich's stories don't come across as pure parody like the works of Ben Enlund (The Tick) or Bob Burden (The Flaming Carrot, The Mystery Men). While Less Than Heroes satirizes the conventions of the genre, it does so without over the top ridiculousness. Don't expect bread-wielding samurai, proclamations of nigh-invulnerability, or flipper wearing goofballs to pop up in Less Than Heroes. Given, there is a character with a thermonuclear warhead strapped to his noggin, but the tone of the stories is more akin to a super-powered sitcom than an anything spoof.
The comparison of the series to a sitcom fits with Yurkovich's assertion that he envisioned Threshold to be like the Seinfeld cast in masks. Truly, these are super-hero stories where nothing happens, or at least nothing much. The streets are often so devoid of action that in between patrols, Mr. Malevolence has sufficient time to prepare a wholesome platter of milk and cookies and comparison shop for Taco Mix. Meridian spends her free time pecking at a keyboard writing a charming little tale. The most bizarre of the team's downtime activities involves Recoil, who entertains dreams of becoming an American Dental Association spokesperson. None of these characters' quirks seem implausible within these pages; they actually fit with the characters. Such is the way of the world in Yurkovich's odd universe, affectionately dubbed the "Yurkoverse" by Top Shelf publisher Brett Warnock.
Less Than Heroes collects the first two Threshold mini-series released in 1996 and 1997 by Sleeping Giant Comics as well as a short from the 1998 Slap Happy Comics anthology Son of Rampage. Yurkovich digitally scanned and retouched the art and edited the script where necessary to provide, as he dubbed it, a definitive version of his early work. Also included are newly illustrated endpapers featuring various Yurkoverse characters, a four-page introduction featuring Threshold and other Yurkovich creations, and an original essay titled "Why Don't Heroes Age?"
The first two chapters (the first mini-series) introduce the members of Threshold as well as two other Philly-based heroes: the mysterious Ms. Vertigo and the window-shattering Red Silhouette. Threshold's never ending battle with boredom and complacent inactivity is interrupted by a run-in with a villain known as Root Canal and a government guinea pig dubbed The Lightning Man.
Yurkovich builds a rich history around all of these characters. This is not only apparent from the apocryphal newspaper articles that conclude each chapter in this collection but in the sharply written dialogue. The sense of camaraderie and realistic relationships between Threshold members is the highlight of the team's first story. The group interacts with each other like they have genuine histories together, like friends who live together or co-workers on a break. Just like people who've know each other for awhile, they play off each other's personalities and occasionally complete each other's thoughts as they exchange goofy insults, empty threats, and sarcastic observations.
What's interesting is how Yurkovich blends his mirthful sitcom super-hero moments with the other half of the story, which involves a sinister government conspiracy that would feel at home on an X-Files episode. An over-the-top outburst such as "By the Crimson band that's named King!" isn't out of place when Threshold is on the page. Yet when the story concerns General Greenfield and The Lightning Man, the writing is much darker, especially in the second chapter. Greenfield's thoughts are remarkably meditative and ominous, hinting at long-held regrets concerning his knowledge of The Lightning Man. Yurkovich writes this half of the story in an eerie, sinister tone. The two distinct threads are a good compliment to each other: The shadowy conspiracy story sets up a serious potential threat while the Threshold story depicts the group's not particularly heroic, or well-informed, response.
While the writing flows with ease in the Lightning Man non-adventure, the art leaves something to be desired. Yurkovich's bold and blocky artwork, reminiscent of Ted McKeever and Mike Mignola, isn't bad by any means, but it is inconsistent. Sometimes Yurkovich draws clean, defined chiaroscuro characters. Other times he switches to a style defined by cross-hatching and varied line work. In still other instances he uses Benday dots (perhaps a Photoshop addition to this touched-up volume) and stippling. The constant shift between these shading and texturing techniques makes his art feel uneven, though it doesn't necessarily detract from the story. On some pages this varied approach works well, but for the most part it didn't gel. It feels like at the time this first Threshold mini-series was published, Yurkovich was still finding his artistic voice, feeling his way through different techniques until he discovered a style appropriate for the story he was telling. The tail end of chapter two shows Yurkovich's art coming into its own, particularly on a page involving Red Silhouette where the compositions are more dynamic than previously seen and the characters are better rendered.
Chapters three and four (the second mini-series) pit Threshold against The Stamp Collector. An enraged dark force bent on revenge, The Stamp Collector captures people and places in his magic stamp album, proclaiming: "All of the pages will be filled, before the night is done." The team inadvertently comes face to face with the strangely dressed foe and attempt to stick it to him Threshold style. Things don't quite go as planned. With Philly's finest in peril, their unionized neighbors to the north, The New York Super-Hero Syndicate (NYSS), are called in to help. All the while, a group of super-villains who've moved from New York to Philadelphia for better careers in crime plot their next action.
Yurkovich's writing and particularly his artwork show a marked improvement from the previous story. The art is much more consistent and better realized. Yurkovich sticks mostly with chiaroscuro techniques, occasionally employing line work and stippling with better control than in the first mini-series. His compositions and panel arrangements are far more effective and offer the type of dynamic visual storytelling that was missing in The Lightning Man story.
Much of the NYSS's activity when they confront The Stamp Collector involves paperwork and bureaucracy; things that are absurd, frustrating, and consequently funny. While the city is being devastated just down the street, Philadelphia's mayor has to negotiate a lengthy intra-state contract with the super-powered out-of–towners, none of whom will act until a service agreement is reached. BrainBlaster, the NYSS's Delta team leader and contract negotiator, saturates the concerned mayor with legalese, medical plan details, and overwhelming union minutiae. Several panels feature the elite NYSS snacking on donuts as The Stamp Collector reeks havoc in the background. One of the nice touches that facilitates the storytelling is Yurkovich's use of panel borders in chapter four. The Threshold story, framed by perforated holes to resemble stamps, is distinctly set apart from the NYSS story occurring at the same time as well as on the same pages. It's expertly done and provides a useful uniformity to the storytelling: four panels of NYSS contract negotiations framed by four panels of Threshold cluelessly wandering around.
At one point during The Stamp Collector episode, Meridian yells, "We've got trouble." Cosmopolitan interjects, "Big trouble," to which Recoil adds, "In Little China." Yes, "Big trouble in little China." It's a corny joke, but it does a good job, intentionally or not, of summing up Threshold's place in super-herodom. The main character of John Carpenter's cult classic Big Trouble in Little China is Jack Burton, a guy who drives a mean looking rig and talks tough but is nowhere near as heroic as he acts. Most of Carpenter's film involves Jack haplessly reacting to situations beyond his control as more able-bodied and able-minded characters do the dirty work. He cowers, he cringes, and nearly all of his actions have minor heroic results if any. So who better to compare the helpless Threshold to than the similarly less-than-heroic Jack?
The six page Mr. Malevolence short, "December 24," is of a distinctly different flavor than the previous two Threshold stories. Rather than a Seinfeld episode boasting feats of strength and faulty heroics, Yurkovich tells a grounded, sentimental story. Saturated with snowfall and parental regret, Mr. Malevolence talks to a man dressed as Santa sitting on a ledge on Christmas eve. It's as emotional as it is compact, though harder hearts may dismiss it as a mere public service announcement.
Concluding the collection is "Why Don't Heroes Age?" a well-written analysis of agelessness in long-running comic series. Yurkovich opens by pointing out a line in a 1970s issue of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. In the issue, Spidey socks a bad guy and quips, "Now you know how Gabe Kaplan felt when Welcome Back Kotter was cancelled." Irked by the reference, Yurkovich writes, "Pop culture references place characters in a given time period, causing anal-retentive readers like yours truly to question their so-called agelessness." He also notes other instances of pop-culture and real life events that ruin the illusion of agelessness ranging from The Beatles' run in with The Thing and The Human Torch to the terrorist attacks of September 11.
The problem of agelessness becomes even greater considering how long certain characters have existed. For example, if Batman has been around since 1939, why hasn't he or Alfred aged considerably, or at the very least retired? Yurkovich jokes, "At this point in their careers, the Batman and Joker should be fighting over catheter bags in the Gotham Memorial Nursing Home, not above the streets of Gotham City."
To deal with the issue of super-heroes and age, Yurkovich presents four alternatives to retro-fit continuity, company-wide timeline revamps (i.e. DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths), or launching new series lines altogether (i.e. Marvel's Ultimate line). The first option involves avoiding all references to any current events, celebrities, political figures, technology, and cultural influences. Yurkovich admits it's a short-term and ultimately ineffective solution considering how technology, fashion, and human behavior evolve. The next option involves setting a fixed era for all stories to take place such as a given decade (he cites the 1930s setting for Sandman Mystery Theater) or a given year. While this is a suitable solution for short series, Yurkovich points out that longer series may suffer. He writes, "readers in 2006 might be uninterested in the events going on in Spider-Man's life circa January 2003 (since to them it will be considered old news)." The third option involves stopping the aging process. This agelessness may be achieved through magical or pseudo-scientific means or perhaps simply be inherent in a character's superpowers. As friends pass away while the protagonist remains spry and youthful, this option presents new potential story ideas of the, as Yurkovich puts it, "Why was I cursed with these powers?" variety.
The fourth option, which Yurkovich is the most fond of, is to age characters in real time. "The fountain of youth can only be drunk from so many times before its waters run dry," he muses. It's fitting that to accompany the essay, Yurkovich includes an illustrated hero at various stages of life, progressing from a nimble youth to a flexing old man who can't fill his suit like he used to. Yurkovich adds later, "As frequently or infrequently as Threshold/S.H.o.P. characters may appear in print, rest assured they live and breathe in real time just like the rest of us." Given the pop-culture references and brand-names in the Lightning Man and Stamp Collector stories, Yurkovich appears faithful to his promise. He even peppers the brief introduction to Less Than Heroes with mentions of They Might Be Giants and Starbucks, cementing the work in its time period.
Contingent on sales of this first volume of Less Than Heroes, the next addition in Top Shelf's collected Yurkoverse will likely feature Yurkovich's debut, the Xeric awarded Death By Chocolate. The main character of Death by Chocolate makes a brief appearance in the Less Than Heroes introduction, quickly recounting his origin as a mild-mannered candy shop owner turned into a being of living chocolate.
Less than Heroes is a fine opening for new initiates to the Yurkoverse, effectively blending bronze/silver age comics with situational comedy. Despite the rough art early on, the hapless, well-written characters and quirky situations power the work along. Sure, these may be super-hero stories about nothing, but they're something worth reading.
Hubert Vigilla is a contributor for Treble and VideoScope.