LESS THAN HEROES More Than Stellar
Everything else in the world these days comes down to marketing and licensing, so why not superheroes? Those latex clad crusaders are usually considered above such petty concerns, we think of them as absolutes of good and righteousness. If a superhero wouldn't do good for good's sake, if in the end it came down to a business decision, there goes all the romanticism of the golden age super-hero.
The characters, then, inhabiting David Yurkovich's Less Than Heroes must not be superheroes in the traditional sense. Contrary to the title, they aren't less, they're just different.
In Yurkovich's mind, even costumed do-gooding has become a lucrative career. Cities all over North America give exclusive contracts to superhero teams, granting them free reign in the city and preventing them from fighting crimes outside it. That's not to say the heroes are motivated by greed--they've just realized financial security is essential to life in the modern world.
Less Than Heroes is a reissue of Yurkovich's limited run series about Threshold, Philadelphia's official superhero team. The four heroes don't seem particularly enthralled by their job. Cosmopolitan, the team's magician, has made it his life's goal to find a copy 1974's TV movie Killdozer for example. Clearly these guys don't always think about heroics.
That sense of the everyday is Yurkovich's gift to the superhero idiom. Superheroes have been many things in the past: entirely noble, internally conflicted, or perpetually misunderstood. Rarely, though, have they been portrayed as mundane, distracted, or just plain bored. It's not that Threshold don't find themselves in a string of life-threatening situations, and it's not even that they don't seem to like it. What Yurkovich creates is a sense of superheroing as another part of the characters' lives, a career choice clearly different from most others, but a career nonetheless.
He accomplishes it with a great deal of style. The artwork avoids the exaggerated realism of a typical superhero book, opting for a starker, more heavily contrasted black and white look. Everything Yurkovich draws is all angles and shadows, and though it's a style taking some used, it perfectly suits the tone of his writing.
The writing is the book's greatest strength. Yurkovich acknowledges the superhero genre as inherently ridiculous, and that any book even making nods to the cliches of the genre will be in constant danger of seeming... well, silly. But he isn't afraid of being silly either, throwing enough jokes to tempt one to think of Less Than Heroes as a comedy. It is, but there's always something darker just below the surface. Whether it's Lightning Man, an obscenely powerful entity confined to a government testing facility, or the origin of the book's major villain, there's a understandable seriousness to the stories. That Yurkovich possesses the skill to create a villain called the Stamp Collector and not have it come off as a joke is something very admirable.
Yurkovich's world doesn't hold the same innocence as classic gold and silver age heroes. Despite their upbeat nature, the characters in Less Than Heroes inhabit a world where contracts must be signed before crime is fought. Noble goals are tempered by realistic demands. Maybe that's what makes it so much more interesting than your average superhero comic.
Peter Hemminger writes for Gauntlet Publications Society, University of Calgary