On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: ‘Outside this broken reality’ – in praise of Danger Club
Posted on July 8, 2015
July 8, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
I’m always right. It’s my superpower.” – Kid Vigilante
That line, from the fifth page of the first issue, is the moment I fell in love with Danger Club.
Written by Landry Q. Walker, with art by Eric Jones, and colours by Rusty Drake, Danger Club is an eight issue Image Comics series, telling the story of a team of teen sidekicks whose mentors are missing, presumed dead, and leaving them to deal with the apocalypse.
It began in April of 2012, and due to some pretty severe delays, wrapped up in April 2015. Between the release of issues five and six, there was a gap of twenty-one months.
It was totally worth it.
Danger Club is, far and away, my favourite comic of the last few years. Since it wrapped up, I have re-read it multiple times, studied it, mused upon it, and gushed about it to anyone who will listen.
Now, right now, ‘anyone who will listen’ means you.
The first thing to note is that the book is visually beautiful. Jones’ pages feel crisp, sharp, and open, and while the panelling varies according to the scene, the story is never compromised for the sake of an artful layout. His line, too, is clean, and combines elements of contemporary superhero styles with the cartooning of the Eisner generation. There’s character and weight in every look, and this is extremely important as it’s these moments of facial expression and body language that clues the reader in on the relationships between the members of Danger Club, their history with each other, and their perspective on the world they’ve found themselves in.
The art is functional, deeply communicative, and beautiful, and the pure aesthetics of it don’t encroach upon the storytelling at all. Were it black and white, it would be all of these things, but the addition of Rusty Drake’s colouring elevates it even more.
Early superhero comics dealt in bright, primary and secondary colours. This was a result of the ‘four colour’ printing techniques used at the time, known as CMYK, meaning cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black). As you can see from the combinations in the diagram below, the those primary and secondary colours were the easiest to replicate reliably, and so became the palette for superhero stories for generations.
Drake’s palette is not that. Rather, it is makes use of muted browns and creams, cool, almost deathly, blues and greens, and deep reds, reminiscent of dried blood. Not only does this create a contrast between Danger Club and the archetypal superhero fiction that informs and inspires it, subtly unsettling the reader (a similar trick was used by John Higgins in Watchmen), but it also permeates the entire work with a quiet fear; an aching, just short of anxiety, but of the same primal character.
But lest we forget, comics are a collaborative medium, and all of this beautiful, telling, haunting art would be nothing were it not for the story provided by Walker, and of course, the reverse is also true. And that story is really special, in several ways which I will endeavour to relay as clearly and concisely as possible. Hopefully my head will not explode from the awesome. Best to throw a sheet over the furniture just in case.
First off, Walker’s story covers a ton of ground in eight issues. We are introduced to a complex and multi-faceted world, a clearly traumatised set of core characters, and the central conceit, that those characters are the lone heroes on a world in utter turmoil, extraordinarily quickly.
Relationships and power sets are implied through context, and archetype. Kid Vigilante looks like a street-leveller’s sidekick. He looks like a Robin, and behaves as if he was trained by an obsessive and unyielding mentor. It is not then, much of a leap to surmise that he is the most level-headed of the team, the tactician, and the natural leader. Likewise, Jack Fearless’ appearance combines military fatiques, an eyepatch, and cybernetic limbs. These nods to the wartime hero archetype are suggestive, naturally, of Nick Fury and Bucky Barnes, latterly the Winter Soldier.
Of course, none of this is to say that archetypes define these characters, but the established shorthands of the genre are utilised to give the reader something to hold onto, because the story kicks in hard. Christ, Kid Vigilante and Apollo, the godlike alien hero archetype have a knock-down drag out brawl complete with cosmic knuckle-dusters before the first issue is out, in a moment that alludes to that scene in The Dark Knight Returns, but rather than using it as a climax, treats it as a springboard into something entirely different.
Blurb: “My man Dre’ll fuck you up in a minute…”
It’s an autopsy into late-20th/early 21st superhero fiction, digging around in the guts, and grabbing the useful bits, and then grafting them together into something fresh, powerful, and alive. It is at once a love letter, an obituary, and a birth notice. It takes the old, the cliched, and the tired, and cleans off the dust, re-contextualising classic concepts like magical legacies and shrunken cities so we can see them like they must have seemed in the silver age, fresh, and full of wonder. Indeed, the warmth for silver age work is most clear on the opening pages of each issue, as all eight begin with a page lifted from a ‘past’ Danger Club adventure.
It’s not a cynical book either. It’s bleak, certainly, and there are some decidedly gnarly moments, but it’s not without hope. In fact, following the relatively street level opening volley of the aforementioned fist fight with a god, the scope of the thing steadily grows until it reaches full-on Morrisonesque interdimensional meta-pocalypse.
On the way there, themes of parental pressure, grief, duty, loyalty, and fear are all explored, and not lightly either. There is a single page where Kid Vigilante shows vulnerability in front of another team member that encapsulates all of these with a glance, and a single sentence. I first read that sequence a few months before losing my best friend, and upon re-reading it after the fact, it spoke to my own personal experience of grief, and the very real fear that accompanied it, in a profound way.
As I’ve said before, the book plays with the archetypes, cliches, and tropes of the superhero genre, strip-mining seventy years of history for useful ideas, from giant robots, through flying fortresses, into inter-dimensional crises and beyond. To a longtime fan of the genre, there is a familiarity to each of these, a little moment of realisation for each which is enjoyable enough, but I especially envy the novice reader, who comes to these ideas fresh, and gets their head cracked open like Kirby himself was knocking at their frontal lobe.
Oh, and it has two endings. Seriously, there are two versions of issue eight, each with parallel conclusions with radically different implications. Only one is collected in the trades, so it’s worth grabbing the variant ending issue, either physically or digitally. It’s only three pages different, but it’s totally worth it. I know how silly that sounds, but it’s true.
Danger Club is available from Image Comics in two handy collections, Volume One: Death, and Volume Two: Rebirth. Go and read it, because it slipped under so many people’s radars, and it deserves to be read, absorbed, and disseminated back into the collective consciousness of superhero fans and creators.
It tore my guts out of my chest and, once it had seen me safely to a hospital, painted maps of beautiful new worlds on the walls of my ward. Not literally, but close enough.
Read it. Read it now or I will find you.
Andy Waterfield writes this column because he loves comics more than is possibly healthy, and he wants you to share his pathology. He is a member of the British Comics Awards committee, a role he accepted on the possibly misguided assumption that the position will involve a training montage – ideally involving Sean Connery, the Scottish highlands, and the music of Queen. You can find him on Twitter (@andywritesstuff) barking half-truths and dark prophecies into a cold and unfeeling universe.