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Friday, August 15, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review: Leaving Megalopolis

Megalopolis was the safest city in the nation.  Full of brightly-colored superheroes on crazy adventures, it was like a fantasy-land.  And then... something changed.  After a fight against an otherworldly entity, the sky filled with sulfur, and all the metahumans in the city went crazy.  The nation's safest city, betrayed by its protectors, has become a nightmare for every resident. Leaving Megalopolis, Dark Horse's reprint of Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore's Kickstarter sensation, follows a small group of citizens trying to push through the monsters that now rule the city and escape back into America.

In a way, Leaving Megalopolis feels like the dark side of Kurt Busiek's Astro City, a grim counterpart that similarly strips away the layers of artifice and fantasy we tend to put into superhero stories.  In Astro City, stripping away those layers was often done to reach some mundane, fundamental truth about these characters and their world, to examine love and loss amidst the madness.  In Leaving Megalopolis, abandoning the fantasy forces you to confront some scary ideas about what we crave in our entertainment.  Why do we want these dark, gritty stories about the worst of humanity?  Why do we like to tear down heroes and lionize monsters?  How is it sane to claim that tragedy makes you somehow more heroic?  With Leaving Megalopolis, Gail Simone deconstructs grim 'n gritty.

It wouldn't work without some great characters, and the book is a bit too slim to round out its fairly sizable cast.  Thankfully, Simone crafted a truly fantastic leading lady in Mina, a fairly chilly character largely concerned with her own survival who doesn't so much warm up as give in.  But Simone smartly reveals the origins of the character's distance early on, and it informs everything she does.  Mina is harsh, but she's always sympathetic, and whenever the story threatens to overwhelm the characters, Simone brings the focus back squarely on Mina.  The supporting cast are all given brief moments to shine, and in a longer book I'd love to spend more time with them, but I think Simone made the right choice to keep coming back to Mina

There are aspects of the graphic novel that I think could have used a little more room to breathe, however, particularly when it comes to the villains.  One third act twist in particular would have been vastly more powerful had we known more about the character in question before tragedy struck.  I think Simone and Calafiore wanted to 'borrow' the way we felt about the character's analog from other stories, another trick Busiek had mastered in Astro City, but it didn't quite hit me as hard as it should have.  And artist Jim Calafiore has grown considerably in the last few years, illustrating the human drama and more mundane moments quite well.  But in terms of style and design, he doesn't handle the horror terribly well, tending towards fairly simplistic design and structure.

That said, the story is effective overall, and it feels like one Simone may have needed to tell.  Much has been made in the months since Leaving Megalopolis about Simone's strained relationship with a Batgirl editor who kept trying to push her work grimmer and grittier.  Simone has never shied away from darkness, but past efforts had always tempered that darkness with warmth and comedy in a way Batgirl rarely did.  Leaving Megalopolis feels like a conscious return to form, particularly in its powerful closing pages.  Sometimes, that initial, somewhat goofy bit of comics optimism can save your life.  Sometimes, grim and gritty just... isn't called for.

Leaving Megalopolis isn't perfect, but it will leave you wanting more, and Simone and Calafiore absolutely nail the ending.  As a standalone graphic novel, I'll admit to being a little bit dissatisfied.  While it is superior to similar projects - The Walking Dead springs most immediately to mind, but I think the New 52 Suicide Squad (and the New 52 philosophy in general) is an apt touching point as well - it feels like just a snapshot of a wider, weirder story.  Thankfully, it isn't just a standalone graphic novel, as Simone and Calafiore have announced their intentions to return to it in the future.  Tellingly, I'm already excited to spend more time with Mina and the monsters of Megalopolis.

Grade: B

Leaving Megalopolis was created by Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore, and was initially funded through Kickstarter and self-published.  Dark Horse Comics will be publishing a hardcover reprint of Volume 1 on September 17th, 2014. You can pre-order it here.

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