Madman Atomic Comics #1
Or – “They’re Coming To Get Your Disposable Income, Bruce… They’re Cooomiiiinggg!”
See, that was supposed to sound like Johnny from “Night Of The Living Dead…” My old pal Bruce, you see, has the same relationship with comics that Michael Corleone has with ‘The Family': every time he thinks he’s out, they PULL HIM BACK IN. The return of Madman is one that is met with much accolades from a few thousand die-hards and a collective “Buh?” from those too young to remember the salad days, or too mainstream to have picked up a book without an ‘X’ or a bad girl in it. Suffice to say that Frank Einstein’s adventures are right up there with “Bone,” “Sin City,” and “Preacher” as the best stuff happening in comics in the 90’s, and it’s a wonderful feeling to see an old favorite returning like this. I haven’t felt this psyched about a comeback since Sci-Fi picked up Doctor Who… Step behind the curtain, and I’ll show you why.
Once upon a time, a young man was brought back from the dead. He made some good friends, had some high adventure, met Superman and Nexus, and was routinely bright, funny, entertaining, and just plain good comics. Then, the speculators came. Like a plague of locusts, they descended upon the industry, trying desperately to apply a Wall Street sensibility to a hobby that was essentially a niche market for nostalgia buffs, and nearly destroyed an art form. As all good things must end, so did the dead man’s book. The days of endless expansion were over, replaced by the three B’s: boobies, blood and bathos. When the speculators departed for greener pastures, the balloon burst, companies went under, the winds changed, and the dead man’s creator went to work for a heathen conglomerate, working on a title with an ‘X’ in it. Years passed, and the only truism that fits the new comic book industry is “Everything Old Is New Again.” Thus do we give you: Madman Atomic Comics.
Our spooky zombie theme continues, as we see Madman leaping through traffic, seemingly the only living person left on the planet. Being at his core a social animal, as well as a hero, Madman leaps through town (as seen above) finding no one moving. Opening the door of a parked car, he is shocked to see a very dead-looking corpse tumble out at his feet. In a panic, he races into the nearest structure, desperately searching for a living soul… when the real horror occurs to him.
Joe is Josephine Lombard, Frank’s main squeeze and anchor to humanity. He runs back into the streets of Snap City, thinking (or perhaps hallucinating?) for a moment that he hears something. Ghostly human forms appear in a cloud of smoke, but he runs right through them, which freaks him out even more. Frank yells for someone, ANYONE, to answer him, and is surprised to see an old friend respond… an old friend who never spoke before.
Aside from bearing a striking resemblance to the mascot for the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Warren is an extremely advanced A.I. and is seldom seen without his counterpart, Marie. He’s never been shown to be able to speak before, but he informs Frank that Frank himself is the source of the plague that has destroyed humanity. “This is a nightmare!” screams Frank, but he can’t wake himself up, even by pinching his arm. Never the most stable of individuals, he starts repeatedly punching himself in the face to try and wake up, then collapses and asks Warren for help. “Go back to the beginning,” says Warren, “What is your earliest memory?” He thinks back to his origins, to the moment that Doctors Flem and Boiffard brought him back to life.
The “two men” referenced are Frank Sinatra and Albert Einstein, giving Frank his apropos nom de guerre. You’ve probably realized by now that his name is a homonym for “Frankenstein,” something that I’ve always found funny and a little embarrassing at the same time. Warren’s “if that’s how you choose to interpret it” line is extremely creepy in and of itself, but it gets weirder as we go. Frank remembers Joe, Dr. Flem’s lab assistant, a woman who he immediately felt a connection to, but felt that because of his rather hideous demeanor she could never feel anything for him. “Are you SURE that’s what happened?” inquires Warren. “THAT’S how you remember it?” If we didn’t suspect something was wrong before, that line practically guarantees something is up… After spiraling into depression over Joe, Doctor Boiffard had an… UNUSUAL idea to keep Frank’s mind occupied.
When it’s put before us like this, the bits that we could play off as eccentricities, or weird therapies start to coalesce into something more sinister. It’s a testament to Mike’s abilities as a writer that these pages are as tense as they are, recapping the origins and history of Madman, but also building towards something else… something darker. He remembers the conflict with Doctor Monstadt and the Tri-Eye agency, as well as the wonderfully absurd moment where he saved Dr. Flem’s life BY CHOPPING HIS HEAD OFF WITH AN AXE! The head was later revived and attached to a cloned body, but it’s still an awesome moment. Warren again prompts him, “and that’s EXACTLY how you remember things?” This is creepy as hell…
Frank remembers his encounters with more agents of Tri-Eye, several aliens (including my favorite, Mott from planet Hoople), and mentions “the robots.” “You’re getting there,” says Warren ominously, and I realize now that he sounds like psychologist trying to work with a difficult patient, or at least what television has conditioned me to THINK a psychologist would sound like. Either way, I think that “Warren” is more than he would seem… This seems to anger Frank, snapping back “You’re talking about Astroman, aren’t you?”
The ‘Astroman Incident’ was really the first indication that something about Frank’s previous life was off. Doctor Flem was often seen wearing a Tri-Eye logo, and after a few run-ins, even Frank alongside Tri-Eye once or twice. Interestingly, one of Frank’s powers comes from his “third eye” a mental projection that grows out of his forehead (Eeew), which for the first time, makes me wonder about it all. Frank references his previous life (in which he may have been a brutal killer working for whomever paid the best money) and the formerly just freaky landscape becomes completely hallucinatory…
Frank tries to comprehend what’s being said, but having a giant version of your own head barking at you is, understandably, distracting. The big, giant head reminds him of what he’s done, of the strange powers that he’s wielded (without any real explanation of HOW or WHY), of the life that he’s led, and ominously, of prophecy that he is “one of the four.” Frank wonders if he’s literally one of the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse, but the voice keeps pushing him along, leading him towards the inevitable conclusion. “You don’t know a THING about yourself. Or even what’s real. Think back again… when you ‘came to life.’ ” I do NOT like the look of those quotation marks, folks… “Is that how it REALLY happened? Or is everything just a figment of ONE imagination. The only imagination in existence?” Frank officially freaks out at this point, and it’s hard to blame him, as the voice continues, referencing one of the earliest and most disturbing Madman issues, where he ripped out a man’s eye and ATE IT. “At times, you were the PERSONIFICATION of DEATH. You were brutal, cruel, without conscience. You killed without thinking, or caring. This ‘redemptive hero’ you chose to remember has NEVER existed…”
That’s just thoroughly unnerving. Normally, I’m not a big fan of “everything you know is wrong” stories, but this is a little different. First of all, Mike has gone to great lengths to remind us of “everything we know,” including the important plot points of Madman’s previous runs. We get a little bit of backstory, and for the first time, the differences in tone between the various Madman series are addressed, going all the way back to his first appearances as Frank Einstein, psychic detective in Grafik Musik back in the day. The ending is surreal and freaky, befitting the character, and there’s enough mystery left to keep me coming back.
Most importantly, Mike’s art is beautiful throughout. Though some would complain of its ‘cartooniness,’ he manages to convey emotion through body language, or even show facial expression in a character wearing a mask. The story is compelling (especially for old Madman fans) but doesn’t require you to have encyclopedic knowledge of the character to get it. The tension is also well-crafted, with the art subtly changing throughout the book from realism to dream-imagery, to the point where you almost don’t notice until the big reveal. The total package is beautiful, and rates 3.5 stars and I would even recommend the title to comics newcomers. Mike Allred on his signature creation again is something that everyone should enjoy…