Major Spoilers Extra: Madman Atomic Comics #3

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Or – “Part Two Of Our First Inaugural Bruce Otter Friday!”

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Depending how this flies, we may go ahead and package this sort of thing for all the loyal Spoilerites.  Mark I. Mondays, Tom Grice Tuesdays, Starleafgirl Saturdays, Salieri St. Swithins Day, Brent F. Boxing Day, James Deckert…uh…  Japanese New Year.  Um… Rowan…  Ralentine’s Day…  Baal Bawdily Bouncing Banana Boomerang Day.  (Don’t feel bad if I didn’t get to y’all, it wasn’t exclusionary, I just managed to kill the joke dead before getting to you.)  Actually, I hadn’t necessarily intended to recap Bruce’s absolute fave-rave characters, two of the best 80′s era pseudo-superheroes the same day, but I suppose wherever you go, there you are.  Though Nexus was focused on entirely physical concerns, Madman thus far has been not-so-firmly rooted in the realm of the metaphysical, and this issue is about to make the philosophical overtones of the first two look positively anemic in comparison.

Previously, on Madman Atomic Comics: after a prolonged absence from our hearts and pull lists, Frank Einstein (the Madman of Snap City) returned.  But all was not well…  He Mad1.jpgraced through the city, finding only corpses, the only living creature besides himself a small robot called Warren.  Frank helpfully recapped his origin and history to try and jar loose the memory of what could have caused such an apolcalyptic scenario, and finds that Warren (seemingly his own conscience) believes that not only is NO ONE dead, none of his life ever existed: his entire second life as Madman is nothing more than a delusion.  Unable to accept that his beloved Jo was nothing more than a figment of his imagination, Frank decides that if he controls reality, he’s going to make it more aesthetically pleasing to him.  When his attempt to end war fails, Frank screams, frustrated, that he wants to remember everything, and “Warren” disappears, revealing himself to really be Dr. Monstadt, one of his oldest adversaries.  Monstadt tells Frank that he’s within the clutches of a Terror Spell, and that he’ll die soon enough before taking his telepathic leave.  Frank, determined, decides to find a way out, and is amazed to see his childhood comic hero Mr. Excitement leap out of his memories to help.

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The man upon whom Frank’s damaged mind built his Madman persona entreats him to follow into a memory of comic books past, and Frank balks for a minute.  “How do I know this isn’t just another mind trap of Monstadt’s?  I mean, come on!  You’re not real!”  Mr. Excitement explains that he’s really just a “technological rescue beacon” sent to retrieve Frank’s consciousness before it’s too late.  Frank starts to come apart again, repeating that nothing is real.  “Then you might as well just remember your girlfriend, Joe, as just some pin-up chick in a cheesecake calendar!”  The mention of Joe reminds Frank of his determination, and he makes his decision…

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I know that Frank can’t stand to see his true love objectified in that manner, but… Hubba hubba zoot zoot!  *bowtie pops off and spins like a propeller*  AH-OOOOOGAH!  Sorry, had to say it.  Mike Allred can draw some awfully attractive women, without even going overboard on the porno sexy (not that there’s anything wrong with that.)  Entering the comic book, Mr. Excitement and Frank find themselves traveling through Frank’s memories of stories past.  He travels through strange spectacles, evoking ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland,’ ‘Popeye,’ ‘Prince Valiant,’ ‘Krazy Kat’ and more.  “If this works,” says Mr. E, “you’ll be more assured and at peace than you’ve ever been.  You’ll be able to tell the difference between your tre memories and the distorted, false ones.”  Frank is confused about this statement, and thinks that Excitement is messing with his head.  As they travel through Frank’s memories of classic Batman and Superman, Mr. Excitement explains how he wouldn’t, COULDN’T manipulate Madman…

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I like the Will Eisner ‘Spirit’ and Jack Cole ‘Plastic Man’ pastiches on the bottom row, there.  As they continue, Mr. E explains that by sifting through his fictional personas, Frank will finally be able to tell what is the real him and what is just constructed out of the old adventure stories he’s read.  As they continue, they shuffle through ‘Peanuts,’ ‘Where The Wild Things Are,’ even Dr. Suess to find what’s real.  “What exactly is your mission,” asks Frank, and his childhood hero smiles.  “To bring you back.  To make sure you don’t settle on some altered variation of who you really are.”  Surrounded by the characters from L’il Abner, Frank replies that he doesn’t know if he’ll recognize reality, but this ain’t it!  Heh.  The conversation takes a turn for the deeply metaphysical as Frank realizes that “there is no real, true me since everyone would have a different view of who I am.”  Whoa…  that’s deep, Ogre.  Mr. Excitement says that’s why they’re looking for Frank’s personal truth…

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Defined by extremes, eh?  Love and hate.  Heroism and selfishness.  Frank is confused by all the images of Joe that they keep encountering, and Mr. Excitement worriedly remarks that he thinks they’re a cry for help…  a sign that time is running out.  In a very interesting artistic bit, we see the real Joe (along with Frank’s other friends watching over his body, and rather than have a “Meanwhile” caption, the images themselves spell out a giant “Meanwhile.”  (Which is why the next image will say “ILE,” by the way.)  It’s neat…  Dr. Flem (one of the men who animated Frank in the first place, reveals that they’ve done all they can, and that even hooking up Astroman (a robot imprinted with Frank’s own brain engrams) hasn’t helped.  In fact, it’s worse, as Astroman is now lost to them as well.  Joe is sad, but finally accepts the final fate of her man.  “It’s beautiful, really…”

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As the duo runs through Frank’s consciousness, not knowing that time is running very short, they continue changing forms, and continue discussing reality and how to recognize it.  It’s very Zen, really, but the combination of psycho-analytic dialogue with trippy imagery throws me a bit.  I find that I’m becoming more engrossed in identifying what artist Allred is referencing than in the story itself, and it bugs me a bit.  Mr. Excitement asks Frank how he thinks he can get and maintain the confidence to keep muddling through life, and Frank thinks that you just have to keep pushing through the hedge maze.

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See what I mean about the dialogue?  It’s an interesting approach, but I think any and all superhero traditionalists who picked the issue out of curiosity just moved on…  Frank asks why he shouldn’t just quit now, to accept the delusion before him, but when he attempts to touch an image of Joe, she crumbles into dust.  “So, do you think I should try to dig up my past, or just let it go?”  Mr. Excitement advises to let it go, to not worry about Zane and instead go with what FRANK knows, with the life he’s chosen to build.  Still changing, moving forward through the surreal mindscape, Mr. Excitement explains that Frank’s minor telepathic abilities have muddied the issue, reminding him of the time he remembers ripping out an enemy’s eye and eating it.  In reality, he simply made his opponent see the most horrible image he could imagine, and Frank’s mind remembers that delusion as reality.  (I greatly appreciate that, as it was one of the weirdly out-of-character moments for Madman.)  Frank suddenly comes to a realization about the true identity of his mentor.

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Revealed as the android Astroman, “Mr. Excitement” explains that his hard drives are wiped clean of emotion, allowing him to objectively study the mind they share.  Realizing that everything they’ve discussed about his mind is true, Frank finds himself changing, phasing faster and faster through identities, and that reality must be close.  “In case something goes wrong…    I just wanna say, thanks.”  Transmuting through a double-page spread of various faces (and it’s maddening to try and figure them all out, so I’m going to run away from it at high speed, though Erik Larsen, Matt Groening, and Robert Crumb heads are in the list, as well as one that looks like Jon Kricfalusi’s Ren and Stimpy work) Madman suddenly finds himself back in his own dead body…  But there’s some bad news.

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Journey to the Center of The Mind, indeed.  Wouldn’t that suck, to find your way home, only to realize your friends thought you were dead and gave you a funeral?  At least they fired them into space, rather than a more traditional and icky sendoff.  Can Madman and Astroman find their way home to Joe and their lives in Snap City?  I’m going to vote with “Not immediately.”

This issue was hugely experimental, and as such I’m a bit concerned about trying to rank it using the Spoiler Scale.  On the one hand, Mike has been able to evoke literally HUNDREDS of different artists successfully, not by tracing panels, but by taking on the quirks of their style, from Kirby to Quitely to Wally Wood and back.  It’s breathtaking, but after several pages worth, I started finding myself distracted by the art, especially when the dialogue got truly esoteric.  Madman has always been an unusual title, with an emphasis on the main characters emotions and peccadilloes, so the overall effect is a sort of “Concentrated Madman.”  Even when the work threw me off, I had to admire the craft behind it, and finally getting back to reality came at just the right time.  One more issue of mental landscape would have been just too much.  I think it’s safest to judge it on it’s own terms: the issue was more of an experiment than a traditional story, and as an experiment, it was mostly effective.  I think that I’ll split the difference, and give Madman Atomic Comics #3 3 out of 5 stars.  It’s good to see Allred back on the character he does best, and I’m looking forward to this book every month.  Now that I’ve driven my old friend Bruce back into the comic stores, none of your disposable income is safe…  Bwaaah hahahahaaaa!

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