Throughout the years, even the most famous and enduring heroes have undergone questionable changes or engaged in less-than-memorable adventures -- Electric Blue Superman, Spider-Man's "Clone Saga," Psylocke's several bodies, the list goes on and on. As absurd as it may have seemed to read these stories month after month, imagine what it would have been like for the heroes themselves to actually live them? In his "Angelman: Fallen Angel" graphic novel from Fantagraphics, Austrian cartoonist Nicolas Mahler imagines a hero forced to act out a series of increasingly bizarre stories -- mirroring the progression of superhero comics through the ages -- and ultimately falling prey to some of the same boondoggles that have plagued the writers and artists who created some of the most memorable heroes of our age. CBR News spoke with Mahler about "Angelman," his own perspective on creator rights, and his view on superhero fandom.
With the current debates about creator rights and the historically shoddy practices of major publishers, "Angelman" would seem pretty timely. However, Mahler said the specific inspiration for this story came from outside the Big Two. "I remember reading a longer article (a very long article, actually) about the Neil Gaiman-Todd McFarlane lawsuit in the Comics Journal years ago," Mahler recalled. "The court had to decide who invented which superpowers for which character, etc. This amused me a lot. I was also puzzled because I found out how much money is in this business in the States. For European artists who work in comics, this is just nuts. So this was a main influence, I guess."
Mahler said his own experiences with publishers also influenced the story. "I have signed a lot of contracts in my life, so I know about this a bit -- and of course there are these absurd copyright issues everywhere now, which is a very complex topic."
The cartoonist said he read superhero comics from about the time he was eight to twelve years old before his interest shifted towards American newspaper comics like George Herriman's "Krazy Kat." As such, Mahler said he does not have an in-depth knowledge of the major events and storylines of recent years, but said he is still familiar with the culture. "I think my point of view is very '80s, that is when I stopped reading them," he said. "After that, I only have very superficial information. I know more about the fanboys, actually. I enjoy the scene around superheroes more than the stories themselves. I like it when people take this very seriously, and can debate endlessly about little faults in a superhero`s universe."
Angelman, a squat hero with wings and a pronounced nose, is cursed to live out adventures dictated by an opportunistic corporation. One might wonder how he and fellow hero Captain Unread got into this line of work, but Mahler suggested it's best to not think too much about such things. "I did not really conceive the Angelman in this 'method vein!'" he said. "He is not a real character. I just made him up to deliver good gags."
The hero's powers include sensitivity, open-mindedness, and being a good listener. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these abilities do not put Angelman on a Justice League level. "Of course with those powers, he loses every battle," Mahler said. "As in real life, only brutality, egoism and money succeeds." Angelman does, of course, hit a "grim and gritty" phase in the graphic novel, ultimately picking up a sword to defeat his nemesis, the wicked plastic surgeon Gender Bender. If it seems incongruous that a hero whose primary powers are good vibes should appear in an arc called "Blood Angel," the suggestion is that this is no more a non sequitur than what some characters went through in the '90s.
With Mahler's interest in the culture surrounding superhero comics, the cartoonist also has a bit of fun with Angelman's "fans," who are a thoroughly miserable lot, complaining about every issue (except the ultra-violent one). "I have seen a lot of those fanboys at comic festivals over the years, and the funny thing is that they are completely the same everywhere," Mahler told CBR News. "I think behind any collector, there lurks a sad, unfulfilled person. Not depending if they collect superheroes or other stuff. Why they are so sad, I cannot tell you. It might have different reasons -- mother, not being good at sports, acne, being too intelligent, and so on..."
Mahler's minimalist style is somewhat outside the norm of superhero comics, to put things mildly. But as "Angelman" tells the life of a workaday hero struggling to make ends meet, maintain a rocky marriage with his wife (who oddly looks exactly like him), and meet the outrageous demands of his bosses at Korporate Comics, it is perhaps appropriate that the book takes on a distinctly indie feel. It is, after all, Mahler's style, and the cartoonist freely admits he's not a superhero artist. "You mean, I cannot draw muscles properly? Maybe you are right," he joked. "I have a book about human anatomy at home (no idea why i bought that) but I have never opened it so far. I chose this style of drawing simply because I cannot draw in any other way."
"Angelman: Fallen Angel" is available now from Fantagraphics.