The first issue of Spandex managed the rare feat, some months ago, of making headlines in the Sun, the Metro and various online news sources. That's good going for any comic, let alone an indie production sold chiefly through the author's website. The 'story' was in the premise - the world's first all-gay superhero team, although creator Martin Eden has been at pains to emphasise this isn't just a gimmick:
"I feel that a lot of gay comics or TV shows are still in a bit of a niche – even things like Queer As Folk. Look at how most gay characters in EastEnders eventually get written out, because the writers don’t know what to do with them. Spandex is a straight-forward story, the characters face things that any comic characters would face, but they just happen to be gay."
That last statement is only half-true. There's certainly the usual monsters of the week, inter-team relationships/breakups and warring egos, but Eden is also selling himself short. I'll come back to that later on.
Happily for an independent production, Spandex is in full colour, and makes great play of it; the second issue features a fight against an army of pink ninjas and the team are represented - naturally - by a rainbow motif, with each team member assigned a colour that roughly fits their demeanour (the calm, collected one is blue, the joker is orange, the mysterious french one indigo, etc). I'm not entirely sure how this gels with the aim of making the characters' sexuality incidental (nor, for that matter, is this intention best served by names like Glitter, Butch and Diva) but it certainly gives the book a healthy shot of personality. Out of all the comics I've purchased in the past month or so, it's probably the only one that would have been significantly more difficult to read if rendered in black and white.
Beyond the colour, the art takes a little more getting used to. Like Bryan Lee O'Malley in the first volume of Scott Pilgrim, Eden is still finding his feet as a comic artist, which means misshapen fingers and awkward poses pop up more than they should. But the spare and simple lines mostly do the job, while both composition and panel layout are surprisingly dynamic and sophisticated.
The storylines, meanwhile, vary in tone quite wildly over these first three issues. #1 plays more like a parody of the superhero genre, with lines like "Oooh, I'm tingling!" and "We so need a better catchphrase", while the team battle a 50 foot lesbian. By #3, the mood is far more sombre and the plot more like a science fiction parable. There's plenty of sex and swearing, but it's always handled with a light touch - a million miles away from the posturing faux-outrageousness of, say, X-Force: Sex and Violence. In fact, Spandex is considerably more open and less patronising in sexual matters than most mainstream comics, where plunging necklines, corsets and leotards pass for practical battlewear and characters get it on only in order to advance the 'mature' subplot. Where else have we seen men having to deal with involuntary erections while wearing skintight pants? Or a back-up strip that juxtaposes fighting alien invaders with the hero's alter-ego visiting an STD clinic?
Alas, Spandex hits the same stumbling block as many similarly self-aware 'remixes' of the superhero genre - a dearth of originality in the character's abilities. There's a super-strong character, an invulnerable character, a teleporter, a speedster, a ninja, a half-cat mutant and even a gay Multiple Man. Only Prowler, who has the ability to 'connect' to other gay people in the immediate area and utilise their combined knowledge and strength, seems to have been given an ability that hasn't already been done to death. And while there's more to the characters than their powers, it seems odd to take such a staple of superhero comics and make it the dullest part of the fiction. Even the way they're introduced seems to lampshade this lack of interest, with an enemy commentator struggling to remember which is the invulnerable one and which the strong guy.
On the other hand, the mundanity of these power sets serves to underline the genuinely subversive qualities of the comic. Most superhero fiction follows the thematic creed set out by Stan Lee in Spiderman: "With great power there must also come -- great responsibility!" Spidey, Batman and the X-Men all yearn for a 'normal' life; but their special abilities bring with them obligations, and with those obligations comes the suffering and sacrifice, the hard grit of living. Their powers are, we suppose, outlandish interpretations of our own unique talents and privileges. It's a fictional model that presumes its readership to have either stand-out ability or socio-political power and to struggle chiefly with the balance of social and personal responsibilities. And no wonder - the vast majority of comic readers and creators have traditionally been straight, white males. It was always hard to buy the X-Men as an analogy for oppressed minorities when their 'burden' gave individual members more - rather than less - power than the fleeing, wailing humans.
Spandex, like Mark Millar's Kick-Ass, flips this emotional core on its head and in doing so, hits closer to home. It recognises that for most people, straight or gay, it's difficult to conceive of the life of a superhero being one of hardship and heartbreak; instead, it's a fantasy, an attractive alternative to real life. But while Kick-Ass dons his wetsuit to escape the banality of being 'normal', the Spandex team use their secret identities to evade a more fraught existence, and to exert the kind of control they don't have over their lives. You only have to look at Diva, the traditional buxom blonde in tight, revealing costume, who flies in through her bedroom window at night and turns back into a regular-chested 'dumpy woman', frizzy hair scraped back into a high ponytail. Then there's Liberty, the team's transvestite leader. As well as taking drag to its natural extreme by becoming a glitzy, extroverted superheroine in the day time, in issue #2 she's also revealed to be an arch-manipulator, contriving situations in order to keep her superhero team colour-coded and regular in number (one death early on means a replacement needs to be found - in yellow) and spying on her team-mates' bedrooms through close circuit television.
This isn't postmodern tomfoolery for geeky giggles and it's a far cry from the 'What if?' realism of Watchmen. It's a way for Eden to explore gay issues in an engaging and challenging way, without the cumber of worthiness or the confrontationalist tenor of hard-nosed activism. If that isn't apparent from the camp hijinks of the first issue, it should be obvious by the time a character tells a villain he's already come through the darkest time in his life and that her fear-based powers cannot affect him. What should be a tired scene based on a weary trope carries a fresh poignancy for its explicit links to the experience of rejection and self-loathing. Writers of graphic fiction seldom use their work to articulate their concerns in such a way, and based on this evidence, the medium has rarely been put to a more socially responsible use.
Interview with Martin Eden