By Andy Mansell | Contributor Published: 12/19/2013 10:00 am EST
Publish date: December 11, 2013 Publisher: BOOM! Studios
There are times when you fall head-first into a book not knowing anything about the premise or the creators. With Polarity, I did not know that the writer was a rock star—Max Bemis, the lead singer and lyricist for Say Anything and Two Tongues. I did not know that he has been hospitalized multiple times for bipolar disorder and that this condition almost side-lined his singing career. Lastly, I did not know this was a superhero book.
This is an entertaining comic, but it is a dangerous one in the wrong hands. I am not talking about the kid who set himself on fire because he saw it on Beavis & Butthead. I am sure thousands of kids came home during the depression with a sore eye from a finger poke delivered by a would-be Moe Howard.
No, the problem stems from the incredible storytelling and spot-on words found in the first issue. In retrospect, Polarity #1 reminds me of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. In that great (or near great—depending on who you ask) novel, Wallace gets inside the depressed mind in such a way you don’t just empathize, you can almost physically feel what his character is feeling. No, I’m not suggesting that Bemis is in the same class as DFW (few are!), but he succeeds in showing the pull Tim feels from both sides of his world: the explosively manic and the dull MOR-medicated.
Bemis does not do anything as obvious as making the manic lifestyle seem a like a better option, but since his character is telling the story, we need to always be conscious of where his head is at. I could see an undiagnosed bipolar personality misinterpreting the first issue and ending up never seeking help for his condition. I became so involved in Tim Wood’s life that, until a tell-tale moment in issue 4 where the narration breaks (and it is fairly clever how Bemis and Coelho almost get away with it), I hoped that all of the super/meta/mutant shenanigans were all in his head.
The book also tackles the importance of art and expression in one’s life. Tim’s art—which is inspired when manic, and dull and boring when healthy—is fascinating, and the creative team does a terrific job of presenting the damaged mind in an explosion of inspiration.
The artist Jorge Coelho is able to keep a steady pace. Each page is laid out in a very readable fashion. His graphics remind one of Kevin O’Neill, a little Mike Dringenberg, and more than a little Alex Robinson of Box Office Poison. And Tim Woods, our main character, is a dead ringer for the central character in Craig Thompson’s Blankets.
This book is not perfect—far from it, but the storytelling has such a confidence it demands that you stay involved until the end. An added storytelling bonus: Tim’s place in every panel seems to be so carefully chosen; this heightens our awareness of his struggle and his later emergence as a hero.
SPOILER ALERT: Upon a second reading, I think it is fairly obvious that the whole thing is in Tim’s mind. In fact, he could stop taking those pills—because he thinks they are suppressive super-pills—go on a manic episode run outside pants-less, and get hit by a car (a la the first few pages of issue 1). Normally I would applaud this, but there are a few moments that are told outside of Tim’s narrative and that—as they say at NASA—screws the pooch, namely the first time we get into the mind of Dr. Mays. This three-page segment throws everything out of whack. Unless this entire mini-series is actually happening—obviously enhanced and distorted by Tim’s mental state—are we supposed to read it as a superhero parody? Every panel in the scene that takes place in the high school gym is a key—but how do we read it? What is the moral? If you fall off your meds, keep a sense of humor and don’t kill any bullies as you punish them? In this day and age, a scene like this doesn’t work, even as a self-parody.
A book that can be read multiple ways can be a work of art or it can be dangerous mess if the artistic vision is not focused. Either Mr. Bemis lacks some maturity as a comic scripter (this is his first comic credit and it is a complex book) or I am faltering as a reader. Either way, it is a muddle, but a provocative muddle nonetheless.
Andy Mansell lived in Chicago for over 40 years until his doctors advised him that he would die soon unless he got as far away from the land of Italian combo sandwiches and soft serve frozen custard. He is currently growing rather old rather quickly in Charlotte, NC as a member of the Waistline Protection Program. He lives for four things: his family, baseball, opera, and of course great comics. He is also looking for a ride back to Chi-town for just one more breaded steak sammich. He will provide gas, guaranteed. Contact him at this address.