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Monday, May 03, 2004

The flesh, it burns! 

Imagine the superhero mythos as a sports car. A fancy, tricked-out Italian situation, with a cherry red paint job, all-leather interior, heated seats, the most advanced MP3/CD player system on the market, and so on and so forth. You've got all the flash and pomp of superheroes, the costumes and the high melodrama and action (or, let's call it what it is, violence) rolled into one package.

Strip away the glitz and the glamor. Strip away the high sentiments and lofty, black-and-white morality. Remove all the obfuscation of paint jobs and casings, and what you have beneath this sleek package is an ugly mass of steel, a bare churning engine, and raw visceral power not held back by an affected higher moral calling.

And that's where you'll find Codeflesh.

I can pretty much imagine the kind of conversation that Codeflesh developed from. See if you can reason why: Cameron Daltrey is a bail bondsman, a man so in love with the risk and violence of collaring "skips" that he dons a mask at night to track down only the most dangerous ones, those with superpowers and the will to use them for ill. No one knows the secret of Cameron's double-life except his business partner, not even the love of his life, a stripper named Maddy. What Maddy doesn't know hurts their relationship; Cameron is so enamored with the high-risk lifestlye of his alter-ego that he constantly chooses dangerous collarings over meeting her on time for dates.

Sound familiar? Cameron Daltrey could be Daredevil. Or Batman. Or Spider-Man. Or any number of do-gooders putting themselves into a dangerous position night after night, risking their personal happiness in the process, to pursue... what, exactly?

Matt Murdock or Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker might say they risk it all to pursue a higher calling. To do right. To prevent tragedy from afflicting any more lives like it has afflicted their own. Cameron Daltrey, however, does not live in that world; it's absolutely clear that Cameron Daltrey has no such pretensions, and submerses himself in a fatally dicey nightlife simply because he gets off on it so much. It's not about right or wrong, or pursuing justice. All he's doing is what all those other superheroes are doing, anyway: Capturing villains and tossing them in the slammer before they inevitably break back out again. It's a Sisyphean task at best, and Daltrey is the only one on that list that seems to operate under the acknowledgement of that fact.

The stories in the Codeflesh collection are told in 12 page snippets, and their brevity necessitates the anecdotal style of the tales. Joe Casey here exhibits a complete command of pacing that keep things moving briskly but never come across forced, and the dialogue is given enough breathing room to sound natural, and to operate on a higher level than broadcasting necessary exposition. Only once does a character's words wander into the silly territory. The last story is especially striking in its storytelling style, and packs a wallop of emotional impact especially remarkable considering how little time we've "spent" with these characters previously.

Kudos, too, to Charlie Adlard for his art labors. Adlard's managed to take all the glitz out of the sanitized, glorified rock-'em-sock-'em duels of superhero books and turn them into what they really are: nasty, brutal, cringe-inducing, and sadistic affairs. There's nothing clean or clear about Cameron Daltrey's world, and the roughness and busyness of Adlard's panels reflect that well.

(Don't get me wrong. "Roughness and busyness" does not translate to "hard to follow." The art never fails to tell the story effectively.)

All that said, this concept is about played out. I cannot for the life of me foresee more Codeflesh collections that would not essentially be retreads of what we read here, because quite frankly there are only so many superhero conventions to comment upon before you start swallowing your own tail. We have here a collection of meditations on the nature of vigilantism, distilled of pretensions and gaudiness, and to add more on top of it would only sully what's collected here. Codeflesh is a gutpunch of a comic, and deserves a look-through for anyone interested in the underlying realities of the superhero book.

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