There’s a quote from a bitter old crank that goes “punk rock died when the first kid said punk’s not dead.” Call it Reverse Tinkerbellism, a cynicism so heavy it states belief itself is enough to kill a movement; clap your hands, say oi, clap your hands, drop dead. But punk can’t really ever die, can it? Can you actually kill angst? Can a distaste for the status quo get old? Or does it merely morph, taking on new forms as needed, each one’s life expectancy a little uncertain. Didn’t hardcore outlast classic punk? Didn’t pop punk outlast them all? Ed Brisson and Brian Level don’t explicitly ask these questions in their new Image comic The Mantle, but fuck it, I’ll ask for them.
Making a post-modern connection between punk and that most authoritarian of pop cultures, superheroes, The Mantle thrusts some gutter punks into armagideon time, trailing them from a show by the $ellout$ to a bad psilocybin trip that ends with main rebel Robbie meeting some real life superheroes who grimly inform him he’s the new “host” of The Mantle. What The Mantle is is a bit unclear at this point, other than that it’s some kind of free wheeling energy that gifts its host an imagination-fueled power set while also cursing the host with an archnemesis in the form of the murderous Plague. In that sense, I suppose it’s like being drafted up into a tenure in the latest configuration of the Misfits or the Dead Kennedys– sort of awesome until you realize some terrifying dudes hate you and are never going to let you out of their sights until you’re dead and some other sap has filled your shoes. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Brisson has a punk rock past so he has the nihilism down, better yet he’s currently bogged down in the trenches of comics, where everyone dies all the time and gets resurrected at will to greater or lesser affect. Just as the punks killed off prog rock only to get killed by their own New Wave bastards who promptly got killed by hair metal which got killed by grunge and oi, fuck, you get the picture, superheroes are stuck in that loop too, where some bearded British gents showed up to usher in a grim and gritty era of meta-heroics that only led to more eXXXtreme heroics until now we’re at a point where spectacled Canadians are making their own meta-commentary on the cape and spandex biz. This ain’t Animal Man or Doom Patrol, though, which is to say it’s lean and mean and focused, “New Rose” to Grant Morrison’s Dark Side of the Moon over in the pages of Multiversity.
Credit Level with a lot of that, since the script Brisson hands him could have come across as the wrong kind of homage with a different artist. Level infuses every panel with some paradoxical shimmery griminess, colors tripping the light fantastic, full on day-glo bursts shooting out at the reader as the scenery and the characters all look sickly pallid and destitute. These are real people, in real fashion, in real shitty squallor, not beautiful, hyper evolved fashionistas or Madchester shamen and hooligans. There is still ample imagination in the character designs– dig that genius strongwoman Kabrah, looking like a mixture of Bane and Shanna the She-Devil– but you can tell Level’s primary purpose was to make Brisson’s script seem lived in and solid, believable enough to make the “hidden powers in the real world” angle of the plot stick without it seeming “realistic” in the ’80s comic sense.
Level gets some help on this front from Brisson’s choice in scenery, as the comic moves through an anonymous Ontario downtown to Prince Edward Island, neither of which are exactly standard superhero shenanigan settings. That frees Level up to flex his artistic muscles, able to avoid falling back on standard icons and landmarks and to also use that environment to make the naivety of our punk leads clearer. When Robbie first imagines himself a Mantle costume, he of course looks like some third rate Bowie knock-off and rightly gets questioned on it by his girlfriend Jen, but the boy isn’t a metropolitan sophisticate, he’s only got showy glam stars for reference points, and maybe an ’80s cartoon hero or two in his mental archives.
Those old Vertigo comics also went beyond Metropolis and Gotham but they would lean exotic or industrial, whereas The Mantle’s premise is wrapped around not just death and rebirth but also letting small town imaginations aim big for once. You can read the “inheriting The Mantle” angle of the story as an extension of that, akin to the awakenings that transpire whenever a small town kid makes it out to the larger world and fails spectacularly on their way to eventual success or death. The Mantle pulls no punches, so the latter end of that forked road is going to be transpiring more often than its optimistic other half, and Level makes that grotesquely clear in the issue’s first major twist– let’s say it’s a head exploding moment and leave it at that.
As often as it’s argued that punk is dead and whatever currently utilizes its name is a rank pretender, superheroics gets the same bad rap, fanboy forum declarations and awkwardly out of touch mainstream publication deadlines all making it clear that we’re about three decades past any true innovation. Ed Brisson and Brian Level clearly don’t buy into that rhetoric and The Mantle is a love letter to the genre that works because it’s not blind to its flaws. There’s still life to superheroes, even if some of the titans of the form aren’t much better than walking dead, and The Mantle aims to prove it by embracing death and evolution. The other punk mantra, after all, is to kill yr idols, and this is a series that promises to do that on a routine basis. But it also promises to birth new ones, characters with a willingness to go into the darkness and come out tougher or leave behind a lesson for whoever follows.
Maybe The Mantle won’t hit Invincible levels or even last beyond two arcs but truth be told it’s already a far better trip in its lone issue than the bulk of the superhero commentary the legends of the genre pass off these days. For starters, it has an actual fucking arc in this debut rather than a compressed storyline that will unfold over dozens of issues, complete with a bonafide ending that makes this a true standalone issue. There’s a reason I continue to harp on the punk similarities and it’s in part because The Mantle #1 is a sharp 7″, the right kind of fun and furor in a small, tidy package. I’m too old to be a kid, so I think it’s safe for me to say punk’s not dead, it’s just gained superpowers and is now calling itself The Mantle.
The Mantle comes out tomorrow, Wednesday, May 13th, 2015 from Image Comics.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover