A while back, my man Danny “Dicks” Djeljosevic wrote up a column making one very simple argument: Comics Needs More Dicks. Danny immediately made it clear in the piece that he meant that in the literal anatomical sense, not in the sense of “‘dick’ as in ‘guy who’s a jerk,'” because as is still true today “you can just go on Twitter and hear about (and sometimes witness) all the dick behavior happening in the industry.” I’m relatively certain Danny isn’t quite omniscient enough to predict that three years after that piece we’d get Airboy, a James Robinson and Greg Hinkle joint that somehow manages to bridge both interpretations of Danny’s demand, but here we are, with me quoting a piece about increasing comics’ penis quota while wrapping my brain around a comic where a comics writer and a comics artist literally compare dicks while being dicks.
Let me back up a bit. Airboy is a Golden Age comics character created by artist Al Camy and the writers Charles Biro and…goddammit…this can’t be right…Dick Wood. Like a lot of non-Big Two affiliated Golden Age characters, Airboy lapsed into the public domain, but he has popped up a few times since, most notably in an ’80s run at Eclipse Comics helmed by current comics dick Chuck Dixon. Airboy’s schtick is that he’s a fighter pilot who does his thing in an airplane with flapping wings, which allow it to be more maneuverable or something. Because we live in an era of airplanes that can hover and skirt the edges of space, that’s not exactly a gimmick that lends itself to reinvention, though Airboy’s curse of perennially being written by Chuck Dixon instead of Howard Chaykin likely hasn’t helped matters.
This dilemma of modernizing an unmodernizable character is also the narrative hook of Robinson’s meta take on Airboy. Beginning with a phone call from Image Publisher and legendary shit talker Eric Stephenson (while Robinson is himself taking a shit), Airboy aims to be a comic about the business of making comics, or at least a distinctly Bukowskian twist on it. Desperate for that mad Image money (the only reason I trust this story is entirely fictional is because in an early scene Stephenson tells Robinson he’ll match DC’s page rates), Robinson accepts a gig reinventing Airboy despite a stated disinterest in the character and for his own rep as “the Starman guy.” Robinson wants to be making real comics, not doing hack work or kitsch or pulp. Robinson wants to be a hungry young gun, eager to make his mark with bold material, which is why he immediately compares himself to Paul McCartney instead of, I don’t know, Scott Walker.
If you’re rolling your eyes at this point, that’s completely acceptable. Airboy is a comic for people who desperately want comics to be “cool” but have no understanding of what cool even is. It’s like an Entourage homage to Adaptation set in the comics world, only somehow more misogynist and juvenile and misguided. Somewhere online, I saw someone say Airboy is a refreshingly “adult” comic, which made me morbidly curious because that’s the kind of statement that is always made about something decidedly immature. I’m not thrilled that my gut feeling on that remark was correct, I do think comics could stand an infusion of more wizened comics stories but this ain’t it. If anything, this is a comic that is trying exceedingly hard not to be adult, to latch on to a youthfulness its creator maybe never had. And a big part of that is because Airboy is burdened with heaping amounts of Robinson’s try-too-hard self-deprecation in regards to his writing talents, or maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s folding under the weight of his insecurities about the role of the writer in comics in general.
Here’s where we return to the dicks. If Airboy has a saving grace it’s the art of Greg Hinkle, a man who has the style and grace of Darwyn Cooke but has surgically removed Cooke’s retro backwardsness and replaced it with the humanity and passion of Cameron Stewart. Robinson seems to recognize that Hinkle is far more of a natural talent than he could ever be, writing in a bit of dialogue between them where he says he picked Hinkle because he’s not a “normal artist,” he’s “an artistic stylist.” The comment is the writer equivalent of negging, a compliment that is coated in poison, meant to build up this unattainable partner’s insecurities just enough to make them weak and vulnerable to his pick up lines and peer pressure. I know, this is a meta-narrative, this was (almost certainly) not a real conversation, but there’s truth to it, a hail mary bit of meta-grandstanding from a dude who loudly states the duo’s Airboy won’t reek of ironic hipsterism knowing full well that the work he will forever be remembered for starred a ’90s hipster superhero who didn’t want to be a superhero and instead just wanted to run his little ironic hipster antique shop.
If you still think I’m stretching, then let’s move forward to the climax of the book. The majority of Airboy’s pages are devoted to debauchery, the boys heading out on a wife-less night of adventure after Robinson has gotten cabin fever in the hotel room he rented to be their “workspace.” Initially, Robinson can only coax Hinkle into drinking, a narrative stand-in for the way the issue begins with some harmless shitting, dissolves into gorgeously colored insomniac writers’ block suffering and then descends into lots of drugs and pointless sex. The duo goofily calls coke “charlie,” leading to a “twist” that should be obvious to anyone who went through a Beat or Velvets phase in high school, and they hook up with a woman who is larger than both of them combined and gets exactly zero dialogue. In the morning aftermath, they roll out of bed from either side of the woman and we get a Djeljosevic-approved bit of Robinson dick, seemingly larger than average (the perks of writing yourself into something!). That is, until Hinkle comes waltzing out to the living room and lets his “anaconda” dangle in front of Robinson’s face.
It’s not enough for this visual gag to be there, Robinson has to comment on it too. He angrily demands Hinkle put away his Dick Wood but remains nude himself, point being that Hinkle may have the artistic chops and the divine endowment but Robinson gets to call the shots, whether that be the drug intake (because Robinson may be Golden Age but he’s not gonna let these millennial comics fucks have all the fun), the sexual shenanigans (in which Hinkle is pointedly left on the bottom, nearly suffocating between Nameless Hook-Ups giant breasts) or the meta-comic they’re crafting. This ain’t adult comics, it’s a childish temper tantrum, a midlife crisis from a guy who became a DC A-lister who rebelled against comics fanaticism by creating a guy with a soulpatch and steampunk goggles and collected old Elvis statues and lampshades
I think what bugs me the most here is that the only element of Airboy that feels genuine is Robinson’s unwillingness to grow the fuck up. Robinson isn’t merely aware that he’s kind of bringing down everyone around him, he’s reveling in it, as though admitting that because he’s insecure of his abilities and asserts power over those more talented than him, that’s okay because at least he’s honest. This conversational tactic pops up throughout the issue, my description of it above taken almost verbatim from the first conversation Robinson and Hinkle have which in turn is mirrored when the twosome are hanging out at a bar and Robinson excuses his “honesty” as the kind you get from a night of booze and drugs. But why is it that this brand of honesty is what comic writers like Robinson always turn to? Robinson even makes a dig at Daniel Clowes in a previous bar scene, blaming Clowes for the influx of clever irony in comics instead of perhaps considering Starman deserves an equal or larger amount of the blame in mainstream comics. Yet Clowes’ work, drenched in surreality and vintage styles as it may be, feels ultimately more honest, rawer and crueler perhaps but more impactful specifically because it makes no excuses for its snap judgments, has no internal conflict over the writer versus the artist because Clowes is both.
Robinson’s greatest talent is arguably this impenetrable self-awareness defense. Airboy is a work that stands out as artistically interesting and worthwhile but narratively moribund, yet to say that is to open yourself up to accusations of “not getting it” or “taking things too seriously.” What if I get it and don’t take it seriously and just think it’s a waste? What if I want an actual adult work, a series that digs into the insecurities of age and increasing irrelevance not with sad gestures at hip attitudes and humor but with subtlety and wit? Or what if maybe I just want a comic with some dicks in it that doesn’t make me feel like a dick for reading it?
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