by Chris Hicks
Slave Labor Graphics/Amaze Ink, TPB, © 2000
Reviewed October 2000
I picked this book up on a whim after just scanning a few pages of it - which itself is something of a testament to writer/artist Hicks, as it carries a hefty $29.95 price tag and is in that black-and-white-with-grayscale format which so often seems to signify an artist trying to overreach himself. After all, Dan Vado's Slave Labor Graphics is more discriminating than that (witness Vado's own The Griffin, Hero Sandwich, and Scarlet Thunder, all worthy titles on their own).
The story at first glance seems like the kind of yarn any aspiring comics creator would try his hand at without having much of an idea what to do with it: Sam Smith is a man without a nose. More to the point, he's a man without a point: He works a steady, boring job at a company called N, living in a small apartment and taking care of his dog What. One day he gets in the elevator at work to go home, and encounters two monolithic guys in black coats looked suspiciously like The Shadow on steroids. Worrying that they're about to bomb the building, Smith steps in to stop them, and launches himself into a world of adventure and intrigue, alongside his long-time crush, Julie.
Along the way he encounters mad scientists, their robot henchmen, the head of N, several clones of himself, a lady mime with bizarre powers, secret bases hidden in time, flying fortresses, a Russian wind god, a giant Samurai robot, and a global conspiracy dating back to the creation of the universe.
And the thing is, Hicks does it all justice.
Start with the artwork: Hicks has a plain style, but an immensely expressive one. He has full command of his medium, communicating the drudgery of Smith's job in a few wordless pages at the beginning. He shifts from multi-panel pages with dense word balloons to full-page spreads effortlessly. His characters look distinctive (without wearing superhero costumes!), and their faces are endlessly expressive. He mixes the cartoony look of Smith and a few others with the realistic appearance of Julie. Why I've never heard of this guy before, I don't know.
Better yet, the story hangs together and makes sense. Hicks takes plenty of liberties, and some don't stand up to close scrutiny (why are the conspirators bothering? What exactly are they conspiring after?), but he obfuscates a lot of that away perfectly well, and mostly focuses on carrying us along for the ride.
And what a ride it is! Smith gets into all kinds of jams because of trying to do the right thing, and then isn't able to extricate himself from the situation. But he handles it all without shirking his responsibilities. He isn't quite an "everyman" hero because he's a little too handy with his fists and a little too lucky, all-in-all. Still, he shows just the right degree of befuddlement and anger at what's happening too him, without ever descending into whining.
Smith cascades from one situation to the next, slowly unravelling the story of who these strange people he's met are. Few of them are quite what they seem, and they're all distinct personalities. But it all leads to a final conflict with everyone who's behind everything, and the end result is entirely satisfying.
I'd never heard of Mister Blank before picking up this book, but it's a bargain for the price (and is 350 pages long!). If you can track down a copy, I wholeheartedly recommend it. It's an awful lot of fun.
hits since 28 October 2000.