Huck #1

Huck #1
Written by Mark Millar
Illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque
Colors by Dave McCaig
Letters and Design by Nate Piekos
Edited by Nicole Boose
Image Comics

You know those situations where someone is very publicly giving you a gift and you're surrounded by family or friends and feel like you need to tell them how much you love the gift and be demonstrative on how much you love it (regardless of how you actually feel about it) because that's what everyone's waiting for?  That's how I felt reading Huck.  It's a book I wanted to love, but about which I ended up having profoundly mixed feelings.  There's plenty to enjoy here (particularly the gorgeous art from Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig) and it's an interesting premise, but it's wrapped in self-consciously "un-cynical" feel-good packaging that didn't quite work for me, along with a few story elements that felt off-putting.

Mark Millar knows how to tell an engaging, highly entertaining, accessible story as well as anyone, and because of his history of success and his generosity to his artistic co-creators, top artists want to work with him. I consider The UltimatesOld Man Logan and Superman: Red Son among my all-time favorite comics, and recent works like Jupiter's LegacyStarlight and Chrononauts are all stories I've loved in recent years (particularly Starlight). That being said, I recognize that he's also a divisive creator, as he creates comics that are self-consciously "edgy", brutally violent, sometimes make light of rape and other serious issues (or just use them as story elements in problematic ways), often come across as profoundly cynical (e.g.: Wanted, Kick-Ass, Nemesis, some parts of his run on The Authority) and can have a sense of meanness and ugliness to them. 

So, this may be one of those times when I realize that I am being influenced by something outside of the four corners of the comic book itself, which is either exactly the right way or exactly the wrong way to review a work of art, depending on who you ask. In this instance, I am aware that Millar wrote a recent post where he stated that Huck was self-consciously intended as an antidote to some of the violence and cynicism that he sees in popular culture (in part as a response to the violence of Man of Steel). To quote Millar:
But we have to remember that these characters were created in the Great Depression to lift our spirits in the darkest times. When things are tough we maybe need a nice, uncomplicated hero a little more and so, like I said, I’m trying this once just to see what happens. As a reader I’m desperate for it. As a writer, it’s been a sheer joy. But both myself and artist Rafael Albuquerque have created something we haven’t seen in a very long time with our new book and that’s a lovely, sweet, Jimmy Stewart/ Tom Hanks/ Steven Spielberg kinda good guy. It’s out this week and we called this thing HUCK...
We really need something to make us feel good right now, this week perhaps more than any other in recent memory. Our job as writers and film-makers is to entertain as well as naval [sic] gaze about the human condition and Huck is my response. I wanted to create a ‘feel-good comic’ like Forrest Gump and ET and The Goonies and It’s a Wonderful Life are ‘feel-good movies’ and I want to see the impossibly-likeable Channing Tatum as Huck and Rihanna as the beautiful girl in town he’s too shy to talk to.
Millar's desire to see an antidote to the cynicism is ironic given that he is responsible for a lot of the cynicism in modern comics. It is in this context that I looked at Huck.  Can something feel utterly sincere and completely calculated at the exact same time?  Because that quantum duality is the feeling I got when reading this comic.  As far as the story, Huck is a simple, kind, generous guy living in a small town that knows a secret: he's got incredible super powers (speed, strength, durability, etc.).  Huck does one good deed each day, and the town keeps his secret.  They've got a good thing going; his good deeds benefit them, and he's sweet and harmless (Forrest Gump by way of Hercules). Eventually this status quo is upset by new folks coming to town, and by Huck deciding to take his good deeds global (which gets people's attention). It is on this note that the first issue ends.

It's probably just in my head, but I feel like saying critical things about this comic is a little bit like yelling at or criticizing a puppy. A self-consciously earnest, cloyingly sentimental, and "feel–good" puppy, but a puppy nonetheless. So, while it ultimately didn't work for me, there's a lot to like in this comic. Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig do some really wonderful work here. The first 5 pages of the comic are almost wordless and the art team does excellent work in establishing the feel and tone of the series. Albuquerque's line work is tighter here than it was in the fantastic EI8HT (where a loose, scratchy line made perfect sense given the weird wasteland setting) and his character design is detailed and fills each character with life and distinct personality. Huck's personality really does come thorough in the art - kind, straightforward, goofy, a little odd. For those used to Albuquerque drawing vampires or very scary people doing very bad things, it's almost unsettling to see him draw non-murdery people.  This is a quieter, more atmospheric book in parts, with some fun action as you see what Huck can do, and Albuquerque is a highly skilled visual storyteller who excels at both dynamic action and quieter moments. 

The coloring from McCaig is similarly skillful. The night skies are starry, the town is sun-dappled and sepia toned, and Albuquerque and McCaig do great work in establishing the feel of Huck jumping from car to car roaming freely (you can almost feel the evening breeze). Their art also very clearly establishes the setting of the story as a mid-fifties to early sixties America somewhere in the Heartland; the coloring does a lot to establish the classic/old-timey feel of the comic (you expect to see lots of kids with crew cuts riding their bikes around the neighborhood). Everything from the cars people drive to their clothes says "Happy Days".  So it's sort of unsettling when you see Huck watching TV and he's presented with a story about the Boko Haram group, a very modern phenomenon.

This is a well-made comic, and Millar's direction and dialogue work within the context of the story.   Huck's kindness and motivations come across.  So what's my problem then? Why not just leave well enough alone and enjoy a well-made comic? I think (apart from the general observation that it's a critic's job to look critically at something and not just say "that was fun") there's a few things that just don't work for me in the comic, along with the fact that it's not just that the comic was expressly designed to be "feel-good" and anti-cynical (which in a way is its own version of cynicism), it's that I can feel that precise motivation coming across and it dampened my enjoyment of the book. 

There's a couple in the story and they're new in town. Huck finds the wife's (Diane) missing gold chain under the water and secretly brings it to her. Later on an older woman in town invites the woman over for coffee and tells her about Huck and how he's the town's wonderful secret and how kind he is. Like many people presented with evidence that Superman lives down the street from them, the woman can't just accept this as face value. However, her incredulity (and that of her husband) at this situation is just presented as cravenness. Diane asks why Huck wouldn't just use his powers to make himself rich, and then when Huck takes action on a more global scale, Diane's husband wonders how much they can get from bringing this to the media. These characters feel to me like a built-in defense to any critique of the story, as the only people who question the wonderful feel-good miracle that graces the town also seem to have only one other defining trait - greed. Who knows, maybe they'll be like the Grinch and they'll come around, but the whole thing feels like an argument that you (the reader) would have to be greedy and cynical not to just love the comic for its heartfelt positivity. 

I also had a problem with the sequence involving Boko Haram. It doesn't surprise me if villains in a Millar story are cartoonishly villainous, but there's something that felt slightly off to me about this lone white guy making his way over to Africa to use his fists to solve difficult problems. I think it's an effort to feel topical and current, but it felt forced.  Given the classic Americana feel that's been strongly established through the art in the story, the trip to Africa to solve terrorism feels incongruous (and makes me confused about when the story takes place).  And it also may be just my take on the story, but Millar chose as an antagonist someone who's evil is beyond dispute and without question, so only a a pure cynic would question Huck's actions (and by extension, the story).  Here's someone (an African terrorist group) who doesn't believe in Huck, and they're terrible (which, I get that Boko Haram is actually terrible). But the characters in the story either believe in the wonder and magic of Huck, or are greedy/evil.  In a way this is somewhat similar to Millar's work in Starlight, where the secondary characters that don't believe in the main protagonist come across as selfish and small, and the villains are cartoonishly evil.  I think these ideas worked more seamlessly there, as Starlight was an homage to Flash Gordon style pulp adventure stories (and all the evil is set on an alien world, as opposed to being a very real, topical evil); maybe this story is best read in a similar light. 

But Huck is a really well-made comic, so it almost, almost works for me. I honestly would recommend the comic, because it's a beautiful book with an interesting premise (and your mileage may vary). I'll likely pick up future issues, because I'm curious to see whether Millar does something interesting and non-obvious with the premise (and because I've enjoyed many of his stories before).  But Huck did not have its intended effect on me.  Maybe I'm a cynical heartless bastard, or maybe I just don't like everyone waiting for me to tell them how good the feel-good gift makes me feel.