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November 14, 2013

Smash: Trial by Fire, by Chris & Kyle Bolton

Good-hearted but impulsive kid contracts super-powers, tries his best -- but being a hero is never easy.


We featured this book at our most recent Comics Jam, projecting the book up on the screen to read with the kiddies of the after-school crowd. A fun read-aloud, the dialogue is clever and funny, the story lopes along at an easy pace once it gets rolling. The feel is something of a cross between Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Spider-man -- though unlike Greg Heffler (protagonist of the Wimpy Kid series) fun-sized hero Andrew Ryan isn't, you know, a jerk. He's a good kid who idolizes the local superhero named Defender, trying to live up to his example. Even without powers Andrew attempts to make his world a better place, to confront bullies or help kids in need (in one sequence attempting some dashing derring-do involving a tire swing to rescue Halloween candy from the greedy clutches of sidewalk goons -- with the usual disastrous results).

Andrew's life is made yet more messy when his hero is captured by archnemesis superbaddy Magus, and in an accident that follows a botched transfer of powers the hero gets 'sploded all over the place. Bystander Andrew is a block away from the incident but fallout from the blast strikes him and he soaks up all of the heroes abilities, just in time to save himself from his own persecutors.

Grade school angst and daily trauma are complex enough without having to learn how to save the world, but as Spidey's Uncle Ben said: with great power comes great responsibilities, and Andrew is willing to meet the challenge face first and at high velocity, earning his hero name and giving a title to the book.

The art is loopy and cartoony and amusing, with bright colors and iconic characters. Not terribly fussy about background detail except where the story requires it, the focus is on the personalities of the story. Expressive faces, animated gestures, high impact action sequences, the characters emote well and manage sight-takes that act as punchlines in standalone panels. A 3x2 horizontal panel format works well to propel the story even if the book is an odd size for the shelf. It stands out, physically and metaphorically: kids are always hungry for young characters that remind them of themselves, but the superhero genre has few personalities to which they can relate. Smash is one that works well at this level.

It's odd there aren't more books like this considering the demand. But established superheros from the mainstream companies have to strike a balance between drawing in new (if not younger) audiences and also remaining faithful to the canon. Transgressing the orthodoxy tends to alienate the legion of fans who shell out 4 bucks plus per issue as they hit the racks of the comic shop every Wednesday.

Every few years we see a series starring a kid superhero (Zinc Alloy, Power Pack, et al. Battling Boy most recently) but few seem to stick around or find a formula that lasts long enough to make its own audience. Looking forward to see if an author can find a formula that works and is durable. I'd love to see a superhero version of Bone, Amulet, Tintin, Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix, etc. --a series that truly manages to be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Smash doesn't try to be, but given the cliche-heavy genre of superhero comics he's a worthy starter hero for kids eager to see themselves on the page flying around in a cape and bashing into things.

Posted by Dave at November 14, 2013 06:28 PM