Grotesque Anatomy
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
  Pessimistic Previews: Street Angel #3
STREET ANGEL #3Well, that was...different.

Fans of Street Angel might be a little let down by the third issue, due out in September.  The story marks a departure from the manic, madcap tone of the earlier issues, and while the experiment is daring, it's ultimately disappointing.  In place of the goofy ninjas and pirates that served as Street Angel's opponents in the past, this issue sees Jesse battling Satanic cultists who kill their victims in gruesome fashion.  (One panel showing a priest's throat being torn out is especially ghastly.)  There are still some humorous moments (such as a scene where Jesse throws the cult leader off balance by preemptively refusing his marriage advances) but overall the mood is decidedly darker.

Which raises an interesting question:  Is it a flaw in a work if it doesn't deliver what its audience has come to expect from it?  I'm not sure there's an easy answer.  The first example that comes to mind is the old truism that Spider-Man comics work best when he's fighting street-level bad guys rather than cosmic-level or mystical threats.  (Give me a break:  I've been reading the surprisingly intriguing "Life of Reilly" series about the fiasco that was "The Clone Saga" so the example is still fresh in my mind.)  I've seen this criticism leveled a lot against Straczynski's run on Amazing, which is probably fair.  Spider-Man doesn't really work when it's all-mysticism, all the time.  But I always liked the occasional story where Spidey would team up with Dr. Strange, if only because it was fun to see Spidey so out of his element.

So how does this apply to Street Angel?  Well, part of the problem might simply be that it's too early in the series' run to change gears so drastically.  The audience hasn't settled in enough to be ready for a study in contrasts.  (To follow the Spider-Man example, Spidey didn't meet Dr. Strange until the second annual.)  Plus, much of Street Angel's appeal was that it was designed to make comics fun again, so readers may feel somewhat misled by the sudden shift in tone.  In fact, bringing back a sense of fun was practically trumpeted as a mission statement of sorts by creators Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca in an early interview.  Yet with the third issue things have already become more "grim 'n' gritty":  Jesse has been thrown out of a window and lies battered and bandaged as the Satanists attack.  (To return to the Spider-Man comparison, the sight of Jesse bruised and bloodied reminded me of Mark Millar's "hyper-realistic" take on Spidey, a take that's very far from being fun.)  True, in the same interview Rugg and Maruca indicated their desire to experiment from time to time, and I certainly don't want to pigeonhole them or the book.  But just because something's different doesn't mean it's successful, either.

Perhaps it comes back to something David Welsh touched on in one of his reviews:  Mastery of tone.  In previous issues, everything "fit" no matter how odd or insane it seemed.  In this issue, however, the humor feels out of place given the horrific elements that permeate the tale.  In addition, there are other, more specific flaws that keep this issue from being as strong as what's come before:  Narrative captions introduce a new character when that character remains off-panel for another page.  The opening scene of Street Angel crashing through a window is never fully explained.  (Who threw Jesse through that window?  We can make an educated guess, but the writers could do more to integrate this isolated scene with the rest of the story.)  Finally, the ending (which I won't spoil) is frustratingly ambiguous.

If it seems like I hated this issue, then I should clarify that I'm only being hard on it because I've come to expect so much from the series.  If I gave out scores with my reviews, this would probably rate a solid 7 out of 10.  (Heck, taking into account this issue's inside cover squid battle -- easily my favorite so far -- I might even be tempted to bump it up a notch.)  Street Angel -- even when it's not up to its usual standards -- is still better than 90% of the comics out there.
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Iron Fist

by John Jakala

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