What do we have here? Well, we have an independently released creator-owned comic series: Johnny Space Commander, by Sean Parnell.
Mr. Parnell was kind enough to send me issues #1-4 for review purposes, so being the stand-up guy I am, I decided to do just that; read Mr. Parnell’s work and then give you delicate readers of discerning taste, my opinions on said books.
Johnny Space Commander follows the misadventures of the titular hero in a tongue-in-cheek throwback to serialized sci-fi adventures of the 50’s. More often than not we’re presented with short scenes comprised of endearing pastiches that develop the plot just as quickly as the jokes are volleyed about, then we’re presented with an abrupt chapter break, something along the lines of “This thing just happened, why/how/what will it mean? Find out immediately following this sentence, in the next chapter!”
I believe this is done solely for reasons of style, playing up the campy, serialized aesthetic, yet it can sometimes do a disservice to the narrative by continually pulling you out of the quickly developing stories. It breaks the flow, sometimes a bit too much, and leaves strange, unnecessary hiccups in otherwise straightforward and succinct tales. If these stories were originally written as web comics and thus the broken, stutter-step structure was inherently coded into them then it would make sense, but if they were conceived and always intended to be written as full-fledged comic books it makes little sense. It sometimes feels like a running joke that never quite finds its footing. That being said, making sense is senseless when we’re speaking nonsense – and Johnny Space Commander is definitely to be taken as nonsensical madcap. It reminds of an early Marx Brothers film; Surrealistic chaos sold through snappy dialog. It’s a helluva lot of fun to read through and the frantically paced narratives keep you on your toes as a reader.
The humor varies wildly between juvenile potty humor, pop-culture references and character nuance/behavior, and then, the meta commentary upon all of. The dialog is quick and sharp, the situations are ridiculed smartly and there is an infectious and bombastic energy surging throughout the proceedings. It feels like a great cartoon series just waiting to happen; this is all very vibrant and alive stuff, and it seems barely containable on the static page. The sense of timing in the writing seems wonderfully suited to live recitation, so I’d love to see this leap into the world of moving pictures. The medium is the message, of course – so I’m not trying to denigrate comics by saying ‘it could be a show’, sequential art as a medium is wonderful and unique, but there are certain traits to this series that just automatically make me think it would work very well as an animated adventure.
The author enjoys breaking the fourth wall and is continually making self-referential quips both in and out of character. The characters even comment upon their fourth wall destroying commentary – meta-meta-humor. You start to read the whole thing with a wink and a grin as you realize you’re not only in on, but part of the joke.
I did occasionally find myself somewhat dismayed by the repetition of some of the more impoverished comedic beats. We spend almost an entire issue running the already not funny name “Blu Balls” into the ground; it’s a cheap joke and it definitely doesn’t merit mention after mention after mention. A situational joke concerning the pun ‘blu balls’ is grin inducing once, maybe twice, but after the tenth time I just roll my eyes.
This is a small quibble though – and an easily forgivable one. Overall, the humor hits the marks it aims for expertly and the aforementioned pacing of the series bolsters the bits that do work and helps to hide the bits that fall flat – it’s moving so quick you’ll forget about the lame Blu Balls pun in a few seconds and stumble upon something that is genuinely funny.
Each issue contains a short back-up story as well and these are absolutely fantastic. Take for instance, “Jack Kirby’s Puberty” it probably shouldn’t work – but it really does.
It is deliriously silly and I’d buy a full length book of it in a second. Each back-up is different in each issue, but they’re all quite good. They’re great little escapes into other genres and have attitudes and lives all their own.
The art in the books is crisp, simple and often times convincingly kinetic; Parnell manages some subtle and hilarious facial expressions – you can learn a lot about the characters just by looking at them. There is a wealth of style and personality given to these seemingly utilitarian images; they’re also usually quite intrinsically funny.
The backgrounds are actually hand-painted watercolors so they possess a textural, tactile quality that makes them engaging even though they’re basically one or two tone backdrops. They emphasize the skewed characters, helping them stand out and pop off the page in all their cartoony over-acting. I find it to be a very compelling look and I wish more people used hand-painted backgrounds.
Overall this is a great series that I can wholeheartedly recommend; it is fun, fast-paced, and imbued with enough genuine artistry to elevate the whole into the realm of the ‘professionally created’ indie comic.
Go buy a few issues! Support creator-owned independence and laugh your ass off while you’re doing it.
Creator, Sean Parnell bio:
A man of mystery and artistic power, whose artistic power is exceeded only by his powerful mystery.