Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Whole Story - Street Angel

"If I were Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne, I would've killed myself by now."

The above quote comes from a 2003 Comic Book Resources interview with Brian Marcua, co-creator/co-writer of Street Angel, a superhero parody about the homeless skateboarder Jesse Sanchez. Maruca and co-creator/co-writer/artist Jim Rugg were tired of the trends they saw in superhero comics; among them decompression and the melodrama Maruca referred to in his proclamation of hypothetical self-slaughter. Rugg and Maruca wanted to put the fun back in superhero funnybooks. They wanted self-contained, complete stories in their single-issues rather than chapters designed for the inevitable tpb reprint. They wanted a female hero and one that wasn't shaped like a porn star. They wanted to defy expectations of superhero comics and even those of superhero parodies, and Street Angel was the result. It only lasted 5 issues, and that seems far too short.

Jesse Sanchez, a.k.a. Street Angel, is no brooding Bruce Wayne or whiny Peter Parker. She's a homeless skateboarder who ditches class, scavenges for food, and occasionally fights evil. Jesse's home is Wilkesborough - the toughest, poorest ghetto of Angel City. We never learn why Jesse's homeless, where or who her parents are, or how she developed her crime-fighting abilities. We only know she kicks butt and doesn't take any crap from ninjas. And ninjas, by the way, are one of Angel City's more prominent minority groups.

Slave Labor Graphics published Street Angel #1 in 2004. The cover of the first issue shows the story's villain, Dr. Pangea, looking up at the bottom half of the one-sneakered Street Angel mid-jump. The thing you notice first about the cover is all the freaking pink. You don't see comic books on the stands with that much pink. You certainly don't see superhero comic books with that much pink. In fact, you really don't see pink at all.

My very first impression of Street Angel was that it was kind of a funnier, way more violent, Adult Swim answer to Powerpuff Girls. In the first issue, like the trio in Powerpuff Girls, Street Angel is summoned to the mayor's office because a villain is on the loose. Unlike Powerpuff Girls, the mayor sends cops to force Street Angel to his office, she makes short work of them, but goes to the mayor's office anyway and punishes him by yelling everything through a megaphone. Street Angel, of course, finds Dr. Pangea's hideout, kicks a lot of ninja butt, stops the villain's plans and saves the planet from re-one-continentification. The second issue overall feels a lot like the first. This time Street Angel has to protect Wilkesborough from a battle between the ghetto's ninjas and a few galleons' worth of time-warped pirates while dealing with the strange Irish/Australian astronaut CosMick.

The third issue is where I started to get the feeling that Street Angel was more than I assumed, or at least had the potential to be. Street Angel #3, "Going Street to Hell!", is still funny, still irreverent, but it's different. It opens with Street Angel hurled out of the top floor of a fleabag hotel (presumably, she was in a fight, but we never learn with who or why). Her one-armed (as in, no legs and only one arm) ally the Bald Eagle and a group of nuns find her and bring her to their church to heal. A satannic cult attacks the church while Street Angel's still on the mend and with the help of Jesus (literally, he shows up and helps her lay some holy smack down), she manages to save the church. Street Angel #3 is the most violent issue up to that point and certainly the darkest in the series. Sure, there are satannists and demons, so of course it's dark and violent, but I got the feeling with this issue that Rugg and Maruca were trying to send their readers the message that Street Angel wasn't going to be "just" a parody. The way the bloodletting is portrayed feels like it wants more than laughter, just like Street Angel's three-page wordless beating of Krigmore the Demon has more pure heroism than you would expect in pure parody. Street Angel may be funny, and it may have a superhero, but it isn't The Tick.

Street Angel #4, "Down in the Dumpster Blues", is not particularly funny and there's no superhero action. It's a day in the life of a homeless girl scrounging for food. In a Silver Bullet Comics interview, Rugg said the idea behind making Street Angel a homeless girl was another aspect of the comic's parody: "Brian and I intentionally created a character, environment, and situation that we had zero experience with because we wanted to lampoon the whole authenticity trend in pop culture. They say write what you know, we decided to write only what we don't know." It makes me wonder what was really behind Street Angel #4. The story is good and a little sad, but it isn't the kind of crippling, finger-wagging, social justice sad that you expect from a story about homelessness. I found the story at least a little touching and wonder now if Rugg and Maruca got one over on me.

Street Angel #4 seemed to be the most polarizing issue as far as reviewer response was concerned. Rugg and Maruca posted links to and blurbs from reviews on the official Street Angel site, and either because they're fair-minded or they're masochists they didn't just post positive stuff. All you have to do is read their blurbs to see how divided reviewers were. On one side there's quotes like "the weakest issue so far" and "Where's the adventure? Where's the excitement?", and on the other there's "ballsy" and "while it's sure to leave more than one reader wondering where the ninjas went, it may also be the best issue of the series so far." It's difficult for me to see things from the same perspective as those reviewers, because I missed the fourth issue and didn't read it until the series was reprinted. Ironically, considering the creators' stance on decompression, I think it's a story that comes off better as part of a collection than on its own. But I also think it showed the surprising storytelling range of Street Angel.

Street Angel #5 was the last issue of the series, but as such it proved the truth of who knows how many dumb sayings about beginnings and endings and doors opening and closing and probably at least one saying about eggs because eggs just seem to crop up a lot. "Hero Time!" introduced Street Angel's audience to Afrodisiac. When the issue opens, Street Angel and a wounded Afrodisiac are pinned down in a warehouse by a horde of racist rednecks who want Afrodisiac's head. While they wait for their opportunity to strike, Afrodisiac tells Street Angel about his past, and we get hilarious faux past-issue panels littered through the issue. The issue is the bloodiest of the series with, among other things, a purely awesome two-page spread of Street Angel careening through the air on her skateboard and two-fisting a pair of Uzis. The character Afrodisiac was so popular he was later featured in AdHouse Books's art comix superhero-themed anthology Project: Superior as well as his own book Afrodisiac earlier this year.

We may not have seen the end of Street Angel. In numerous interviews, Rugg said he would be taking a break from Street Angel and that he and Maruca had at least 5 or so more stories to tell about the character. As far as I know (and I may be wrong) neither Rugg nor Maruca have ever definitely said that Street Angel was officially belly-up, but it has been 5 years since Street Angel #5. So as Philip Marlowe might say, if you're going to wait for Street Angel #6, don't wait underwater.

You can, however, pick up the Street Angel tpb that reprints all 5 issues, some previously unpublished stories, sketches, and some great pin-ups, my favorite of which is a hypothetical team-up between Street Angel and Jeffrey Brown's BigHead. There was also a short film made adapting Street Angel #1 in 2009; apparently produced by British filmmakers. I haven't seen the film though I have watched the trailer. It's kind of weird hearing English accents coming out of these characters, though I guess if Kevin Costner can play an American Robin Hood, everything's fair game.


Marc Sobel said...

Good review, Mick, and good to see an underrated series get some love. Have you checked out Afrodisiac? It's a parody of 70s comics and the movie Shaft. Very well done. There's not much story, but the various parodies are excellent. I think Jim Rugg is one serious GN away from becoming a superstar. He's one of the best under-the-radar artists in comics.

Mick Martin said...

Thanks Marc. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to check out Afrodisiac yet, but I really, really want to. It is very, very high up on my list of books I need to get. I heard a lot of good things and saw some amazing art on the net. The one picture that always sticks out is one of Afrodisiac running from a dinosaur. It looked perfectly like a 70s comic. Someone COMPLETELY could have fooled me into thinking it was if I didn't already know about the character.

ADD said...

Street Angel has a short story in Superior Showcase #3, FYI. Great post on a great comic, Mick!

Mick Martin said...

Thanks Alan! For both the fyi and the kind words.

Matt said...

Nicely done Mick! Such a great comic.

Mick Martin said...

Thanks Matt!

jimrugg said...

Mick, thanks for the review! Really appreciate it.

Mick Martin said...

Wow, you're welcome Jim! Thanks for stopping by!