20th Century Men (#1) – Deniz Camp

2 out of 5

I’m not positive how many times I need to remind everyone here that I am an idiot. This is a fact I know, which you can set in a single-high stack next to the much larger one of things I do not. You will note that, as that pile contains approximately everything, that includes… history. So I will admit that my teeny-tiny brain has a low tolerance for such subject matter. That said, there are ways to frame it that don’t remind me that I’m an idiot. 20th Century Men – which is proposing some alternate history where super-powered men have fought in our wars, leading to Russia (a Russian agent being our primary narrator) becoming something of a positive interventionist power; perhaps “America-esque,” or the image that nation has wanted to portray – does not not remind me of my idiocy. But I also question its presentation, besides likely being beyond my grasp: is this a well-written comic?

I’ve often stated that comics should, ideally, be, uh, readable. Expanding on that genius statement: any comic should be readable, meaning that, even if I pick up a book 100 issues in, I shouldn’t feel so put out by it that I can’t find my way through. Does that mean recaps every page; hand-holding? No. This is the same principle (to me) between watching a scene from a movie, or, when book shopping, flipping to a random chapter and reading: the way things are framed visually, and the way they’re written can be interesting or immersive, even without zero context. Furthermore, this doesn’t mean that “sample” has to have some kind of cliffhanger – it can just be an interstitial conversation. But the theory here is that any given scene should matter, and should be indicative of the style of the piece of media as a whole. With comics, those are akin to TV episodes: they’re bite-sized. You can make the commitment to a singular one, and have it be a barometer for whether or not another one is deserved. On occasion, you will get an off episode or what-have-you, but I still maintain… especially with consistent-creators projects (e.g. comics), that “off” instance should still provide something. And, like, especially a first issue.

20th Century Men, as written by Deniz Camp and drawn by S. Morian, is a little misleading, because it does contain compelling individual scenes, which is why a preview had me picking up a copy. But it also is all scenes – not much effective linking between them is done – across the entirety of its oversized first issue. I had also hoped that it wouldn’t trigger my above-mentioned idiocy, but Camp writes about alt-history in a way that supposes we have some grounding in the original events – starting with the Afghanistan April Revolution in the 70s. Can you navigate through without that info? Probably. I imagine I’m not alone in my lack of education, since a couple reviews I poked at didn’t offer much detail either, but that ability to navigate is not naturally there: it is not intertwined with the presentation, doubled-down on by the way it keeps hopping between characters and scenes, and misuses (in my opinion) narration plus dialogue in a way that one doesn’t complement the other. In other words, Camp knows this stuff, and talks about it with an enthusiasm that supposes we do too. The story isn’t about that, per se, but we also can’t say exactly what the story is about due to its incredibly evasive structure. So as we listen to Russian super-soldier Platanov ramble out poetic thoughts on the pointlessness of war – as he is sent in to be a peacemaker of sorts, in his big-ass super-soldier suit – it’s unclear what our part is in this tale, except to let it talk at us. We cut back and forth in time, getting some presumed background on his suit, on his childhood, or do we? And while I think S. Morian’s stylized art – a very “heavy” look that he pushes back and forth between a looser, expressionistic style, and something detailed and Wrightson-esque – is one of the issue’s best features, there’s a bit of form over function again as the changeups don’t quite gel into a consistent point.

Yet.

You will tell me this starts to streamline as the comic goes on, but this is a dang first issue. I always take it as a sign when I spend an extra long time reading a book – not to examine pages, but, like, because my attentions wander, and I keep flipping back to pages I don’t remember reading. 20th Century Men took me too long to read. I have no doubts of the passion behind the project, but there are so many small violations of what I’d consider good writing and visual practices – in-story links to keep us engaged – that I’d have to just praise the perceived complexity of the book at this point, as though complexity in itself is something to praise… On top of this is an alt-history pitch that I didn’t feel was presented effectively, whether or not one is an idiot, and I’m left to knock the book down below a mid-range read into one that’s got too many barriers to entry.