5 out of 5
Joe Kelly pushed and shoved his way into our comic hearts via some successful runs at the majors – Deadpool, Superman – before generally ending that era of his output with what I consider one of the best JLA stories ever, the two volume Obsidian Age. I think TV called, as Man of Action! started work on Ben 10. But the comic book bug apparently niggled, resulting in a brief reappearance at some indies in the late 00s for a slew of mini-series… a couple of which remain tragically unfinished.
But one is more tragic than the other (Bad Dog) – Four Eyes. Four Eyes had an amazing premise with stunning art (my first exposure to Max Fiumara) and was, perhaps, the most patient version of Joe’s writing I’ve seen, maintaining emotional weight by finding an artist who understood how to pace his dialogue and character interaction. Everything about the book sings – the characters are seeded in well and come across as nuanced and rich. Even parts that could be written, easily, as stereotypes display moments of deeply felt humanity (with our lead’s mother, for example, her pride over a clean home; her withdrawing from protecting her son from a boarder are flavoring to what could’ve been a one-dimensional mourning widow). And the dialogue never has the slightly tossed-off or cluttered feeling that often creeps into Kelly’s writing, perhaps due to the propriety of the setting during the Depression requiring a ‘finer’ voice to express concepts and emotions. Drew Gill’s lettering wonderfully matches the era and has the right tinge of hand-written to it to vibe with the diary-style narrative, and Nestor Pereyra’s beautiful, beautiful colors make use of warm blues and browns in a off-primary selection of tones that I see popping up all-over Image now, five years later. Even the book’s title communicates so much with its old-timey type and stalwart straight lines.
Fiumara’s slope-shouldered adults and big-headed kids shouldn’t work – it should be silly – but his graceful lines and natural expressions and sketchy inking style balance it out to set us just enough steps outside of reality to get onboard with Four Eyes core concept – dragons exist, and Enrico’s father is paid to nab the children to be raised… for fighting in gambling dens. It’s a wonderfully clever way of blending high concept with the shadows. And because Joe doesn’t really try to make the dragons into too much of a reveal, it doesn’t feel like a dumb ‘hook’. There’s no secret origin for the dragons; our focus, instead, is on Enrico. His father passes at the hands of the beasts he tracks/hunts. Enrico must be the king of his castle and support his mother. ‘I Kill Giants,’ praised as it was, is a bit obvious with its ‘be yourself’ morals, although there’s no denying the gleeful genius behind the way it’s arrived at. The variation here, again, is how human everything is. The dragons are incidental. We follow the boy’s trek over four issues, and see his fascination / hatred with the beast’s grow.
Thankfully the series ended at the end of ‘Act One,’ which is something of a conclusion. There’s just so much more to this story.
The blending of fantasy and realism that Joe and Max managed – immediately, from the first few panels – is hard to match. And possibly the rating would change if the series had continued, but whatever. These four issues are a capsule of what comics can do almost better than any medium; a marriage of image and words and ideas and imagination that can be read for fun or stir stagnant emotions if we’re so inclined.