The first hit’s free

May 9, 2008

I missed Free Comic Book Day, but I managed to get my hands on a copy of Thomas F. Zahler’s Love and Capes #7 (Maerkle Press). As I understand it, one of the missions of Free Comic Book Day is to introduce people to comics they haven’t tried previously in the hopes of convincing them to purchase said comics in the future. Mission accomplished, Free Comic Book Day.

My favorite parts of super-hero comics have always been the in-between moments, the interpersonal soap opera that fills the gaps between big battles. Love and Capes is nothing but those in-between moments, following the developing relationship between a Superman type and a bookstore owner. In this issue, Mark (also known as the Crusader) is trying to figure out the right way to propose to Abby. He seeks advice from his parents, his colleagues, and Abby’s younger sister, Charlotte.

The first thing that struck me about the book is that it reads less like a comic book than a collection of individual strips. Just about each page is a romantic-comedy beat with its own punch line, moving the story forward but standing on its own. (It’s kind of like For Better or Worse without the icky gender and relationship dynamics.) The characters are sturdy and likeable enough to keep the rhythms from becoming repetitive.

I also found the book admirable in the way that it sticks to its mission. Some revisionist genre parodies can’t seem to resist becoming exactly the kind of story they’re tweaking, and that strikes me as defeating the purpose of providing an alternative. Love and Capes maintains its tone throughout, sort of a fusion of Mad About You and Astro City. (There’s one sequence where Abby keeps Mark company during monitor duty, which created a singularly unpleasant callback to another comic, but that’s hardly Zahler’s fault.)

Mark and Abby may not be the most sharply etched of characters, but I like them. They’re functional adults in a believable relationship, and their individual qualities fuel the observational humor nicely. They’re also on equal footing; each has a life and work that they value, and they support and respect one another. Zahler’s cartoon-y illustrating style suits the material well, providing open, funny visuals.

What else can I say? It’s a charming, easygoing book about sympathetic people in weird circumstances. It uses those circumstances for comedy and contrast, but it doesn’t let them overwhelm the core charms of the story.

(A collection of the first six issues of the series is due out in November, and Zahler has put a large number of preview pages online.)