The Webcomic Overlook #206: Johnny Saturn
So, not to long ago, I spent pretty much the entire review of Insufferable praising the amazingness of the incomparable Mark Waid. At that time, though, I hadn’t yet read Waid’s acclaimed Irredeemable, a work which has garnered 3 Eisner and 3 Harvey nominations. The story is about a heroic, powerful character who experiences a pyschotic break, and he becomes absolutely frightening. He kidnaps people and forces them to reenact his sexual fantasies. He kills former friends and their children in his furious anger. The remaining heroes have to resort to selling out their own morals in order to put a stop to the maniac.
I loved it. I pretty much downloaded and plowed through all 37 issues just because it was just so engrossing. At the same time, though, the characterization was always a priority over the more questionable elements. Waid made you care about the characters, even the ones that were transgressive beyond belief. It was a series filled with shock elements, but they all had a reason for being there beyond the gratuitous use of blood and gore. Irredeemable proved that you didn’t need to have name-brand heroes to make a superhero story compelling (though, to be fair, the Plutonian was more or less a mirror image of Superman).
The superhero comic, the staple of the print comic industry, is somewhat of a rarity in webcomics. There have, however, been several attempts… and some have been surprisingly long running. One has been around for over six years: Scott Story’s heartwarming tale about a man — or rather, two men — with planets emblazoned upon his chest, Johnny Saturn.
William Shakespeare once wrote, “”What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That statement has become the focal point of many high school papers and college theses. Some agree. Some disagree. I think that everyone, though, would probably agree that “Johnny Saturn” is an odd choice of a name for a grim-and-gritty style hero in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Granted, “Batman” itself is a rather silly name. But “Johnny Saturn”? That name sounds like it should belong to someone who gets involved in cosmic space adventures. Or maybe a boy adventurer. “Johnny Saturn” is not the sort of name that strikes fear into criminals. It’s far more appropriate name for a mascot for a local car dealership.
Then again, all of the heroes in Johnny Saturn seem to be cherry picking names from the “Least Marketable Superhero Names You Can Even Name Yourself” book. There’s someone who goes by “Gauge“, for Pete’s Sake. What can she do.. make sure your bike tire’s not flat? Even worst, The Original Metahuman, we’re told, is a superhero-type guy who goes by “Elect.” So… does his name, like, reflect the incredibly awesome power of the electoral vote? Maybe?
When we open the comic, the not-quite-Justice League (the “Squadron Primiere”) gather around his grave. The comics’ not-quite-Superman, a chap by the name of “Utopian”, recounts Johnny Saturn’s last days. Johnny, like Batman, has no superpowers. You will find this tidbit harder and harder to believe as the comic goes on by the way, because Johnny (who is secretly former US Army Ranger John Underhill) exhibits an almost supernatural invincibility to pretty much anything. Clearly we can credit his constitution to his Special Forces training. Or his pill-popping. Johnny Saturn’s superhero adventuring, though, has taken its toll on John’s body, to the point where he looks like a hero from a Frank Miller comic.
Anyway, Johnny Saturn dies after trying to prevent his old nemesis, Dr. Synn, from exploding the courthouse with a truck full of liquid hydrogen. But fear not, true believers! In true comic book fashion, Johnny Saturn returns from the dead! Did he get hit by omega beams, and must battle his way through time to return to the present? No. Did you reconstitute his body through some sort of alien regeneration matrix? No. Nothing quite so action-packed. Johnny basically just punches out an angel and returns to Earth. Because the Johnny-Saturn-verse is filled with the world’s most gullible marks.
Seriously, I can’t get over how stupid everyone in this comic is. I’m pretty sure most of it is done on purpose, just to show how clever Johnny Saturn looks in comparison. Instead, it makes all of these characters seem like brain dead morons who, more or less, got what was coming to them. For example, there’s a scene where the Utopian is watching TV with his lover when the side of his apartment is crashed by a woman in a spandex outfit. His rage is halted when the woman, named Persephone, raises a picture that she lifted from Johnny Saturn’s grave. It turns out that the image and she are one and the same … and she’s … Johnny Saturn’s secret wife! Dun dun dun!!!!
Only… that’s a pretty huge leap of logic. First of all, the only thing connecting “picture = Johnny Saturn’s wife = lady in the harlequin outfit” is the lady’s own testimony. Shouldn’t the obvious response be, “Hold on. This is the first time I am hearing that Johnny Saturn was even a married man. How do I know she didn’t plant that photo on Johnny Saturn’s grave? More than likely, this is a trap and this woman is not to be trusted.”
But no. The Utopian puts his faith in this supposed wife of a man who he never liked and leads her to the newly resurrected villain, Dr. Synn. Who is now a giant demon. Because why not. (He gets demon powers, by the way, because the pulled the same trick on the demons that Johnny Saturn pulled with the angels… because this is equal opportunity stupidity.) And when Persephone confronts the demon, she reveals that she’s … dun dun dun … the bad guy’s daughter! Oh, man, was M. Night Shyamalan writing this? It’s at this point where the Utopian decided that the woman is not to be trusted (you think?) He tries to grab her, but get punked out for his troubles… because Utopian is seriously the worst Superman analogue ever. Yes, worse than Sentry!
OK, so let’s get caught up. Johnny Saturn is alive again, Dr. Synn is now a giant devil beast, which leads to the sort of conclusion that I am sure everyone was expecting: Johnny Saturn becoming king of the mole people. Seriously. With a throne and everything. By the way, the mole people aren’t people with mole faces or the shambling creatures you see in Marvel Comics. They’re just your typical homeless folk. And they live in
Dwarrowdelf or Mount Moria Elysium.
So now the original Johnny Saturn is tremendously busy ruling his kingdom of the lightless sewers from the ground beneath. After all, he’s KING OF THE MOLE PEOPLE. However, the world still needs a Johnny Saturn. After all, if Johnny Saturn did not exist, would it not be necessary to invent him? Enter Greg Buchanan. He’s some sort of detective. A long-haired dude in a long trenchcoat who looks like something a kid in the 90’s would design when making a superhero. (Seriously, the 90’s were full of these guys: Johnny Blaze, Gambit, Nomad, Havok, to name a few.) Anyway, or new Johnny Saturn gets inspiration after … unpacking some judo trophies. It’s not quite as iconic a superhero origin as, say, a bad crashing through the window in your study… but, you know, you take what you get.
So now the story is about the new Johnny Saturn. Will we now get his trials and tribulations about fitting into legendary shoes? His failures at trying to convince the authorities about his identity but gaining their respect anyway? His own attempts to train his own stubborn successor? Nope. Because once we get a new Johnny Saturn, the webcomic seems to lose all interest in exploring its titular character and, instead, shoehorning a “Twilight of the Superheroes” scenario.
OK, so for non-superhero fans (and, to be fair, a majority of superhero fans) who aren’t familiar with the concept, was a comic series proposed by Alan Moore in the 1980’s. The title comes from Richard Wagner’s “Twilight of the Gods,” about the final chapter of the heroes of DC Comics. Moore proposed that the reason that superheroes weren’t taken as seriously as the mythologies of old was because the genre was self-perpetuating and had no ending. So he wrote something about the Houses of Steel and Thunder (with Superman and Captain Marvel as the heads) and a galaxy-spanning battle where most of the heroes would wipe out each other. The project never came to fruition, though, after Alan Moore had a falling out with DC Comics. And this is where we come full circle to the subject that started this review. The idea of the project never really died, and the major themes were successfully revitalized in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come. Waid would also revisit the “Twilight of the Superheroes” concept with Irredeemable. Many others would revisit the same themes, but few would ever meet with the same success.
So, from Chapter 6 on, Johnny Saturn takes a stab at the same framework… only it doesn’t quite come together. First of all, I have no idea who you’re rooting for. It would obviously be the heroes, right? But, like I said, they’re as stupid as hell. Most seem to be guided by self-interest, in the sense of protecting their reputation. There’s no sense that they’re actually putting on their costumes to, say, protect civilians? The everyday people that we see (with the exception of, sigh, THE MOLE PEOPLE) are mainly faceless redshirts who perish by the thousands as window dressing. The ones that we do see end up being generic jackbooted government thugs or annoying newspersons. So… why should we even be emotionally invested in the survival of these people again?
“But, Santo,” you say, “that’s the point! There are no good guys or bad guys in this comic! Everyone’s a shade of gray!” Which isn’t exactly true. Utopian, the Johnny Saturns, the British lady with the magic staff, and several others are at least being portrayed as waling in the path of righteousness… and they don’t seem to be have any motivation beyond, “Well, someone out there’s screwing me over, therefore he (or she) must be evil.”
The motivations of the villains are even more inscrutable. Story introduces several villain factions: there’s one guy who builds cyborgs, a lady who’s trying to turn the city into a huge temple to long-forgotten gods, and the Synn guy who pops in from time to time to evilly declare something along the lines of, “Yes, everything is going as I planned.” It becomes a huge mess trying to figure out which villain is doing what… and, frankly, it’s not worth the brain power tying to figure it out. Most of the villains seem really bored trying to enact their evil plans anyway.
Shoot, and I haven’t even gotten into the hamfisted 9/11 allegory yet.
So here’s some actual lines of text from the comic: “The government reacted… predictably. They detained resident aliens… and extraordinary rendition was used to ship them to other countries for questioning.” Look… I’m not unsympathetic to the immigrant cause. I do know people who have been under the shadow of deportation for the last decade. But to pair a serious issue with such goofy dialogue and concentration camp imagery is beyond ludicrous. Especially when that same chapter also includes our hero actually speaking the following lines: “I have allies among the mole people.
Later, when the Squadron Premiere becomes an anti-terrorist unit, the membership becomes limited to natural born citizens only, a stab at the xenophobia against illegal immigrants. And yet, how can you take any of this seriously when a scene of aggrieved superheroes includes what looks to be a highly anthropomorphized My Little Pony? Again, I’m not against using modern anxieties to base a superhero comic book around. Alan Moore and Frank Miller wrote the most landmark comics in the 1980’s by doing just that. Johnny Saturn, though, is extremely inconsistent. One page, you’ll have ultra-cheesy lines or Steven Segal quality like “That day, I traded hatred for righteous anger.” And then, like getting splashed with cold water, you suddenly remember, “Oh yeah, this is supposed to be some sort of terrible political parable.”
And now, a shocking statement about the art: I thought it wasn’t half-bad. For the most part, Scott Story is trying to channel the dynamic, colorful action of Jack Kirby. Other days he’s attempting to replicate the blocky shapes and heavy lines of Frank Miller. They’re decent homages to the style, and both kinda fit the narrative they’re placed in. There are even some hints that Scott Story has some decent indie sensibilities as well. There’s a scene where Johnny mixes it up with a kewpie-haired office lady. The absurdity and the retro-60’s imagery reminded me, intentionally or not, of Mike Allred’s work in Madman.
I also thought he did fine job illustrating his action sequences for the most part. I get a sense of mayhem in some scenes, the heaviness and weight of the combatants and the power of their blows in another. In general, Story does well when he sticks to familiar superhero poses.
On the other hand, Story also tends to draw scenes that look stilted and awkward. There are times when limbs are drawn stiffly, as if they were made of cardboard and only attached to the shoulders by primitive pivot joints.
And then there are the facial expressions. Watch out if there’s a scene that calls for sadness or distress, because you’re going to be treated with such an exaggerated hang-dog expression that you will have no chose but to laugh and laugh and laugh. There was one chapter devoted to a depressed, suicidal hero. The entire situation was absurd enough, since he’s trying to kill himself because he ran away from a fight (and not for something noble, like getting caught in a Ponzi scheme or something). It really doesn’t help that the hero is drawn as the “World’s Saddest Man”.
Story also falls in some pretty terrible stylistic choices. The worst is when he abandons any sort of comic format at all, draws a picture, and writes the action out in prose. There is no excuse for this beyond laziness. Dialogue is even written out in quotations. Shouldn’t they be in word balloons?
Perhaps not, since we see the direct opposite happening as well. During news reports, Story jams extremely long walls of text in the reporter’s word balloon. (He also does an extreme close-up of the reporter’s mouth in the panel, a decision I find totally baffling. What the heck is this supposed to symbolize? That the viewer focuses in on the newscaster’s mouth when they watch, say, CNN? Because I never found that true. Or was the single panel so boring that he needed a different image in the second panel, but couldn’t decide on one beyond a mouth?) I am almost certain Story is familiar with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, since he’s pretty much trying to replicate the periodic newscasts in that far superior book. There are annoyingly bubbly personalities who tow the government line. One of them even gets injured in the middle of a news story, too. So why didn’t he just adopt the same format? Miller broke up the dialogue by separating the images into several panels, which allowed him to portray the newscasters as animated and emotional. Here, there’s nothing conveyed but, “Wall of text… wall of text… wall of text… NOW LOOK AT MY MOUTH.”
To sum it up: Johnny Saturn is an extremely schizophrenic comic. It’s a webcomic named after one character, but ends up being about a lot of characters who are all one-dimensional and hardly distinctive. There’s a long, tortured back history written for it, apparently, but all it does is muddle up any shred of a narrative. Johnny Saturn to build a grand superhero adventure on the scale of Crisis of Infinite Earths. It tries to make it seem relevant by sprinkling 9/11 buzzwords here and there. It fails because the story ultimately goes nowhere with either. Johny Saturn tries to be grim and gritty at times, and it tries to be campy at time, but stumbles because those separate elements never organically work with each other.
In the end, Johnny Saturn is hellishly confusing and a total slog to get through. I’m going to bring up the Irredeemable comparison one last time. At the end of each issue, you’re introduced with such a twist that you’re sitting at the edge of your seat, wondering where Waid is taking the story next. There simple ones, too: Issue #1 ends with a close-up of the Plutonian with an evil grin on his face, saying, “Perfect.” Each issue of Johnny Saturn, on the other hand, ramps things up to a ludicrous degree. More action! More characters! More explosions! And things go off the rails so quickly with no character development or any sense of stakes that eventually, you just don’t care. When you reach the end of an issue, the thought more likely to cross your mind is, “Goddammit, there’s another issue of this comic?”
Rating: 2 Stars (out of 5)