“Down on the boardwalk they’re ready for a fight, gonna see what them racket boys can do”
The story of Faust is catnip to writers, because it’s endlessly fascinating – a person (usually a man, because men are stupid) brought down by hubris, possibly redeemed when he realizes his fate is out of his hands and all he needs is the love of a good woman. The permutations are myriad, and many a writer has dipped their toes into the Faustian waters. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – plots are hard, man! – and that doesn’t make a story good or bad, just … familiar, I guess. Such is the case with Electric Century, a Faust story that has some very good things going for it, even though it’s a bit familiar.
Mikey Way, who a few years ago decided that his big brother Gerard shouldn’t be the only rock star/comics writer in the family, teams up with Simon, who’s written some stuff with the older Way, and they cranked this sucker out, which is coincidentally the name of Mikey’s other band (beside MCR, of course). Apparently there’s an album in conjunction with this book, but I don’t go in for that cross-promotional junk, so I’m just sticking with the comic! In this book, Johnny Ashford is a former child actor who’s fallen on hard times. His girlfriend, Adeline, constantly bails him out of jail when he gets drunk and does foolish things, and he continually tries (and fails) to stay sober. Into this wreck comes Vance Lowell, his former co-star, who turns him onto a hypno-therapist, Dr. Evers. Johnny thinks it’s bullshit, naturally, but Evers somehow transports him back to Atlantic City in the 1980s, when Johnny was truly happy, and that helps keep him sober. But of course … there’s a price to pay!!!!!
It’s not the deepest story in the world – we can tell pretty quickly that Vance and Dr. Evers aren’t quite the good Samaritans they appear to be, and honestly, Johnny should have been suspicious of Vance in the first place, as the show Johnny was on had been Vance’s show before Johnny’s character proved more popular and he took over the show (it’s a Fonzie/Urkel situation, I guess would be the parallels). I mean, why would Vance be so magnanimous, even after all these years? And while in your typical Faust story, the main character consciously sells his soul, Way and Simon do some clever obfuscating of what’s really going on, and by doing so, they make some nice comments on fame and worship in the modern era. In many ways, it follows the template – Johnny needs to grow up, realize that he has the love of a good woman, and get his shit together without worrying about being famous – but there are some nice twists that make it a bit more interesting than your standard Faust story. There are some issues with the book – Johnny never feels like a complete character, and Adeline is a bit more interesting but she’s not in the book enough – but they’re not the worst things in the world.
Cypress makes the book work better than it maybe should, too, because Cypress is a terrific artist. He has that great jagged line that makes the world look harsh, and it turns Johnny’s Atlantic City dream into a nightmare very quickly, as musicians become odd robots and fun houses become horror shows. His characters are always a bit odd, so we get Johnny’s large head and big mop of hair, which makes him look more like a celebrity obsessed with his image, despite the fact that he’s barely famous anymore. Cypress can do a bit more delicate, too, so when we first see Adeline, he softens her features just enough so we can believe that someone would reject the devil for her. Cypress’s comics always make the world look a bit askew, and that works very well here, as Johnny inhabits a bizarre “real” world that only gets more bizarre when he goes to “Atlantic City.” He does a lot of interesting things – odd perspectives, Benday dots, exaggerated facial expressions, gouache effects (I assume it’s digital, but it looks like gouache) – to make the book unusual, and his coloring is phenomenal. He gives us a lot of monochromal-esque pages – they’re not quite monochrome, but close enough – to add to the strange tone of the book, and he does some “off-register” coloring at times when Johnny’s life gets a bit more bizarre, to contrast with the more grounded sequences, when his coloring tends to stay “inside the lines.” His design of the monster mask that Johnny used to wear in the television show (don’t ask) is both funny and scary – he looks like a demented member of the Banana Splits, which considering how demented those designs were, is saying something – and the way, late in the book, that some characters have their mouths erased is just freaky. Cypress’s style means that he’s never been on a mainstream comic that would make him a bigger star, but he’s a really good artist, and it’s nice that he gets to show it off here.
As I noted, there’s a lot to like about Electric Century. It traffics in clichés, sure, but that’s, unfortunately, a crime of a lot of stories, and it doesn’t necessarily wreck the plot. Way and Simon do a pretty decent job trying to work around the clichés inherent in the Faust story, and while they don’t always succeed, they succeed enough to make it an interesting comic. Plus, it looks great. Which is not a bad thing at all.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆