Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Super Spy

This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.
The feeling I got when I read Matt Kindt's Super Spy was similar to that of an issue of Miracleman that Neil Gaiman wrote. In the issue, we follow around a group of spies who live in a world of paranoia, secret languages, gestures with double and triple meanings and difficulty in achieving any kind of genuine connection or communication. When the veil is pulled back, we learn that the omnipotent ruler of the world had placed every spy in the world in the same city, since he felt that their sociopathic nature made them incapable of being happy in a world bereft of war.

In Super Spy, we have a group of professionals who are similarly trying to adjust to a world where love has lost its worth as a form of communication and the language of secrets is the only one that has any meaning. What makes this comic so enormously successful is that Kindt gets across his central themes without ever explicitly discussing them. Instead, Kindt uses a variety of visual, narrative and emotional techniques to get across the intense longing of his protagonists.

It's interesting that Kindt chooses to use World War II as his setting, the least ambiguous conflict of the 20th century, at least in terms of popular reckoning. It was Good vs Evil, but Kindt notes that in this book, both sides not only used the same methods as the other, they often used the same agents. Patriotism was the least of these spies' concerns--simply doing the job was the only thing that mattered. Those spies that went into the job as patriots often met the most grisly, miserable ends. In fact, any spy in general who went into the game knew that there was no such thing as retirement, really. At least, there was no retirement in the identity that they carried throughout their missions. The only spies who were able to survive after the war were those that completely shed that skin and tried to become different people.

Super Spy presents a group of character narratives. There are larger missions that have implications for the greater war effort, but the missions are far less important than the emotional arc of each major character. Most of the spies were so disconnected from the real-world consequences of their espionage that they had to either lose themselves in their quotidian (though bizarre) activities, or else allow themselves to feel a longing for a real sense of connection and normalcy that they didn't have the luxury to pursue.

Kindt presents 37 different short stories, told out of chronological order. Each story is told either by or through a particular character, who often crosses paths with some of the other spies. Each story is told using a different narrative and/or decorative style. The first story features a single-color background, the second story is black & white (with a bit of whimsy to go along with the violence) and the third is presented as a series of single-page four-color sunday comic strips. All of the pages in the book look as though they're yellowed and wrinkled, as if this was an ancient pulp novel that transformed before our eyes into something very unusual.

A story about getting a map with key enemy locations to the resistance has the pages formatted in landscape, with the first two pages merging map and comics panels with explosive results. A story where a man recounts a tale from his childhood is told in a series of circular panels, and we only learn why in the final panel. A child's series of books is used to transmit secret information by code, with each story beginning with the flat colors and simple style of such books, but ending with an ironic echo of that story.

The most resonant story in the book is "Cairo Nights", about an agent who falls in love with his informant, with both of them paying the price. The allusions to "Arabian Nights" add power to the story, since that was about a woman telling stories in order to buy her life--and the character of Mattie must do the same thing.

The most memorable character doesn't appear in person until halfway through the book: Sharlink "The Shark". Initially, she's the most vicious and ruthless of all the spies and assassins we see in the book. She owes allegiance to no country or cause but her own, and her capacity for seemingly psychopathic mayhem appears limitless. As she comes into further focus, she becomes symbolic of Kindt's essential thrust: those spies who wish to become fully-formed human beings cannot be spies. There's also no way to buy redemption or absolution for their deeds; they simply have to fade away and hope their pasts don't catch up with them. In essence, in order to become human, the spies have to pull the greatest deception of all. Those incapable of such self-deception, who possess any kind of conscience or are unable to forgive themselves, simply can't live with themselves after the chaos of their lives as spies. It's telling that two of the characters who wind up living happy lives are those that either found ways to create lifelines to their loved ones or else dropped out of the spy game altogether.

Kindt ties up a number of loose ends in a suite of stories called "The End", many of which bring back characters we didn't expect to see again in new & interesting contexts. Throughout the story, Kindt is able to simultaneously comment on the dehumanizing nature of espionage work (especially in a time of war) and tell an absorbing spy story. It's filled with all sorts of twists and surprises, and the showdown between two major characters near the end is genuinely thrilling. The book is extremely dense, but never to the point of impenetrability. It does reward multiple readings, especially when Kindt provides multiple views of the same event. His line is expressive and scratchy, giving it a certain quirky life even as he puts it through all sorts of narrative & decorative trickery. The end result is a beautiful, evocative book that spans the bridge between genre and art comics. Super Spy has its foot in both camps and succeeds in its mission of providing humor, pathos, whimsy, tragedy and excitement. Like Jason, Kindt succeeds because he is able to simultaneously subvert and celebrate genre conventions, and the result is a candidate for one of the best books of 2007.

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