“Reality Check” #1 tries to engage by being a funny comic with an injection of pathos, but it might need a reality check of its own when it comes to its man-boy main character.
Written by Glen Brunswick
Illustrated by Viktor Bogdanovic
A struggling artist, Willard Penn, scores an unlikely hit with his new comic. The story centers on a hero more concerned with his libido than serving justice. After an unexpected sell out, Willard can’t recall anything about his story. That night the book’s hero shows up outside Willard’s window refusing to return to the comic until he finds true love. Exasperated, Willard is forced to help the lovesick hero meet the perfect woman. But he’ll need to hurry because the book’s villain, a homicidal maniac, has entered his world as well.
It’s no secret that writers often bring at the very least a little bit of themselves into the work they do. A boring person with a bad personality who doesn’t have anything interesting to say about anything probably wouldn’t make a great storyteller. Over the course of “Reality Check” #1, we see Willard Penn inserting himself into his comic through what is probably best described as “wish fulfillment” and, by that same token, the comic inserts itself into his life. When we first meet Willard, he’s trying to drum up inspiration by ogling some co-eds at a Starbucks. He’s looking for the perfect model for his heroes’ love interest, so right away we get a sense of what is motivating this guy right now. Of course, he makes an ass of himself and we begin to see how lonely and unsatisfied this guy is. He tells us more about his life’s history and it gets even sadder. Willard has had a relatively hard road for a guy who seems to be pleasant enough, motivated to work, and was able to get through college easily.
But the fact that Willard is also fashioned as your stereotypical “comic geek” actually makes several of the events in this issue problematic. We see the classic trope of the nerdy, unkempt, out-of-shape Willard in college being able to “get the girl” with a cheap line from his older brother. All that is fine, because it damn sure happens in real life, but Willard speaks of getting the girl as being some key he unlocked – as if it was as simple as decoding something. Between this, his penchant for drawing unknowing women in public, and his preoccupation with trying to get him and his superheroes laid, Willard became something of a creep to me. Is he supposed to be? It’s unclear. Look, we all like sex (except you kids – wait ’til you’re older!), but Willard seems to equate “loneliness” with “not getting any” and I’m not sure it’s having the intended effect. I would feel sorry for him if it ever seemed like he cared about having a meaningful connection with someone. If he’s just supposed to be a horndog, then that’s fine, but then having some genuinely tragic moments for him seems to undercut that.
It’s also just as difficult to tell when “Reality Check” is actually making clever observations about comic books and when it’s just catering to that sense of wish fulfillment that Willard is clearly preoccupied with. His character creation, Dark Hour, is visually similar to the Nite Owl character from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen”. As you probably know, Nite Owl is the gold standard for sexually-frustrated superheroes and the sexual politics that often bubble under the surface of cape comics. At the same time, he swings through the city like Batman, getting “bat signal” booty calls from his “Catwoman”. It reminds one of the sex-on-the-rooftops escapades of the ‘New 52’ “Catwoman” series. Yet I must ask again: is this intentional? “Reality Check” is very funny and has a clear reverence for comic book history of all types, but is “Dark Hour” trying to say anything about the tropes that it’s parodying? Or is it simply being typical fanboy wish fulfillment? I have to say that while I’m interested in the story, I was a little uneasy about rooting for Willard. He’s clearly made to look like a fool for his shortcomings, but I think he deserves it while I’m afraid the comic finds him sympathetic. At the same time, he’s being rewarded for his comic work with “Dark Hour” – when the samples that we see of it are intentionally unrefined in dialogue and silly. We’re told that he’s had interest from Marvel and DC Comics, when not much evidence is given as to why he’d warrant it. More wish fulfillment. One hopes that future issues address his man-child issues, but it’s unclear whether true change or hope is part of the endgame with “Reality Check”. I acknowledge that turning this guy around could be the entire point of this story, but there’s no evidence yet. That sort of thing is why reviewing long-form storytelling like this is a risky prospect.Continued below
One thing is for sure: that Viktor Bogdanovic can draw a heck of a comic book. Willard and company are extremely facially expressive, going to some dark places when the story calls for it. If anything got me to sympathize with Willard, it was in Bogdanovic’s artistic rendering of Willard’s haphazard life. The characters and the world they inhabit very much carry all the traits of the real world that we know. The shops and apartment settings are as ordinary and mundane (though nicely rendered) as they are in the real world. An unkempt, depressed man’s apartment looks like an unkempt depressed man’s apartment (believe me, I’ve been there). A college party feels like a college party. Starbucks looks like Starbucks looks – in real life, not on TV.
He also doesn’t change up his stylings too much between the real world and the “Dark Hour” comic, making the bleed from the comic into Willard’s world an uncomplicated one. Perhaps Willard’s life is just as cartoony and goofy as “Dark Hour” take on the overtly sexual superhero is. There’s almost a Ben Edlund “Tick”-like aplomb to the affair, fully embracing the rough and tumble of a Batman character at his most fun (on the rare occasions that Batman is allowed to be “fun”).
It’s pretty unclear what “Reality Check” #1 intends to be. The term “reality check” is usually associated with someone coming to a realization about themselves or a situation that they’re in. If that applies to our main character and there is some true growth in future issues, then “Reality Check” will deserve every bit of credit that I couldn’t give it here. By trying to make Willard both a sad sack, sympathetic character and someone with a seemingly immature worldview, the story is trying to have it both ways at this point. Despite fun and expressive art, it’s tough to get fully behind this one just yet.
Final Verdict: 5.5 – Browse