REVIEW: Changing the Dynamic with ‘Halcyon and Tenderfoot’

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I was sent the first issue of this miniseries from Art Heroes a few months ago, where it seemed like a fun, all-ages series about a superhero duo. But then the story suddenly went off in a radically unexpected direction, and proved itself to be a thorough and startling deconstruction of superhero comics as a whole. There’s a really sharp edge of satire to this book, woven so tightly into the narrative that it never feels forced or blatant. It quietly gets a point across about the state of mainstream superheroes, before offering a pair of contemporary, likeable, NICE superheroes to rejuvenate the genre. And it does it within an all-ages setting, creating a comic for anybody. It’s a reconstruction job for the superhero genre, and a welcome reminder of just why the characters proved so popular to begin with.

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Now, I’ll settle this quickly before I move on – since getting sent the first issue a few months ago, I’ve now met writer Daniel Clifford and artist Lee Robinson. So I do know the creative team now, as a result of following them up from that first email. I’m going to give an objective review, but I like to be upfront about reviewing comics from people I’m friendly with. TRANSPARENCY, guys!

The final issue of the miniseries came out yesterday, completing a storyline which genuinely caught me off-guard. Halcyon & Tenderfoot are a father-and-son superhero team who are just setting out together for the first time. Halcyon is set up like a Superman-style hero (or like Mr Incredible from The Incredibles, actually), who quit the superhero business after realising that most of the heroes he inspired have now turned into villains themselves. There’s no moral code anymore, and the heroes have resorted to murder and violence just as much as the villains have. Already, you’re probably seeing a little bit of the subtext rise through in the story. Halcyon is eventually persuaded to return to heroism, and decides to start a new era of heroic heroes – starting by bringing his son, Tenderfoot, into the business.

And the series essentially just moves along from that point, exploring the mindset of these two heroes whilst also creating a bigger world as well. The other heroes feel shamed – but don’t change their minds about this whole ‘darker and edgier’ business, whilst the villains decide to poke at the heroes, to see if they can’t be made to deviate from their moral code. It’s a story working out if heroes can still be heroes, in a world where heroism has become diluted and harder to pick out, and Clifford does a great job in establishing and working on that idea. The narrative is held in place tight, allowing the characters space to have fun without slowing the momentum of the story.

Some of the characters are tighter than others, however. While the central pairing both have narrative arcs which play out carefully and smartly, the villain of the story is a little more difficult to place. The character seems to have wild mood swings from one moment to the next, apologising for his crimes whilst gleefully committing them – he doesn’t really get established as being so variable in mood, and so his sections in the comic come off rather strangely. He appears to be following one narrative path, before veering off into another, before changing his mind again. His final moments put him on the better of the two narratives, but it’s hard to keep track of him at times.

Similarly, a young hero called Jenny Wren shows up, and brings a rather daring storyline into play for the series. Although things with her are wrapped up a little too neatly, it’s interesting to see just how much friction and tension the creative team can put into an all-ages comic, without resorting to conspiracies or violence or adult material. In a sense, this reads a lot like a Pixar film on paper, in that the storyline can become dark without alienating a young audience. There’s no shying away from more adult storylines, but they’re presented in a way which seems realistic and difficult, rather than simplified for the readers. The tone of the book is brilliantly conceived.

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It’s a black and white series, which perhaps doesn’t show off Lee Robinson’s bright, bouncy character designs and layouts as strongly as possible. His characters look different and stand apart from one another, even as the cast grows. Colours would possibly help to better establish a few of the twists towards the end, but the design and tone still stand out on the page, and give this a cartoony style. The storytelling gets better as the series goes along, with issue #1 having a few difficult sequences, but issue #4 nailing both conversational and action scenes. Robinson’s art manages to be very expressive, allowing Clifford to try a few different stylistic twists as the story goes along. I would say that some of the lettering at the start is a bit hard to read, but this also seems to be resolved by the time the book reaches the end.

All in all, Halcyon & Tenderfoot was a massive surprise for me. I thought it was going to be a fun, throwaway superhero comic with not much to it, but it suddenly shifts remarkably into a rather powerful, moving piece of work. The art is fantastically conceived and designed really nicely, whilst the characters and dialogue feel fresh and realistic. It’s a story which tries to set the superhero genre back on track – and accomplishes it. I hope more people try it, because it’s a genuine breath of fresh air. You can get it in print, or buy it at a discounted digital price over at the Art Heroes website. And I really, really recommend that you do!

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