Thursday Comics Hangover: Skin deep

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the books I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)

First issues of comic series are tough. You have to establish a premise, introduce readers to at least one character to care about, and then give the readers a good reason to come back for the second issue. It’s like trying to run in place on a rolling log — one misstep and you’re pudding. You might have an incredible idea for a comic series, but if your first issue isn’t compelling it’s very unlikely that your story will ever find the audience it deserves. It’s not fair — imagine the pressure novelists would feel if browsers could lease a novel’s first chapter, with an option to buy the rest of the book — but fairness and the creation of art never get along very well.

You can probably tell from that introduction how I feel about The Beauty, the new comic series written by Jeremy Haun and illustrated by Jason A. Hurley. In theory, it’s a catchy little introduction to a sci-fi premise.The captions on the first page lay out the concept over shots of large groups of (mostly white) pedestrians walking by on a city street:

Two years ago, a new sexually transmitted disease took the world by storm. This S.T.D. was unlike any other that had come before. This was a disease that people actually wanted. “Victims” of this epidemic were physically changed by the virus. Fat melted away, thinning hair returned, skin blemishes faded, and their facial features slimmed. It became known as The Beauty.”

Okay. I mean, it’s certainly all right there. (I could do without the cliche “by storm” in the very first sentence of the book, but let’s be generous and ignore that for a moment.) The high concept has a bunch of obvious questions attached. Beauty is subjective, so why does everyone look like a model? And what about other races — are they held to a caucasian beauty standard, too? (The cast seems to be all-white, except for two minority background characters reduced to a couple lines each.) Obviously, you can’t touch on all these subjects in a couple dozen pages of comics, but there’s very little depth in the first issue of The Beauty to convince me that Haun and Hurley are intersted in pursuing the matter any further.

What we do get is a mystery: a beautiful woman on the subway explodes, seemingly by spontaneous combustion. Our apparent heroes, a pair of police investigators (a normal-looking man and a woman with The Beauty) set out to solve the case. It’s pretty generic policing action: a lead, a chase, shots fired, a little angst. There’s a twist at the end of the issue that you can see coming at least two pages ahead, along with some incredibly bad dialogue: “Forget about work. You’re here with me now, and that’s all that matters.”

That’s enough harping on the writing. Haun’s art is good. He varies the backgrounds, body language, and perspectives on every scene, though he seems to have a problem conveying shadow and darkness without spilling giant pools of ink everywhere. John Rauch’s coloring could use a little more pep; every room seems to be colored on a variation of the same hotel-like beige, and the city backgrounds on the first page are all colored the same weird blue-green.

Ultimately, there just isn’t enough on the page for me to recommend The Beauty. The story’s not curious enough to dig beyond the surface of its premise, instead offering standard scenes of Brian Michael Bendis-style cop chit-chat interspersed with a tiny amount of world-building. The concept is interesting enough to warrant reinvestigation if and when the first trade paperback collection of The Beauty is released, but nothing in this first issue inspires me to pick up the second. It’s a tough business, comics.

UPDATE 11:26 AM: On Twitter, Karen Meisner tipped us to the existence of Alice Sola Kim's 2009 short story "Beautiful Bodies," which examines a similar sort of beauty epidemic. You can read it over at Strange Horizons. If you're interested in the concepts behind The Beauty but you'd like to see them examined in more depth, this story is for you:

Once it struck, the girls became impossibly beautiful in the space of days. Even if you could pay some super-surgeon-sculptor-sage (a three-way cross between Dr. 90210, Michelangelo, and Maimonides) to crack open your face like a watermelon and chisel away at it until your bones were fine and symmetrical, you still wouldn't look like these girls. Their necks were too long. And the whites of their eyes? Much too white!