Thursday Comics Hangover: Mona Lisa, smile

The first issue of Art Ops, a new comic by Shaun Simon and Mike Allred, contains one indelible image: Mona Lisa, shopping in a contemporary grocery store. She’s wearing a bright yellow hoodie, and she’s buying cans of soup — Campbell’s soup, of course, an obvious shout-out to Andy Warhol, who has a cameo elsewhere in the issue. The young man running the checkout counter screws up the nerves to ask her out: “So, Lisa, I was wondering if you…if you wanted to catch a movie or something.” Mona Lisa responds, of course, with a mysterious little smile, and before she can say anything in response, something weird interrupts the moment.

Art Ops begins with a premise that seems charming enough, if a little bit limited: a special team of operatives have the power to literally bring art to life. They pull the Mona Lisa from her frame because some mysterious, malevolent force is coming for her, and they put her into a kind of Art Witness Protection Program. Elsewhere in the issue, graffiti walks off the walls and attacks a few New Yorkers. Banksy even makes a(n off-panel) appearance. It’s a good high concept, but how many famous paintings can you screw around with before the idea loses its thrill?

Luckily, there’s a whole lot more going on in Art Ops. It feels as though Simon and Allred have constructed many layers to the world, adding a bruised family dynamic and a wide cast of characters. It’s basically a superhero story — one character’s right arm is made out of art, another character wears a black jumpsuit and flies around — but the narrative hints at a moral complexity that’s lurking off to the edges of the story.

Mike Allred is the best character designer in mainstream comics today. Each player in Art Ops has their own look and feel, and his pop realism is perfect for incorporating all the little art history jokes into the background throughout the issue. Allred’s Jack Kirbyesque energy is perfect for a premise like this: he doesn’t get too wrapped up in emulating, say, Da Vinci’s rendering. Instead, he gives us Allred’s version of Mona Lisa and Allred’s cover of Lichtenstein. This is less about mimicking and more about interpretation; only an artist with Allred’s confidence could pull that trick off.

We don’t learn what the antagonists of Art Ops are up to in this first issue; in fact, we don’t even see who the antagonists of Art Ops are. The protagonist is a little bit of a dick, and the story does rely on that oldest motivational trope, the death of a girlfriend, to get the action going. But it’s a lively, ambitious, layered first issue that hints at a bigger payoff in issues ahead. I’ve read a lot of bad first issues lately; Art Ops is the first one I’ve come across in a few weeks that suggests the journey will be worth the investment.