It's hard to know where to start talking about Airboy #1, the first issue of a four-issue miniseries from writer James Robinson (Starman, Fantastic Four, Earth-2, etc.) and artist Greg Hinkle (The Ratter), and published by Image Comics. I'll start by saying that it's a great reading experience and I can't wait for more. Still, this is a bit of a different experience for me as most of the comics I read are more traditional superhero tales or more direct riffs thereon.
Airboy is not that. What it does seem to be is a story about James Robinson himself, his relationship to his craft, superheroes, and superhero comics. In one of the most off-kilter and intriguing conceits for a comic that I've ever seen, Robinson and Hinkle are the main characters in the book, which seems to be set in the real world of an unspecified number of years ago. In the story, Robinson is tasked by Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson with reviving a Golden Age comic character, the titular Airboy. Not knowing where to start, he flies artist Greg Hinkle out to San Francisco to hopefully shake some ideas loose. The two check themselves into a motel room with the intention of hashing out a new take on the character and when no ideas are forthcoming Robinson suggests a drink. After the ensuing drug-fueled night of hooliganism and debauchery, the two wake up in their motel room to find themselves face to face with what seems to be the living embodiment of the character Airboy. I don't consider that a spoiler as I've left out the details of the issue and Airboy's appearance seems like a central conceit of the series, albeit a potentially surprising one at the end of this particular installment.
One of the odder and more engaging elements of this story is that it hews so close to reality, it's not entirely clear where the fiction starts. Robinson and Hinkle are real people, the writer and artist of this book; Eric Stephenson really is the publisher of Image Comics, the company that published this very comic; Robinson describes his career at DC Comics in terms that seem as though they could be completely accurate based on what I know of his work; and Airboy is a real character as described in the comic. The last item in that list really surprised me. For whatever reason, I assumed that Airboy would be a made-up character who would seem Golden Age-y enough to make the story work. But no, he really is a character who was conceived in the Golden Age of Comics and was revived by Eclipse for a while in the 1980s. For all I know, Stephenson really did approach Robinson to revive Airboy at some point and this book is even more semi-autobiographical than it appears.
All of these elements as well as the basic story itself and manner in which it is told combine to create a comic that feels very real and grounded. It's also telling a story that is smaller and more personal than many comics I've read. At its heart, it seems like this is and will be a story about Robinson's own creative process and career with the introduction of the fantastical element of Airboy's appearance helping to illustrate Robinson's relationship with Golden Age comics and coming to terms with that relationship. Robinson's writing is great here and the naturalistic dialogue supports the tone and scale of the book. This is a delightful change of pace as most comics I've personally read are about bigger things, superheroes often making for adventure on the cosmic scale. Even the nonfiction/autobiographical comics I've read (e.g., Maus and Persepolis) deal with bigger historical and cultural events in addition to or viewed through the experience of one individual.
The art from Greg Hinkle is just wonderful. In the book, Robinson describes him as an "artistic stylist" and Hinkle seems to take that as a backhanded compliment at best. There is an element of truth to that comment though as Hinkle does have a very well-defined artistic style that gives this book a fairly unique look compared to much of what I see on the comic rack. I'm honestly not sure what to call it. It's not detailed realism but calling it "cartoony" feels inaccurate and a disservice. Regardless, I can't find fault with any of Hinkle's work here. He seems to have captured good likenesses of himself and Robinson, all of the characters in the book are wonderfully expressive, and the layouts are engaging. Some of the highlights for me are the skewed layout and spotty sequence of events during the aforementioned drug-fueled hooliganism and Robinson's expression when confronted by Airboy.
The coloring, also by Hinkle, is great too. Most of the book is done in monotone or with just a couple of colors playing against each other. The sober moments are done in a teal with some elements of a tannish hue. Insobriety injects a reddish color and then a deep purple. In a Wizard of Oz-esque twist, the fantastical element of the comic, Airboy, is fully colored, the yellow, red, and blue of his costume standing out against the sober teal. The coloring and Hinkle's style make for a visually distinct book and one whose visuals I thoroughly enjoyed.
One thing I'll sometimes complain about in comics or other media is unnecessary "mature" content added merely for shock or to make the work feel more serious or important. This comic is definitely worthy of its M rating but all of the content here feels as though it is in service to the narrative and establishing the tone of the book. That's more than I can say about a number of comics I've read over the years.
In summation, I really enjoyed this comic. I'm thoroughly intrigued to see where it goes from here, due in part to the cover gallery included in this issue which suggests greater involvement from the titular Airboy and his cast of characters over the series' four issues. I would definitely recommend Robinson and Hinkle's Airboy and look forward to future issues.