Jeff Lemire and Tyler Crook successfully bridge the gap between two of my three favorite comics genres, namely, superhero and autobiography in The Unbelievable Unteens #1. (It’s not relevant to this review, but my other favorite is fantasy.) Set in 1997 aka one of the darkest times for direct market comics, it follows Jane Ito, a burnt out cartoonist from Spiral City, who writes and draws a superhero book called The Unbelievable Unteens. However, these characters may have actually existed, and the story takes tonal twists and turns and culminates in one hell of a final page.
The Unbelievable Unteens wouldn’t work as a comic without Crook’s ease at going from the melancholy washes of the autobio comic to the cleaner lines and flat, yet dynamic colors of a superhero comic from that fun time when Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans ruled the Earth. However, the superhero bits aren’t all fun and games as Lemire and Tyler Crook use Jack Sabbath as the bridge between Jane’s lonely, rainy reality and the world of the Unteens hinting at some kind of a “Dark Phoenix Saga”/”Judas Contract” situation that broke these smiling, teen heroes apart. This is in addition to his macabre looks and the dark washes of color that Crook uses in every panel he appears. As Jane and Jack root around the old Unteens’ mansion, the book (Visually) falls into horror territory a la the first arc of Sandman, Swamp Thing, or Hellblazer. It’s almost like the finished product if Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz decided to turn New Mutants into a full-on horror comic after the “Demon Bear Saga”, which is a delicious proposition indeed.
Despite all the references to other superhero or superhero adjacent comic (I haven’t mentioned the obvious: Animal Man #26 where Grant Morrison themself is responsible for all the hardships Buddy Baker has gone through.), The Unbelievable Unteens stands on its own as a story about a 28 year old woman, who is stuck in a monotonous existence, and has a chance to go on a nostalgic adventure that may end up not being so nostalgic or adventures. (Having strobe/light-up powers is quite cool though and very 1980s.) Before going into the finding the lost superhero team bit, Jeff Lemire and Crook bask in the utter shittiness and loneliness of Jane Ito’s life capturing the pain of her at her drawing table in her face as well as through dialogue about her making a small mistake on a commission. Perhaps drawing on from their own experiences, these pages take a snapshot of the physical pain and utter grind of making comics that is contrast with the enthusiastic fans asking for autographs, taking pictures, and trying to squirrel out plot points from her. It’s uncanny how Lemire’s dialogue is the exact boilerplate conversation between pro and fan.
However, once Jack Sabbath enters the picture, The Unbelievable Unteens picks up momentum with more speed lines, expressiveness, and especially the pop of the palette that Tyler Crook uses for flashback sequences. Jack pulls big grins and faces like he’s in a melodramatic superhero comic while Jane is more standoffish in her posture and speech. Lemire’s plotting is quite logical, and Jane doesn’t start to buy into the Unteens being real until she sees a mansion that is basically a 3D model of the drawings she uses. This setting triggers a flashback that gives just enough detail about the Unteens’ powers and origins to make them somewhat memorable and set up the quest to find them with a comic book written by the protagonist.
Yeah, this comic is pretty freaking meta, and that’s okay because it shows that postmodern superhero/horror/autobio comics can fit in the Black Hammer Universe. It’s the perfect canvas for Jeff Lemire and his versatile collaborators like Tyler Crook, who goes from riffing on Adrian Tomine in The Loneliness of a Long Distance Cartoonist to Walt Simonson in The Uncanny X-Men and the New Teen Titans in the space of a single comic issue while having his own style and approach to storytelling. For example, I’m a huge fan of how the flashback/comics actually drawn by Jane Ito fit inside the actual pages like a key or guidebook to the larger universe.
The Unbelievable Unteens #1 is the perfect comic for readers who have Chris Claremont, Joe Matt, and definitely Alan Moore on their bookshelves. Jeff Lemire and Tyler Crook also put Jane Ito on the first steps of a reality-blurring emotional journey and give us a good gauge on her temperament before throwing her in the deep end of a genre shift that is reflected powerfully by the comic’s art style and color palette.
Story: Jeff Lemire Art/Color/Letters: Tyler Crook
Story: 8.6 Art: 9.0 Overall: 8.8 Recommendation: Buy
Dark Horse Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review