The Super Hero's Journey Review

By | Wednesday, September 27, 2023 Leave a Comment
I think it's probably safe to say that Patrick McDonnell is most widely known as the cartoonist behind the Mutts comic strip. It's been in syndication since 1994 and has earned McDonnell a number of accolades including eight Harvey Awards! Mutts isn't the only thing McDonnell has done, of course, but it's what he's most known for, including by me. So when I heard he was doing an officially licensed book about old Marvel comics, I was very much intrigued.

McDonnell has never been shy about his love for old comics. He's probably mentioned it in every (or nearly every) interview I've read/heard from him, and Mutts not infrequently makes reference to or homages comics of his youth. But his style never struck me as one that might translate to the over-the-top heroics seen in 1960s comics. I'd caught at some point his mentioning that The Super Hero's Journey was a love letter to those old books, so I assumed that meant this would be almost more of a memoir of his reading comics as a kid, and how that encouraged to do better in school or stand up to the neighborhood bully or something like that. And the book seems to start off that way with Patrick's dad taking him and his siblings to church and the drug store where they get some sodas and comics.

But then the story switches to one within the Marvel Universe. Though it starts following The Watcher, it soon re-centers on Earth and incorporates many of Marvel's heroes from the early 1960s, including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Avengers. The plot then revolves around Dr. Doom getting all the heroes to fight one another and Mr. Fantastic trying to discover a way to counter that. The resolution is very much one that you would NOT have seen in a Marvel title back in the day, although it does make explicit the messages found in some of the books, particularly those from the mid-to-late '60s.

Despite the book having the scale of, say, the original Galactus Trilogy in some respects -- indeed, Galactus does make an appearance as well -- the story is a more human, echoing the feeling of "This Man, This Monster" after a fashion. (To be clear, McDonnell's story itself bears no resemblance to that one; it just has that type of empathetic vibe to it.) But what McDonnell does that is particularly interesting is that much of the book here lifts art directly from those 1960s comics. It's not just McDonnell copy/pasting characters, but he lifts sometimes pages at a time complete with the original dialogue. HOWEVER, because he's set up a different story and draws in his own framing and bridging sequences, the repurposed art takes on very different narrative meanings. Whay may have originally been a petty squabble becomes existential ennui. What was an offhand remark becomes a significant plot point.

And that's what really struck me about the work. I've read those old Marvel stories hundreds of times. I immediately recognized every piece of re-purposed art and what the original context was. But presented here in McDonnell's story, with his context, those old comics land very differently. McDonnell really did a fantastic job integrating wholy unrelated scenes -- sometimes crafted years apart for radically different purposes -- into a single cohesive narrative... that fits in perfectly well with his own decades-old ouvre. It might seem like something of a cheat to just re-use Jack Kirby's and Steve Ditko's art to tell a new story, but McDonnell clearly took an inordinate amount of time studying and selecting very specific sequences from material across over a dozen titles ranging from 1950 through 1968. And each piece feels naturally and perfectly integrated. I don't doubt it was a LOT more work than it appears.

Taking an almost polar oppostie approach from Abrams' last Marvel outing with Alex Ross' Fantastic Four: Full Circle, McDonnell almost went out of his way to ensure readers know this isn't supposed to be canon. They're very much Marvel characters and they feel very much like how they were portrayed in the 1960s but the overal tone and theme and message is much more in line with what McDonnell is known for. Despite lifting art directly from Fantastic Four, this book feels like it has more in common with Mutts.

If you're expecting a typical Marvel graphic novel, this isn't that. The Super Hero's Journey is argueably one of the most thematically experimental pieces I've seen come from under a Marvel banner in many years (even if it is more of an Abrams product). I don't know that I'd want a regular diet of this type of revisiting '60s Marvel, but I am very glad I picked this up and I've got a great deal more respect for McDonnell's narrative abilities. The book was released yesterday from Abrams and retails for $29.99 US.
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