Captain Gravity Review

By | Monday, December 11, 2023 Leave a Comment
Thanks to some dollar bin finds, I recently came across the original Captain Gravity comics from 1998 and the 2004 follow-up, Captain Gravity and Power of the Vril. The first series is by Stephen Vrattos, Keith Martin, and Rober Quijano and the second is by Joshua Dysart, Sal Velluto, and Bob Almond. At a casual glance, they look like pulpy action hero adventures so I was definitely curious to check them out.

The high concept might be described as The Rocketeer but the hero is a young Black man and the flight powers are more anti-gravity than just rocketry. Joshua Jones works as a gopher for a movie studio executive who, while working on a "Captain Gravity" serial, stumbles across the myseterious "Element 115" which grants Jones the ability to fly. But to keep it out of the hands of Nazis, and protect the starlet that he has a crush on, he has to don the Captain Gravity costume and learn to play the hero. The sequel reworks the concept a little, changing Element 115 from something brought to Earth by aliens to Vril, a power source used by ancient Atlantis. It also offers up a bit of a costume redesign, so that Captain Gravity looks less like the outfit that might be worn in an actual serial and more like something that would be depicted on the cover of a pulp novel or comic book. But both books have the basic plot of Captain Gravity keeping the power source out of the hands of Nazis and saving the girl in the process.

The concept of the flying adventurer is hardly new of course. There were multiple serials throughout the 1940s and '50s featuring "rocket men" type characters including Rocket Man, Commando Cody, and the unimaginatively named Larry Martin. (All three actually wore literally the same costume, so they're frequently all thought to be the same character.) And while Captain Gravity is not rocket-propelled and his flight is more akin to a superhero like Superman, the tenor is much more in line with the rocket men characters. Partially because of the aesthetics, of course, but also because flight is essentially is only power, even though some more creative uses of gravity manipulation get introduced later in the second series.

One of the more interesting aspects of the character is his ethnicity, particularly as its set against the late 1930s and even more partiularly as most of the antagonists are Nazis. The idea of a Black serial character has been touched on in a variety of venues, although this is one of the earliest instances I'm aware of. MadTV introduced a parody called "Rocket Revengers" the same year, in which the only Black rocket man character routinely has his lines cut. In 2010, The Specialists debuted as a webcomic which features a Black rocket man character. I think there's a really interesting idea there; the nature of the stereotypical rocket man costume -- which fully covers the charcter's entire body, thus hiding their skin color -- makes for a natural way to retroactively introduce Black heroes into a time and space where they normally would not be tolerated. It affords a prime opportunity, especially when pitted up against a blatantly racist group like Nazis, to discuss racial issues and unconscious bias. (There are other meida that put Black people as the heroes in a serial-style narrative -- the 2013 movie Destination: Planet Negro! immediately springs to mind -- but I'm focusing particularly on the rocket men sub-genre here.)

The Captain Gravity stories do touch on that idea, but only in a somewhat perfunctory manner. There is a notable backstory/flashback about Joshua's father, talking about how he was hanged by racists for the perceived slights of his son. And there are some obligatory comments from Nazis about how much they had to demean themselves by dealing with Blacks and Jews. But despite these and other references like them, there's nothing there that seems to really inform the story or drive the characters. For example, Joshua has a crush on a white starlet and he never once pauses to consider how socially unacceptable that would be; his thoughts are more along the lines of an unsure teenager worried about the prom queen saying "no" to him if he asked her on a date. I'm not suggesting that either of these two stories should make race the focus of them but, as I said, it never seems to inform any of the characters or their interactions.

Both stories had a sizeable amount of narration. I think this may have been driven in part by the industry as a whole being in a stage where they were still switching away from thought balloons and over to narration captions, but it's handled a bit inelegantly here. The second story, in particular, because the main tale is being told as a flashback within a flashback. It slows down the action and pulls emphasis away from the actual heroics and specatacle of the more action-filled sequences. Neither is written poorly, for sure, but I can spot room for improvement in the both books.

(As something of an aside, the "Vril" of the second series is a nod to the 1871 Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel: Vril: The Power of the Coming Race. The novel was quite popular in its day, and prompted the creation of the Vril-ya Bazaar, which was essentially the first fan convention. It also prompted a real-life search by the Nazis for the mysterious Vril in the late 1930s and is loosely the basis for this sercond series. None of this is mentioned in the books, however. Bulwer-Lytton is largely forgotten today; if he's known at all, it is almost entirely for the opening line in his 1830 novl Paul Clifford: "It was a dark and stormy night.")

Despite some shortcomings, the stories are fun, and Velluto's art in the second series is excellent. The publisher, Penny Farthing, still has TPBs available for $20 US each. I don't think it should be too difficult to find all the issues in discount bins or at pretty reasonable prices. For a buck or two per issue, I think that's a fair price for them.
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