Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ultra: Seven Days by the Luna Brothers

I read this - the Luna Brothers' first series - right after I finished Girls - the Luna Brothers' second series. Looking at this as a warm-up to Girls - which I liked quite a bit and plan to write more on later - makes me want to cut it more slack than I would if it had been my introduction to the Luna Brothers' work. Nonetheless, this is an example of an extremely mediocre comic.

There are a lot of reasons a piece of popular culture might turn out to be mediocre. Sometimes, you get the medicority of competency: work made by professionals that aims to hit as precisely as possible the current, conventional standards of being "well made". Sometimes you get the mediocrity of unreachable ambitions, where a creator can't pull off what they're trying to do. Ultra is arguably more purely, purposefully mediocre than these two kinds of works. It isn't just that Ultra has a high-concept that seems safely different-but-not-too-different from standard super-hero fare. You could make the same claim about Powers. In fact, my guess is that Powers is the inspiration for what the Luna Brothers are doing here: doing a "super-hero world" version of a popular TV genre - police procedural in the case of Powers, primetime soap opera about beautiful, fabulous people in the case of Ultra. The problem is that while Brian Michael Bendis seems perfectly at home writing a police procedural, the Luna Brothers don't have that kind of grasp of the kind of chick lit-influenced soap opera they're attempting here. Because of this, while Powers feels like an attempt for Bendis to do the kind of thing he really loves - write crime stories - and still appeal to the super-hero crowd, Ultra feels calculated, as if the Luna Brothers were looking for a niche they could fill.

This is all speculation and supposition, of course, but for me it's the details that tell the story and in Ultra the details all feel second-hand, as if they were drawn from TV shows and not from life. There's a conversation between Ultra - a popular super-heroine - and a "normal" guy she's going out on a first date with that is indicative of the problem. The guy keeps talking about how weird and cool it is to be on a date with a super-hero and how he can't believe it. To me, that seems like it would be completely off-putting behavior, especially since it has been established that Ultra likes to draw aline between her day job and her private life. But the Luna Brothers seem to be deaf to these kinds of little inconsistencies, which add up over the course of the series.

Ideally, in a genre-mixing work like this, you want the genres to mix in interesting ways: where the conventions of one genre tell us something about the other or where the mixture provides some kind of satirical spark. But that doesn't happen here either. There's no commentary on super-hero comics and , despite the magazine parody covers, no commentary on celebrity culture.

But there are certainly worse ways to try and make a name for yourself, and considering what they would go on to do in Girls (which is neither middle-of-the-road nor impersonal) it isn't so terrible that this feels like such an exercise. Or, rather, reading Girls first I know that the exercise paid off.

This is true from a formal/craft sense perspective as well. A number of the techniques the Luna Brothers try out here - using a computer enhanced "out-of-focus" effect to mimic a rack focus with a camera - are used much more effectively (and discriminatingly) in Girls. And the stripped-down, bare-bones style of Jonathan Luna's cartooning is also a much better fit with the B-movie set-up and rural PA characters and location in Girls. With Ultra it seems a little skimpy.

Ultimately, I think the importance of Ultra and/or any interest in it will have to do with how it fits into our thinking about the Luna Brother's subsequent career and not for its intrinsic value.

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