By James Robinson and Greg Hinkle
The son of a skilled pilot, Davy Nelson II became Airboy, the ace of the skies who flew through battle torn landscapes in his sentient wing-flapping plane, Birdie. Airboy appeared in the page of Air Fighters Comics and Airboy Comics through the 40’s and early 50’s and it is in absolutely no way important that you know or understand any of this because Airboy #1 (Out June 3rd) from James Robinson and Greg Hinkle delights in taking your expectations and grinding it into a fine, snortable powder. Indeed, Airboy is the sort of metatextual examination that lays bare the reality of creating and the myriad tribulations of the creators. A work brutally, shockingly honest and fearless, but with nary a glimmer of pretension that these types of stories often risk. It’s bizarre, charming, thought-provoking and guaranteed to linger long after you’ve read it.
The writer who writes a work about a writer writing the exact work being written; every writer thinks themselves a genius when it first occurs to them, before being told it’s the oldest idea in the (idiomatic) book. Not only has it been done countless times, it also often comes across as masturbatory drivel. With Airboy, James Robinson straddles that line, but manages to keep things unquestionably in the realm of honesty and self-awareness. It reads as a cathartic experience for him, but it’s never indulgent; it never feels like this was something he needed to write and oh hey, thanks for reading it too. No, with Airboy, Robinson exposes himself (quite literally at that) and his insecurities with a playful, quippy style that rings true, if not slightly embellished (the nature of cartooning) to best tell the origin of this very comic. His relationship, his career, his drug and alcohol use; it’s all there for you to voyeuristically revel in or sympathize with or judge if you wish, but it is undoubtedly compelling and deftly scripted.
This first issue needs to set up the twist and it does so in a fashion so oddly persuasive, one would be forgiven for not even wanting the twist at all. Here we have Robinson and Hinkle appearing as themselves on a drug fueled odyssey through San Francisco attempt to create a reimagined take on Airboy for Image Comics in the midst of Robinson’s lowest point. It isn’t Pekar or Campbell’s Alec or Bechdel’s Fun Home, and it certainly isn’t trying to be, not by a long shot. There’s a playfulness, largely due to Hinkle’s style, that’s more akin to a tragicomedy. Robinson is thoroughly aware that he’s portraying himself as that car crash on the side of the road and he’s practically pleading with you to come and gawk at it. Then he throws himself out there even more and gets right at the heart of it: “Truthfully, I’m pissing my life away. I’m not happy and I don’t know why.”
All this ennui and masquerading humor is buoyed by the near flawless cartooning of Robinson’s carousing cohort, Greg Hinkle. While there’s little doubt that Robinson, the character, is front and center and under the microscope in this issue, Hinkle is equally responsible for shaping him as Robinson, the writer, is. At first glance, Hinkle’s art is disarming and welcoming; a joyous exaggerated but detail-laden style that is as equal parts Monsieur Jean and Dr. Seuss as it is R. Crumb or Craig Thompson. It’s a style all his own however and one utilized to tremendous effect in best introducing this debauched sequence of events. Hinkle sublimely crafts each page, especially the sprawling splashes, to pack every ounce of the myriad emotions bursting forth from these two characters’ drug addled and occasionally perverse mindsets. It’s brevity and levity together, with a subtle attention to detail that helps this misadventure feel utterly grounded and familiar. Perhaps most striking of all is the color palette employed; a sparse selection of seafoam green paired with a faded chartreuse that contrasts with the sprinkling of violets and raspberry. The colors are heavily saturated and shading is kept to a minimum, allowing the work to be bold and letting the inks take on texturing duty for the most part. It’s all set up to provide that necessary moment of shock caused by the contrasting burst of the final page’s twist and one that smartly encapsulates the differentiating appearance of hope versus the maligned outlook of the lost.
Airboy will no doubt venture into interesting, introspective directions from here that will still incorporate all of the elements found here, but there is something charming about how this first issue chooses to set up that adventure. This deeply personal, self-deprecating and hilarious 24 page misadventure may very well exist on its own from here on out, but it feels impossibly necessary to understanding what fever dreams may come. Airboy #1 takes itself as seriously as the creators do themselves, how could it possibly do anything less? What it is about and what it will be about are intrinsically tied even if it’s not entirely clear how self-serving that may be. Even if it is, it’s not a bad thing. These types of story often runs that aforementioned risk of pretension, but Robinson and Hinkle deftly steer clear of those trappings and instead provide a humorous, heartfelt journey worth peeking behind the curtain to experience.