By Donny Cates, Eliot Rahal, Geoff Shaw, and Lauren Affe
Their eyes locked; a moment simultaneously frozen yet fleeting wherein the flood of emotions came to a thunderous swell. They were more than just partners, they were partners. “I’ll never forget you.” None of us will, Knight Mare…none of us will. It’s right around this point, where the mask-adorned equus of a sidekick to Night Knight must part ways, that you’ll surrender to the unbridled hilarity of The Paybacks #1. Rife with knowing winks and jabs at comic book tropes and over-the-top characterizations and action, Rahal, Cates, Shaw, and Affe deliver an opening chapter that’s pure energy. It’s deceptively surface layer, but there’s a lot of establishing foundation that requires it. The self-aware nods that playing hero really is still a form of playing after all is a great launching point for this sardonic trip through superhero comics’ lovable, embraceable lows and highs. Look, there’s a dude named “Bloodpouch” and he has a pouch for an eyepatch, okay? Damn straight.
The Paybacks spins out of Cates’ 2013 effort, Buzzkill (that he co-plotted with Mark Reznicek and co-created with Shaw and Affe on art) insomuch as it’s set in the same fictional universe filled with absurdly endearing superpowered beings. It’s a great four issue story that touches on the nature of addiction and redemption, but it is in no way whatsoever required reading in order to enjoy this new series. No, The Paybacks is a thing all its own; an upended Suicide Squad that fills its ranks with those who’ve been labeled criminals by simply being unable to pay back (get it?) their debt regardless of their myriad of reasons and/or heroic intentions. Well, at least in the case of Night Knight thus far. The premise is simple but effective and full of potential to further explore the realistic expense we all face in our expenses.
Rahal and Cates don’t do a deep dive into this level of commentary here, it is only the first issue after all and there’s a bevy of groundwork that needs to be laid. Fortunately that groundwork consists of jokes both juvenile and sharp with the most satisfying smiles generated by the absurdity of what’s presented as a given in this world. Night Knight is our Batman analogue, a brooding avenger of the night (duh) that works just as hard, if not harder, at scripting the perfect atmospheric narration boxes in his journal as he does actually fighting crime. His sidekick is the aforementioned unicorn Knight Mare and sidekick is the key word because despite the fact that this steed is perfectly mountable, he’s not the Knight’s mode of transportation. Knight Mare is literally just fighting alongside him. That’s what we’re dealing with here. It’s pretty great, y’all.
While Rahal and Cates keep the comedy the heavy focal point, there will undoubtedly have to be some heart coming down the pipe and if you’ve read Buzzkill (or Cates’ The Ghost Fleet), it’s a safe bet that there’ll be some hearty jabs to the feels coming soon. But for now, we’re just getting acquainted with our surrounds and beyond the playfulness with comic archetypes there’s some fun structuring and character work on display. If anything, there’s a great deal of restraint shown from these writers in how they allow for the multitude of characters introduced here to develop naturally. We get a sense of everyone, but there’s a welcomed air of mystery about most of them, specifically Driver, who seemingly calls the shots in the field and is jonesing for a smoke. In other words, there’s enough depth to the worldbuilding that when the ridiculous strikes (which is a lot) it hits with maximum “Pew “ impact.
Even though the dialogue is responsible for the bulk of the humor, it’s absolutely reliant on Geoff Shaw’s frenetic and dynamic art. The character designs (again, Bloodpouch), the hyper-animated anatomy, and the careful pacing all make it clear that Shaw is having a blast and he’s certainly got a keen eye for comedy beats. Shaw allows for the book to breathe like the delightfully silly Knight Mare scene being played straight and then turns up the adrenaline with slashing overlapping panels of hot van thrashing action. One could get lost for quite some time trying to pick out each and every joke/homage/slight of a character there is in a huge double-page splash (The Tick, Lion-O, Batman, and Thor are amongst the most obvious…..all resemblances are legally unintentional, no doubt) and his scratchy, angular line work does double duty injecting energy and attitude into every figure in every panel. Shaw has a decent balance of layouts as well allowing for intentionally crowded pages where needed with clearer moment-to-moment takes like a great 5-panel sequence of stacked rectangular panels that showcase Driver opening up the back of the van. It’s a precisely controlled slow burn that sets up the page turn perfectly and another example of directing the flow of the overall issue.
Lauren Affe isn’t mentioned enough when discussing the industry’s top colorists. More than just her evocative palette that quite literally sets the tone (here, a bombastic menagerie of kooky and the snarkly grim) it’s how she applies them. There’s a lot of subtlety to the application and she employs gradient backgrounds better than anyone. Pages are lush and flush with action like the magenta hues of magical automobile-stopping powers (just go with it) when needed and richly serene when necessary like the build-up to the explosive van innards reveal. There’s a balance throughout that makes for such an easy read; the perfect choices of contrast (ghoulish green and yellow of mad science borne ooze) and complements (the gradient sage backdrop to our colorful gang of upside miscreants in one panel) all cement Affe as a storyteller as much as her collaborators.
The Paybacks #1 checks off most of the requirements of a first issue while still being deceivingly (and acceptably) one-note. It’s all about establishing the playground while still managing to be honestly fun and giving you a reason to return. Hopefully, an emotional anchor will become apparent as the series progresses and there are hints of that here, and a more diverse cast will emerge, but for now there’s plenty to of irreverence to revel in. Staring you in the eye while reminding you that “Hey, you gotta pay for that, you know!” it’s a strong debut that’s heavy on laughs framed in a well balanced and engaging visual package. Now run, trusty unicorn companion. Run and don’t you dare look back.