By Eliot Rahal, Donny Cates, Geoff Shaw, and Lauren Affe
The Paybacks is a joy. It manages to have all the fun of poking at superhero conventions while still being in and of itself an enthusiastic celebration of the genre. It’s a damn good superhero book that delights in its irreverence and delivers a surprising amount of emotional depth, mystery, and commentary. Thanks to the efforts of Geoff Shaw and Lauren Affe, it’s also packed with an unyielding energy. The Paybacks #2 follows up on the established tone of the first issue with ferocious force and Rahal and Cates’ script gets to work enhancing this universe and, well, making jokes. Because some superheroes are just straight-up dicks, brah.
Clearly, Rahal and Cates are not content to rest on their quip laurels and this second issue goes a long way to establish how serious they are about crafting an engaging dynamic amongst their ragtag collective of familiar analgoues. They’re not all likeable, but that’s what makes them far more believable and interesting. This is the Suicide Squad with a fist more self-awareness and most importantly, just as much heart.
Blood pouch, Soviet Nunchuk, and Skisquatch are down with the program with the all the social elegance of your everyday teenager and don’t ask questions in lieu of kicking defaulted ass. Night Knight is the reader’s “in” , discovering this strange set of circumstances with the same questions we have through the familiar and comforting façade of the poster boy of superhero awesomeness (yes, Batman). Team leader Emory is a real standout this issue and Cates and Rahal firmly establish her as both a force to be reckoned with and more complex than initially believed. Take-no-shit team leader, with a tough and colder than cold veneer, she’s clearly hiding facets of herself as she rationalizes with her teammate that “these people were not your friends…keep your head down, pay what you owe, do what you’re told, and stop trying to play hero.” After all, she makes it really damn clear, “I said I can handle it!”
That’s really what’s happening amidst the one-liners and clever winks; exploring the ideas of growing up and paying your dues, no matter how unfair they may seem. Childhood wonder and wish fulfillment is left dead on the side of the road as we discover that heroes aren’t nearly as responsible as we so unquestionably look up with admiration. What does it mean to pay your debts in a world where beings can fly through the air and demolish a city block with a single blow? What responsibilities do you have when you’ve fucked up and gotten caught? Rahal and Cates have these woebegone “heroes” literally tied to a time-bomb that displays how much money they owe and explodes if they get out of line and if that isn’t so beautifully on the nose in this debt-your-way to success culture, then nothing is. It’s a terrific blend that still manages to delight in legitimate superhero action just as well, if not better, than anything else firmly steeped in that genre.
For Squatch’s sake, Geoff Shaw is unrelenting in his artistic velocity. Shaw shreds the page with a ferocity that never relents and still elegantly captures a range of emotion in eloquent storytelling fashion. It’s killer cartooning for sure, but it’s very controlled despite the sketchy packaging style. The issue moves with such ease, knowing when to put the foot on the gas and when to let the motor run to best feel the resonance of the matter at hand. Shaw has a cinematic eye that changes perspective to best establish setting and tone, and knows controls your eye to the most important focus at hand like when Zoe’s (sorry, Miss Adventure’s) head breaks the panel border or he strips bare the background save for a narrowed stripe behind The Antiquarian. When it’s really going, Shaw hits with the force of a Ryan Ottley Invincible battle royal meets the wildest of shōjo manga when the fray reaches its apex with spirit guns a’blazing and spattered inks run amok. Once more, there’s a splash littered with nods to comics past (all similarities to Galactus and a Turtle Party Van are legally coincendental, of course). Figures are exaggerated to the perfect length and the fun Shaw is clearly having playing in this sandbox is infectious.
Affe’s colors continue to exceed mere complement and instead rigorously enhance Shaw’s work. They pop with vigor (literally in the case of Doctor Blaqk) in a magenta infused hue and blend in a cool natural swath of blues with the heavier inks. Few colorists are as subtle or controlled with gradients as Affe and an undefined background often becomes the perfect emotional component to the foreground under her care. The only spot where they’re a little too pronounced is surprisingly the aforementioned splash of nerd memorabilia, but there’s still plenty to appreciate there with how she textures the nondescript vast warehouse backdrop with an ominous and fading sickly green. Her eye for light source is sharp and shading is precisely nondescript, but everything blends together with surprising ease. The early scene of Zoe at the crematorium is simply beautiful due entirely to how she plays with the raging flame in a dank and emotionless setting where an emotionally rife conversation takes place. Like the first, this issue’s colors by Affe feels natural and exciting, which only makes the tenacity of Shaw’s work more palpable.
The Paybacks is proving to have far more depth and heart than the elevator pitch would imply. Smart and sharp, but as dedicated to the goal of telling an honest to goodness badass superhero story as it is to knowingly high-fiving all that came before it. There’s even a ‘Trace’ of a Ghost Fleet callback to be found! (I’m so sorry). With a creative team running full throttle, it implores you to get in on the fun with a knowing nod and charming smile that belies its profoundly relevant socio-economic commentary.