Fresh Meat: Sidekick by J. Michael Straczynski and Tom Mandrake

Sidekick by J. Michael Straczynski and Tom Madrake is a gritty, blunt comic book portrayal of a superhero sidekick who struggles to succeed on his own after his partner is killed (available May 13, 2014).

Sidekicks have been a staple of the crime genre since Dr. John Watson first started chronicling the adventures of his companion Sherlock Holmes, if not sooner. Often filling the role of muscle, amanuensis or, from the authorial perspective, The Character That Provides Exposition, the sidekick is usually considered indispensable to the hero… but how about the other way around? Watson did alright for himself after Holmes’ reported demise, but he was a grown man with a career and a family when Holmes plunged into Reichenbach Falls. What happens to the (often much younger) sidekick of a superhero when cut adrift of his or her mentor?

J. Michael Straczynski and Tom Mandrake’s Sidekick explores the life of Barry Chase, a.k.a. Flyboy, in the aftermath of the assassination of The Red Cowl, guardian to both him and Sol City. Taken in as a teenager after the death of his parents triggered his superpowers, Flyboy spent years basking in the reflected glory of The Red Cowl, all too willing to just tag along and help out where directed.

Upon The Red Cowl’s death, Flyboy publicly vows to bring the assassin to justice. Unfortunately, his continued inability to do so leads to no one taking him seriously as a solo superhero. Compounding his failure is the fact that Flyboy isn’t actually very good at solving or preventing crimes on his own, no thanks to The Red Cowl, who left him penniless and worse. In a moment of weakness, Flyboy has a very public breakdown, ranting against the memory of his onetime mentor:

“Leave me alone! I can’t live up to you! I tried! I did everything I could! What the hell did you expect me to do?! You were the detective! You were the one with all the ideas! I didn’t know how to do any of those things! Because you never taught me how to do those things! Never taught me how to be a detective! You just taught me to admire you while you did it! And after you were dead I hated you for that! I hated you—I hate you—I hate you—hate you—You said you would always be there—You lied to me[.]”

And he really has tried everything he could. It’s almost painful to read of his constant attempts to forge a new life for himself doing the only thing he’s ever learned to do: be a superhero. Trying to adjust to the reality of modern superheroics, he moves to a new city, rebranding himself and looking for a reliable source of income. Here is his first interview to that end with a St. Louis reporter:

Flyboy: What matters is that St. Louis has been without a powered hero to call its own for too long. Today, that changes. I’m here to serve the people, and I hope to find some partners who can help me do that.
Reporter: Sidekick?
Flyboy: What…?
Reporter: When you say ‘partner,’ do you mean you’re looking for a sidekick?
Flyboy: I was thinking more along the lines of corporate sponsorship.

Flyboy’s continuing failure to forge a new path for himself imbues this book with a pathos that is almost Dostoyevskian. Sidekick is a gritty, even brutal, look at survivor’s guilt, exacerbated by the distorted lens of fame in modern times. It examines all the ways we can betray the people who depend on us. Whether directly or through a benign neglect, we often selfishly disappoint the ones we love.

This is not a book for kids. The subject matter alone is pretty heavy, but the art is unflinching in its depiction of Sidekick’s degradation. It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. Without giving too much away, Flyboy makes a number of surprising discoveries and allies, all of which point the way to a form of perhaps unconventional redemption. Straczynski and Mandrake aren’t afraid to push the superhero genre to its limits, subverting it to create a work of such audacity as to satisfy any fan of the grittier side of crime fiction.

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.

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