On Spandex: Fast and Hard by Martin Eden

If 2012′s sales figures are to be trusted, today’s hardcore super-hero fans are predominantly reactionary creatures. They don’t like change and they’re not particularly interested in variety either. It’s certainly not hard to imagine that the mass of the Big Two’s readership would dismiss Martin Eden’s Spandex: Fast And Hard out of hand even if they hadn’t heard that it featured the sub-genre’s first entirely LGBT super-team. For in the simplest of terms, Eden’s art just doesn’t seem to be taking things seriously enough. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to care that those who aren’t already deeply committed to the super-book might notice how fundamentally absurd the sub-genre’s conventions are. Nothing marks out the rank-breaking intruder into the costumed crimefighter’s shelf-space so much as a creator whose work is characterised by a rejection of the slightest trace of faux-realism, teeth-grinding angst, and machismo.

Instead, Eden seems to have a touching if heretical commitment to the super-hero book’s capacity to prosper visually as fantastic fiction rather than social realism. He’s certainly well aware that the effectiveness of social comment doesn’t rely on flat, overly-sincere storytelling. Instead, he focuses upon narrative rather than empty-headed spectacle, emotion before the by-the-numbers rituals of fisticuffs, character rather than catch-phrases. His super-people are mostly idealised, but they’re entirely free of hyper-sexualised, steroid-pumped, silicon-filled, porn-star surrogates. His stage-sets ingeniously evoke everyday reality through the most enthusiastically naive of designs rather than through a blizzard of fetishistic, widescreen-filling detail. In fact, his stories positively exult in a joyful appropriation of the super-book’s traditions, from rampaging giant female criminals to tidal waves of sword-waving pink ninjas. By the same token, his pages radiate broad effervescent blocks of colour and a focus on expressions so lucid and telling that an unkind mind might mistake them for childlike. For far too many of the super-book’s die-hards, a glance at even the cover of Spandex: Fast And Hard would create the impression of a comic book that shouldn’t be taken seriously simply because it refuses to be po-faced and sham-adult, and which shouldn’t be touched with a bargepole because it all looks rather dangerously transgressive.

It’s a shame that Eden’s work is probably going to find a great deal more acceptance beyond the immovable fogeys, young and old, of the super-book’s current month-to-month readership. Spandex is after all saturated in markers of Eden’s own devotion to the sub-genre, and to fantastic genre fiction as a whole. To reject his work because it’s a touch too unconventional in form and content would be to continue the super-hero book’s process of exiling everyone who might want something other than more-of-the-same. The second and third pages of Fast And Hard, for example, include full-page homages to both Raymond Brown’s iconic poster for Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman and Sal Buscema and Sam Grainger’s shot of the Avengers meeting-room from “Did You Hear The One About Scorpio?” Indeed, Spandex even have their own take on the “Avengers Assemble” battle-cry and a “Spanjet” too, while their leader Liberty shows a distinctly Professor Xavier-like way of addressing her team-mates in the first story in this collection. Obviously, this is a comic which is intended to respect the very same genre that it’s also radicalising, and yet the style in which it’s presented threatens to alienate the knee-jerk fan-boys every bit as much as its content will upset the more homophobic of readers. After all, doesn’t everybody know that Ninjas should be dressed in scarlet or black, but never ever pink? What would people think if ninjas wore pink?

Yet what’s truly radical about Spandex isn’t so much its wilfully playful storytelling or even the fact that its characters are all members of the LGBT community. The latter’s of course a taboo-breaking business in anyone’s terms, and yet, in a smartly counter-intuitive way, Eden hasn’t set out to emphasise the sexuality of his characters so much as establish how profoundly human and typical they are as individuals. Because there’s no-one from beyond the LGBT community on the page, with the possible exception of some walk-on parts, Spandex nimbly avoids being a simple-minded if well-meaning story of how those with LGBT sexualities are worthy of both respect and admiration. Instead, admiration and respect are granted to the members of the super-team from the very first page onwards, and it’s assumed that the reader is going to buy right into that point of view from the off. As such, there’s no need for Eden to frame Spandex in such a way as to present his characters as unimpeachably virtuous role models, because the narrative immediately establishes them as members of a broader everyday community, which also contains individuals, such as the members of Les Girlz, who represent less laudable characteristics too. In that way, Spandex is less about individuals who deserve to be treated with fairness and more about a community which has already won for itself something of what fairness would always demand.

Whether from one side of the super-hero / -villain divide or the other, Eden’s cast are nothing more and nothing less than people, which makes their emotions and ideas the focus of the story rather than the way in which they express themselves sexually. As such, sex to Eden’s super-people is exactly what it is for anyone else in the world; an activity which reflects and shapes their characters. With Eden succeeding from the start in presenting everyone’s private lives in a way that’s moving and insightful and central to the plot, the matter of this being the world’s first gay super-team fades almost immediately from the minds of all but the most tolerant-averse. And so, when a gay and a lesbian member of Spandex find themselves shocked by an unexpected mutual attraction developing between the two of them, the tale for those of us who’ve never experienced that precise confusion of roles works to represent those moments when an unforeseen and taboo excitement trespasses into our lives. Though the essential need for respect of difference underpins everything that Eden produces, it’s the fate of his characters rather than the compelling nature of any specific cause which initially holds our attention and generates our sympathy. Trusting to the carefully constructed sub-text of his work to deliver a great deal of the morality of the piece, Eden focuses his attention on the telling of exceptionally fine stories. Where Spandex does work as a polemic, it’s one which derives its power from his insistence that the reader stop regarding LGBT characters as anything less or more than everyday human beings who are as admirable and as flawed as typical human beings inevitably are. In essence, Spandex works to make us empathise with the likes of Indigo and Glitter rather than to enlist our support for any specific agenda. It’s a process which is, after all, an inevitably subversive as well as a profoundly political business.

It’s this fusion of untypically vivacious art with ambitious storytelling, of politically principled ideals with richly-drawn character moments and well-staged action set-pieces, which helps to ensure that “…If You Were The Last Person On Earth,” the last tale in Spandex: Fast And Hard, works as one of the very finest of super-hero stories from the post-Watchmen era. That sounds like nothing so much as hyperbole, of course, and yet it’s anything but. With the people of Earth doomed by an alien super-villain to the greyest of lives characterised by their own despair, the ever-dwindling ranks of Spandex strive to return everyone to a state in which hope might overcome the most soul-corroding of depression. As one member of the team finds the inspiration to continue fighting in his memories of his own troubled past, Eden takes aspects of a gay man’s past experiences and universalises them. A broken family, the suggestion of brief moments of solace quickly eclipsed by conformity and hopelessness; Eden identifies conflicts which reflect struggles of belonging which everyone has to face after their own fashion. It’s a tale so subtle and demanding that Eden’s ability as a writer is in places threatened by his limitations of his skills as an artist. His art is clearly inspired by creators who concentrate on wit and simplicity rather than showy ambiguity, on a precision of form rather than a mass of ostentatious and unnecessary details. Where others might rely on a weight of technique and a blizzard of information to inform their by-the-numbers storytelling, Eden focuses upon inventiveness matched to an absolute clarity of purpose. It’s a manifesto that serves him exceptionally well until the forms in the scenes that he’s describing become too complex for his ability to convincingly simplify. Yet his style is so essentially direct, bright-minded, and charming that even occasional awkwardnesses with anatomy and architecture can’t significantly compromise the reader’s enjoyment of the work.

The super-hero comic has always tended to flourish at the margins. When it was almost entirely despised as a form for anything other than functionally illiterate, easily-corrupted children, there was the opportunity to tap into the potential of a unselfconsciously populist form, and to develop it far away from the critical constraints of the media and academia. And Eden’s been developing his craft for years in both the small and mainstream press, well away from the big tents of the Big Two and the blogosphere which attends mostly to them. Similarly, the subject-matter of the super-hero book has often been at its most entertaining and moving when it’s focused on characters and situations which are anything other than mainstream and conforming. Lee and Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man informed by the travails of adolescence, the Boltinoff-era Superman titles regularly straying into stories marked by loss and grief, the Claremont-era X-Men with its focus on a beleaguered community of alienated outsiders; the super-book often reaches its highest potential when its absurd conventions are used as metaphors for perniciously marginalised individuals and communities. In Spandex, it’s the need for a broad community based on understanding and tolerance which underlines the essentially good-humoured, optimistic and yet entirely dramatic storylines. His super-heroes aren’t outsiders and victims, but they are individuals who’ve suffered and struggled to be the best that they can. (Some of them are anything other than examples of relative virtue, of course, for these aren’t paragons.) As such, Eden’s work speaks not only for the LGBT community, as the warily fannish cynic might presume, but for everyone who’s capable of buying into a super-hero strip that refuses to avoid the potential for a great deal of fun matched with an impressive measure of challenging thinking.

It may be far easier to define Spandex: Fast And Hard by what it isn’t rather than what it is. It’s not purposelessly grim or gritty, self-indulgently shallow or heartless, mutton-headed or fascinated by power and heroic vengeance. Its artwork isn’t soullessly slick, its script isn’t all flash’n'surface. Its politics aren’t those of the manifesto-bound tub-thumper. Its respect for the super-hero comic isn’t compromised by a compulsion to seem terribly grown up and fan-fashionably severe. And in “…If You Were The Last Person On Earth,” Eden’s created one of the finest tales that the modern-era super-hero book has produced. It has all the ridiculous kineticism of the best of the sub-genre, and all the compassion and inspiration that far too many of its fellows in the long-underwear market-place lack.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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Also by Colin Smith:

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  1. Ben Marton says:

    Thank you for alerting me to this with such an articulate review, Mr. Smith. This book sounds like a much needed breath of fresh air in a turgid, joyless superhero marketplace, and the art samples remind me more than a little of the work of Paul Grist, which can only be good. Based upon your recommendation, I shall be picking this collection up as soon as possible.

  2. I’ve had quite a bit to say about Chicken Colin’s use of the term “reactionary” on my blog.


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