Originally published by Slave Labor Graphics and then serialized on the Dark Horse website, Jon Adams’s engrossingly odd TRUTH SERUM is one of those comics that seemingly defies categorization. It has superheroes, but is clearly not a superhero comic; it’s got a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, yet the humor is undercut by the quiet characterizations and morose worldview of the narrative; the heroes have silly names like Don Sequitur and the Implantress, yet it is not your typical Ben Edlund-type superhero parody. Weirdly wonderful and entertainingly enigmatic, TRUTH SERUM is one of those titles you’d figure would have a really hard time finding an audience, but Adams’s misanthropic tale of post-modern losers has won him quite a respectable following in comicdom.
It was, in fact, nominated for the 2007 Eisner Award in the Best Humor Publication and Best Graphic Novel Reprint categories (…Great, now it’s gonna go all mainstream and stuff). Personally, I like his chances. Ivan Brunetti? He’s no good. Michael Kupperman? He’s no good. Paul Friedrich? He should’ve just named himself Onionhead. ONIONHEAD ATTACKS by Paul Onionhead–I’d vote for that. Bob Burden’s…OK, I can’t bring myself to say that one as a joke (And I actually feel bad saying that about Brunetti, because I’m sure he really cares what I think). Anyway, I can’t think of anyone more deserving than Adams, whose work is truly one of a kind; you won’t see anything like this anywhere else from anyone else.
Set in an antiseptic little suburbia known as Manchester, the self-published Truth Serum is about a group of really pathetic superheroes, an equally pathetic group of supervillains, and an even more pathetic group of citizens who worship and mistrust them. Plus he names a chapter after an Ace of Base song (Did Mr. Bob Burden do that in Flaming Carrot? I don’t think so. Just give Adams the Eisners, already!). A collection of interconnected short stories, it reads like an episode of Mr. Show directed by Daniel Clowes. It’s humorous, heartbreaking, and chock-full of the kind of fanboy arcana that will either make you chuckle knowingly or hide your face in embarrassment. It is insanely good.
The town is populated by the most unglamorous superheroes on the planet, and not in that revisionist “I’m a fascist/rapist” kind of way mainstream superheroes are deemed unglamorous. These people are pathetic dead-beat dads, work at burger joints, and painfully obsess over girls who dumped them. In essence, there’s no real difference between the superheroes and the average citizenry of Manchester. Everyone has issues, from the clinically depressed Eagle Man, to the angry young woman Beatrice, to the half-monkey/half-comic book artist Lester Boy. We laugh at their mean-spirited little quirks, while at the same time, we pity them for being who they are, and Adams masterfully walks that thin line between comedy and tragedy like Colonel Kurtz’s proverbial snail on the razor’s edge.
The most prominent of the bunch is Captain Force, who serves as a real showcase for Adams’s misanthropic wit. He’s arrogant, callous, and what experts would refer to as “your basic all-around asshole.” Yet, he’s also the kind of fictional asshole everyone finds endearing. Whether he’s ditching his supposed friends, talking himself up to the general public while dressed in street clothes, or battling his evil twin Ecrofni Aptac, the good Captain’s true comedic revelation. But the book is full of characters like and unlike this, as the true star of the book is Adams himself.
Adams has an intricate, ultra-clean drawing style that conveys and evokes a wide variety of emotions. Like his storytelling, his art also straddles a line: a line between cartoony and photorealistic that creates an odd feeling (I’m wondering how many times I’ve said or thought the word “odd” while writing this). He isn’t exactly a minimalist, but you can see that Adams wants the reader to determine the meaning of the story for themselves, rather than have him tell you what’s going on. His characters are oblique and stand-offish, and through the tiny glimpses we get of their lives, we find a wealth of characterization. Everything about this comic is unorthodox and through the off-beat storytelling techniques employed, we’re given layers upon layers of context. What Adams has achieved with this comic is truly impressive.