The idea of a Superman-like figure dropping into the ‘real’ world — more like ours, in that it’s not filled with superheroes — is one that’s fascinated genre fiction writers for decades. Now we have an odd take on it that merges moments from America’s past and present in a quasi-fairy tale.
Huck is a new series from superstar comics writer Mark Millar and artist Rafael Albuquerque, Dave McCaig and Nate Piekos. It’s focused on a titular strapping galoot who’s got super-physicality, preternatural tracking ability and super-empathy, which he uses to solve problems big and small. In the two issues out so far, Huck finds lost jewellery with great sentimental value trapped in submerged wreck, tracks down a missing parent and stops armed extremists in the Middle East and North Africa. He does it all with a bright disposition that’s presented as simple, naive and almost childlike, and keeps track of everything in a notebook.
Huck initially seems like yet another creation that fits the Mark Millar Movie-Ready Formula: it sprinkles in recent sociopolitical controversy as a topical seasoning, deals in broad superhero archetypes that are easily recognisable and uses present-day media culture to deconstruct the same tropes it’s invoking. Millar’s other creations can feel like they’re operating on a calculus to get optioned by big Hollywood studios — like the ‘what if Batman was the Joker’ elevator pitch for 2009’s Nemesis. But I was surprised by the lack of cynicism in Huck.
Millar, Albequerque and company are clearly trying to tap a vein of mid-20th-Century Americana and filter it through modern storytelling approaches of today. The car bodies done up in old-school 1950s silhouettes, Huck’s gas-station-attendant coveralls and the homey smalltown affect of the Vermont hamlet where he lives all point at a very specific feeling the books’ creators are trying to invoke. Add to those the main character’s name and a snoopy woman with alliterative first and last names — clearly meant to riff on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Lois Lane, respectively — and it feels like Huck is an experiment in combining the tonalities of comics’ Golden, Silver and modern ages all in one work.
Huck still feels a little too self-satisfied at its own cleverness but it avoids most of the fannish impulses that can show up in Millar’s work. It’s clear that this comic comes from a deep affection of old-school Superman plot formulas and a rose-tinted nostalgia for movies out of Hollywood’s golden age. But that winds up making the visuals of a big, blonde guy straight out of Norman Rockwell’s oeuvre punching out al Qaeda stand-ins or rescuing captive girls from Boko Haram feel even weirder.
Huck lacks the growly nihilism that characterises so much of present-day superhero fiction but it also feels like it steps over many of the advances that the genre’s made with regard to representing the world readers live in. The big drama happens after Huck’s metahuman powers get outed to the world at large and it seems as if the series’ burgeoning subtext might be about how mass media exposure changes the lives of people for the worse or better. I found myself wondering if Millar is going to make this dissonance pay off or if the tension itself is the point of the exercise. Neverthless, it’s a weird coincidence that a retro-inflected, feel-good riff on Superman is out at the same time that the original Man of Steel is angrier than he’s been in a while.