The secret identity has been an indelible part of the superhero mythos since Superman first landed in 1938. Little more than children themselves, and writing for a primarily young audience, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw the inclusion of mild-mannered Clark Kent as part of the power fantasy of the Superman character. To the world at large, you might seem meek or mild, or bullied, but inside is an unlimited potential–a Superman waiting to break free. For most of the history of the superhero, the secret identity was an essential component of the concept with any masked hero having a hidden life outside of the capes and spandex.
But as the comics have kept up with modern times and been adapted to the screen where the beautiful faces of the actors are a selling point, the masks and secret identities became less essential and creators began to see the story potential in either removing the component from their characters or putting less focus on it. Often the secret identity becomes a punch line. Indeed, many heroes have grown past the need for a secret identity and make more sense without it. Why should Steve Rogers hide he is Captain America? Or why would Tony Stark, with his massive ego, pretend not to be Iron Man? Even Superman, in the comics, recently revealed his identity to the public at large, no longer able to reconcile the truth and justice he stands for with living a lie.
Only a few superheroes still maintain a secret identity as an important element, and it is primarily because of their public perception as outsiders and vigilantes. Spider-Man went to the ends of the Earth–both on-page and on-screen–to recover his secret after it went public. Daredevil’s brand of justice puts his practice as a lawyer in jeopardy. And Batman, while no doubt a hero, works outside the law and is at odds with the police of his city. Unlike Superman, who often works alongside the authorities even as he criticizes them, Batman is fundamentally opposed to the authority of the state and his mission would be jeopardized if he could be held legally accountable for his actions.
Over the last few months I have ventured into a number of indie and self-published first issues, with frustratingly disappointing results. Whether attempting to dump too much information, sloppy visual storytelling and lackluster art or confounding lettering, many comics out there have simply fallen flat. So discovering Slightly Exaggerated by writer Curtis Clow and artist Pius Bak was a refreshing and exhilarating change.
Slightly Exaggerated drops you right into the action, not bogging readers down with a wordy prologue or confusing exposition of obtuse lore full of fake names and fictional history. Instead, we are introduced to our lead, Mia in the midst of her graverobber antics. Along with her strange and snarky frog-like friend Winston, she is on the run in search of treasure and riches to make the most of her final days suffering from a mysterious ailment that appears to be turning her to stone.
Starting a story in medias res is a gamble that often ends up confounding rather than drawing readers in, but Clow, with ample assistance from the gorgeous art provided by Bak, is able to raise questions about the world he has introduced that make you want to discover more with each page turn.
Clow describes the series as “a fantasy treasure hunt adventure about a dying girl that must steal back a sacred artifact from a crazed cult leader in a whimsical fantasy world where religion is law.”
As the author has explained on Twitter, the story is a chance to explore his own atheism through narrative and reflect his personal existential struggles, and that does carry into and pervade this premiere issue. Indeed, the questions of religion and meaning are central to these early hints of the story, if not explicit. Mia’s fear of death and path to riches puts her firmly against the religious order, and her refusal to pray places her on the wrong side of the law. Claiming to be resigned to her fate, but obviously desperate for the thrill of chasing wealth and danger as well as human contact, her existential struggle is masked within a cynical humor and irreverence that manifests in snippy arguments with her partner and the inability to hide her disdain with the law enforcement that captures her.
The danger inherent of organized religion and government joining into a single entity are on display here, with the main character’s beliefs as punishable as her actions in stealing the relic at the start of the issue.
Pursued by both the law and a crew of religious zealots on a sky-pirate ship Mia is dogged by the pressure to choose a religion to believe in, when all she wants to do is live her life on her own terms, for however long is left of it. Her conflict spills into bloody violence, and the closing pages end on a somber note reminding her and the reader that to live in a society where certain beliefs are conscripted removes our freedom and our ability to actualize ourselves, to pursue our own source of joy and meaning. And not just religion–but the narratives of our countries and our homes, the stories we inherit from our communities. All of these things force uncomfortable conflict and make it difficult to determine who we are and where we fit.
Mia’s search for riches is as much a search for meaning, a chance to create her own story, a legend of her own that will not be forgotten. But too often the structures of our society leave us with little choice but to meander and flounder through expected courses. Mia is committed to living her final days on her own terms, to pursue the adrenaline rush of raiding tombs and escaping imprisonment.
Clow’s engaging story is propelled into the stratosphere by the breathtaking art of his collaborator and co-creator Pius Bak, whose bright colors and imaginative world are eye-popping and demand full attention.
Slightly Exaggerated takes place in a surreal fantasy world that evokes such disparate influences as Jim Henson, Adventure Time, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. There are flying sea creatures, shattered moons, and monuments to cat-like gods. The coloring, with landscapes painted in fluorescent yellows and teals belies the deadly stakes and emotional peril hinted at in this first issue, which makes the violent climax toward the end of the issue and the heavier themes of legacy feel even more weighty as they reveal themselves.
I cannot overstate the gorgeous nature of Bak’s work, how fun and evocative of a specific mood of wistful fantasy and melancholy. The imagination runs rampant, with lassoing and flying on massive stingrays and pirate ships cutting through the air. Clow’s story is engaging, but it is the art and the sharp visual storytelling that makes this book a truly riveting ride. The playfulness of Bak’s art helps to set the tone, as well, with expressive faces and a great ability to create a sense of scale and discovery. There is as much care on establishing the characters as their is in introducing the world they inhabit, and the scenes of flight in particular evoke moments where Mia is able to find moments of the true freedom she seeks.
The playfulness of the art also helps to make the very adult moments in this comic land even more, and places them in stark contrast with the air of whimsy surrounding Mia and her animal sidekick. Our heroine’s personal issues lead her to such risky behaviors as one night stands with strangers, smoking, and violent and bloody conflicts with the cult she has stolen from. The themes Clow hints at deal with heavy issues of existence that are relatable and difficult to grapple with, and Bak’s art packages it all up through kinetic panel work and excellent characterization.
If I have but one complaint it is that the story feels too short and ends quite abruptly, just as the characters and the story really seem to start building to something. But as a first introduction to this world, its lead, and the internal struggle she faces, Slightly Exaggerated succeeds at selling its concepts, and that abrupt ending makes me want to read the next issue more. It is an infuriatingly engaging story that only suffers from not giving us enough time to learn more about its characters and their motivations.
You can check out Slightly Exaggerated and purchase it on Clow’s To Infinity Studioswebsite, and back the Kickstarter for issue 2 starting on February 8th.