Buy This Book: ‘The Fox: Freak Magnet’ From Dean Haspiel, Mark Waid And J.M. DeMatteis
If you’ve been reading ComicsAlliance for any length of time at all, you’ve probably already twigged to the fact that I tend to like really weird comics. Whether it’s obscure Golden Age oddities, the Ninja training manuals that were sent to comic book stores in the ’80s, or the pouch-filled excesses of the ’90s, that’s what I love to read. And in three solid decades of reading comic books, I’ve rarely seen one as weird as The Fox.
Even though it had some of the biggest names in comics involved — drawn and plotted by Dean Haspiel with scripts by Mark Waid and J.M. DeMatteis — the miniseries seemed to slip under the radar for a lot of people, and to be honest, I can see why. It’s a strange story about a strange character that most people aren’t too familiar with. Now that it’s out in paperback, though, it’s easy to pick up and read — and you should, if only because it’s even stranger when you read it all together.
The Fox always seemed like the odd man out in Archie’s recent revival of the Red Circle characters. Most of the attention was on the New Crusaders reboot, where Archie Comis’s old and often-overhauled line of superhero stories was relaunched as a legacy book starring super-powered teens stepping in after their parents get exploded. And to be fair, that attention was well-deserved — while it lasted, New Crusaders was fun and energetic, full of familiar superhero elements combined in a way that felt fresh and appealing. It was classic superheroics and teen drama, which has always been a pretty winning combination.
The Fox, if you’ll pardon the pun, was a completely different animal.
On paper, it seems liked a simple idea, exactly the kind of premise that you could use for an easy relaunch. Paul Patton Jr. is a second-generation superhero, but he’s not motivated by any driving tragedy or righteous zeal for crime fighting. Instead, he’s a photojournalist who puts on the costume to draw out newsworthy crooks to make a fast buck. It’s a reverse Spider-Man with a twist, and the twist is that once those costumed crooks start coming, they don’t stop, meaning that Paul has to keep going into action as the Fox just to avoid getting killed.
It’s a great premise, but the single biggest problem with The Fox: Freak Magnet is that it’s not really that story. It starts out that way, and Paul maintains this sort of detached disbelief at everything that happens, but it doesn’t really pay off. After the first issue, we don’t really see much of this normal life that Paul wants to get back to, and since there’s no real contrast to judge the freaky stuff, it doesn’t quite hit as hard as it should. Along the same lines, the Fox mentions that he wants to go back to his family a couple of times, but he leaps into action pretty readily and seems more than willing to just roll with everything that happens.
It feels weird to be complaining about a superhero who’s not rattled with angst and indecision over how These Powers Are Actually A Curse, and all things being equal, I’ll take the guy who jumps right into bizarre action with a shrug and a smile over the one who spends a whole issue brooding. The thing is, it puts the Fox in a strange position where, if you’re going to keep up with the premise, he should be at least a little more reluctant to be doing what he does. I can’t believe it, but God help me, I almost want to say there should’ve been more complaining in this comic.
The flipside to that is that instead of building a contrast to a normal life, Haspiel and Waid just keep on ratcheting the weirdness level up to increasingly dizzying heights.
What starts out as a story about the Fox’s uncanny knack for attracting costumed weirdos gets exponentially more bizarre as it goes on, suddenly twisting into a dimension-hopping team-up with other Red Circle characters and finally ending in a time travel crossover that started in a backup story before eventually tying the whole thing together. There’s an inter-dimensional princess who has trouble speaking; a diamond handgun powered by wedding rings; a costumed supervillain who’s actually a Cthulhu monster; a Cthulhu monster who’s actually a costumed supervillain; and through it all, shrugging his way through each improbable scenario, is the Fox.
As much as Waid’s dialogue gives the Fox his detached slightly cynical voice throughout the story, there’s an amazing amount of character that comes through purely through the body language depicted by Haspiel.
Those floppy ears might be my favorite costume element of the past few years, but it’s the awkward, gangly limbs that really sell it. Haspiel draws the Fox with an incredible sense of motion, always bouncing around and, way more importantly, always nearly falling on his face. He sells the idea of the superhero who doesn’t actually want to be a hero and is therefore not all that into training to hone his body into a weapon against crime better than anyone else could, and it’s magical.
Throw in Waid’s dialogue in the first issue about how the Fox actually does have the ability to almost effortlessly dispatch a pair of heavies who are beating him up while he’s tied to a chair, and you get the sense of someone who has a sort of easy athleticism, but who’s more apathetic about it than anything else. And while that’s definitely a strange character choice, it goes a long way toward explaining just why it is that he’s not all that bothered by being shot through alternate dimensions and having to deal with death traps and life-threatening situations on a pretty constant basis. It’s just what he’s doing today, and he figures it’ll all work out okay.
The end result is one of the most offbeat superhero books I’ve read in a long time, and while it’s not quite perfect — if nothing else, it sacrifices a focus that could really tie things together thematically for the over-the-top set pieces that actually are the theme — it’s certainly a memorable read, and one that I can definitely recommend. There’s nothing like it out there, and that alone makes it worth picking up.