The Inhuman Magnetism of Ted McKeever’s ‘Eddy Current’
A comic like Eddy Current feels like it should start with a bang, and it almost does. The explosion comes soon enough, with a lightning strike and loose power cables jammed into an exposed outlet and a Dynamic Fusion Suit that goes "zam!" Eddy Current, the comic, and Eddy Current, the title character, begin the adventure supercharged, and everything goes haywire from there.
Originally published in 1987 by Mad Dog Graphics and most recently collected into small, thick hardcover as part of Image Comics' "Ted McKeever Library" series, Eddy Current wasn't Ted McKeever's first work but it was definitely his first major work. And at twelve issues, it remains his longest work ever as a writer/artist. If it reads like a work of comic book improvisation, it should: McKeever mentions in the Afterword that he wasn't limited by any outside industry forces or even any self-imposed constraints in the overall storytelling: "The only three actual limitations were the amount of pages per issue, that the story be in black and white, and that I had to meet the monthly deadline. Everything else was wide open for whatever the hell my head would allow."
"I let this crazy bastard, Eddy, run wild all over my imagination as I documented his adventure," McKeever says. It's as simple, or complex, as that.
The marketing for the 2008 Eddy Current collection describes the protagonist as "A Don Quixote for the 21st century," but that's not quite right. Like Quixote, Eddy aspires to become a great hero. And like Quixote, he heads out into the world to do what he thinks is right. But while Quixote's delusions lead him into a parody of a noble quest, Eddy Current can see the world how it really is. He may seem crazy -- crazy enough to be institutionalized with Nurse '"Rat-sh*t" as his keeper, in an allusion to that most famous of madhouse melodramas -- but when he breaks loose and ventures into the city, Eddy's the one who knows right from wrong and good from evil. He's the voice of reason in a pit of vile corruption.
McKeever may have been making it all up as he went along, or channeling the Eddy Current running through his brain, but he did have a template to follow, or perhaps a formula to reject, in the form of the traditional superhero narrative. As much as Eddy Current is sort of a modern day Don Quixote, it's definitely a superhero origin story, even if it mocks its own forebears.
In the book, the institutionalized Eddy Current dreams of the arrival of his Dynamic Fusion suit which will give him powers like his hero, the Amazing Broccoli. If that sounds like the premise -- and terminology -- of a young reader's comic drawn in the style of The Powerpuff Girls or Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, then you haven't seen Ted McKeever's work. McKeever is no cutesy artist. His comics kick the concept of charming in the teeth. And spit on such an idea. McKeever's work -- and Eddy Current is an early but strongly representative example -- is a harsh and ugly and angular and dark. At first he looks to be influenced by Keith Giffen by way of José Muñoz. But while Giffen dabbled with the expressively black Muñoz style in the 1980s, McKeever committed to it and expanded it in his own direction. Eddy Current is an angry-looking, often abstract comic. About a guy with an electrified power suit inspired by a comic book about the Amazing Broccoli.
McKeever's depiction of Eddy's Dynamic Fusion Suit is emblematic of the approach the writer/artist takes to the superhero genre: it's definitely not a heroic-looking costume, and it may not even really work. It's iconic, in its own way. And symbolic of the inner strength Eddy often summons to continue on his adventure, but it's not a transistor-powered Iron Man suit or streamlined spandex outerwear. It's an asymmetrical bunch of straps and wires, partially covering one leg and some of his arms, with a power source hooked onto the front of a pair of exposed undershorts. The bands that cross in the middle of Eddy's chest like a pathetic X give the Dynamic Fusion Suit the look of a sad masochist or a pervert on the loose. It doesn't help that he also wears a trench coat and pair of meticulously-drawn Converse All-Stars. Eddy Current is no comic book superhero, except that he is, by default, because he's the hero of this comic book.
Eddy's wild exploits -- detailed with chronological precision, with each issue equaling one hour of his escape from the asylum before the power returns and he will once again return to his padded cell -- set him into the streets of the city known not-so-ominously as Chad, where he runs across vicious murderers, a hulking and devoted nun companion, and a plot to manipulate the populace via the already-relatively-obsolete mass-medium of radio. Eddy and the nun named Nun fight with furious abandon and sacrifice themselves for the good of an uncaring populace.
It's a superhero story that doesn't want to admit it's a superhero story because superhero stories are silly. But in the hands of Ted McKeever they aren't. They are grotesque and exciting and vicious and darkly comic and inspiring. Not everything is clear in Eddy Current, and sometimes it's a challenge to figure out what exactly is happening during some of the more chaotic sequences, but it's the story of a madman pretending to be a superhero and succeeding, so a bit of swirling chaos is part of the fun.
In the real world, "eddy current" refers to a kind of magnetic force. It's one that is sometimes used to stop railroad cars or, more appropriately, roller coasters. That's the feeling that this comic gives at the end. The ride is over, and it's a complete one, but you can't help but be a little queasy as you step away, even as your heart pounds with the lingering thrill of the experience.