Written by Joel T. Lewis
In the weeks leading up to the blockbuster releases of superhero films like Captain America: Civil War, X-Men Apocalypse, or BVS I find myself pouring over back issues spanning multiple hero titles and story arcs. I consume like a madman so that when that tiny bit of fan-service makes it on-screen, I can appreciate it or when a character arc is switched I can wince with the rest of the audience. In the digital age we live in our access to comics is almost limitless. If I want to read every back issue of the Fantastic Four (and believe me, I do), I can go on my Marvel Unlimited App, access the digital archive, and read them anywhere I want, day or night, coffee shop or city hall. Databases like Marvel Unlimited and Comixology allow us to access thousands of issues and follow every story arc, but sometimes it’s nice to break away from the search fields and subscription services and pick up a comic the old fashioned way.
I do not intend to make a hipster, comic-book purist statement about how comics should be consumed; rather, I want to share how I discovered Propeller Man. I was flipping through a stack of comics, bundled together by title, and happened across a cover that I couldn’t get out of my head, and despite having already blown the majority of my Comic Con budget (as I do every year) I had to take it home with me. Propeller Man is by no means the first title that I’ve discovered this way, nor is it likely to be the last; however, it could be in the running for the best title I’ve come across.
A forgotten past, a dystopian future, a power suit, and a mysterious government plot. Everything about Matthias Schultheiss’ Propeller Man screams early 90’s and as a product of that era myself, it’s right up my alley. Okay it’s not an air-tight story: it’s true that the German translation is a bit choppy at times, and sure there are heroes with better powers and story arcs but Propeller Man is a lot of fun. Plus, the series doesn't feel like any other comic books. The pages are thick, the art is glossy and there's a real heft when you hold them in your hand. But, more than the polish of the issues or the quality of the narrative or the art, I want to express how it was reading this series.
The world of Propeller Man is familiar in its strangeness. The dystopian future in which the comic takes place is unique in its details but familiar in its broader strokes. As Schultheiss pans over the ruinous hulks of decrepit skyscrapers while Propeller Man sails over the city I am reminded of Blade Runner and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It is a world whose history is only glimpsed through little dialogue cues and Schultheiss’ dystopian artwork. I found myself fascinated by how this world came to be, even as I was fascinated by the title character’s origin, and as I closed the back cover of the final issue I found that that world loomed larger in its potential than any other comic book world I had entered in a long time.
But, there is no massive back catalogue of Propeller Man. There are only eight issues. Only eight issues were planned in the first place and the story is crafted to live within those constraints, and, in a sense, I knew I had to live within those constraints too as I read. There weren’t any more issues for me to devour, no comforting backlog of tangents and side-plots, no variant covers and no conflicting timelines championed by different artists and writers. I had 8 issues to experience the world of Propeller Man, and that was it. I wanted to savor every issue. I didn’t want it to end, but at the same time when I reached the end, my imagination didn’t have to shut down.
Often the massive catalogue of Marvel or DC titles can feel intimidating but also stunting to the imagination: everything you can think of has been, or is on its way to being done. That’s why titles like Propeller Man are so valuable to me; their obscurity allows them to breathe; they are not confined by their popularity and proliferation.
Propeller Man exemplifies everything I like about comics: wacky, silly, dystopic, strange, and imaginative. Oh, and he has Dolphin Powers...that’s right...Dolphin Powers.