Retcon is an odd little series. For the past two months I’ve popped in to its world, equal parts confused and curious. But finally, with issue #3, the shape of this series is beginning to come into focus.
Retcon was pitched with a truly high concept: a reboot of a comic that never existed before. Despite the strange, uncertain intrigue of that premise, the first two issues focused instead on introducing us to Brandon Ross, an agent of a clandestine anti-paranormal government agency forced to go on the run when the realities of his duties and his conscience collide. The series read like a reboot, assuming familiarity with its bizarre toyetic cast of supernatural agents, but that made it difficult to follow at times, throwing readers into a trippy, ‘anything is possible’ reality where time and context were just different. So wisely, Retcon #3 opens with the secret origin of Brandon Ross.
Retcon is at once a satire and a straight reconstruction of its genre, bringing shades of the wild, indie extremity of other Image series like Curse Words or Shirtless Bear Fighter in alongside straightforward paranormal conspiracy action, as if to wink at the nostalgic ridiculousness of whatever toothless, non-existent Masters Of The Universe-esque toyline such a series might purport to be based on. How else do you explain opening with a temporally displaced Aleister Crowley tattooing a baby with the blood of Christ so that he can go mountain climbing near the end of the Kali Yuga?
Strange, hilarious, or awesome as you may find that, grounding the series so immediately helps to resolve some of the problems, giving the reader something to focus their inquiry upon as they dive into the mystery of the present cataclysm.
Thankfully the rest of the issue continues this trend. Before long we’re introduced properly to another chunk of the supporting cast and brought up to speed on the central conflict and, yes, even the role of the series’ conceit. It’s impressive that, in doing so, writer Matt Nixon doesn’t seem to lose anything essential of the book’s tone. Even without the swirling, nearly Morrisonian chaos, Retcon remains direct, witty, and intriguing with the added bonus of being able to assign it those qualities with confidence.
At times the issue seems too self-aware for its own good. The reveal of the villain’s plan is accompanied by a lampshade hanging that, while fairly invoked, fails to really add anything to the conversation. And characterization, already weighed down by jumpy writing that cuts from one moment to the next, feels as though its caught between a modern level of depth and the archetypal gestalts of an 80s cartoon character rather than riding that line as likely intended. Perhaps this is merely a cost of the page count. But similarly, it’s often not the big ideas that really land, but the smallest ones. Yes, the concept is finally implemented, but, other than that, few large scale ideas are as interesting or impressive as little things, like the discussion of a magic apartment and the quiet changes it brings on.
With the improved clarity of Nixon’s script, Toby Cypress’ artwork feels even stronger. Retcon’s look is among its most potent assets and Cypress proves particularly adept at highlighting individual panels before diving back into the flow of the script. He certainly doesn’t rest on his laurels. The stylistic force of the issue would probably be more than enough to make it not only effective but memorable as well, but on top of that Cypress adds layers of careful color and shadow as well as all manner of effects and clever angles to bring the most out of his art.
Despite another strong showing and increased context, the artwork remains a tad confusing at times. Cypress tells an admirable amount of story in each of his panels, but as much time as he fits into a static image, there’s still a lot of time lost in the gutters. Like a film projected at the wrong speed, this can lead to panels that are hard to parse or mess with a sense of momentum, especially towards the start of the issue where most of the action is. There are also small things that are ambiguous as to whether they are details by Cypress, or merely part of his style.
These problems can weigh on the series, but there’s also ample proof of Cypress’s skill as a storyteller. The villain’s reveal within the Pentagon has a perfect balance of horror and innocence and the aforementioned walk down the hall is built on his talents. The final pages, starting with a single-page splash, are also a fantastic demonstration of how effective the art can be without relying on digital effects or dramatic lighting.
One of the biggest problems for Retcon #3 is simply that it is issue #3. With the prior issues suffering for the series’ slow reveal, I wonder if readers who would have loved this story might have already given up on it. Especially given the series’ penchant for abrupt endings, I can’t help but wonder if this wouldn’t have been better suited to an OGN format or at least going straight to trade, as if collecting some hidden gem series that was never published.
Retcon #3 doesn’t fully shed the problems of its predecessors, but it is both massively improved and highly illuminating as to why those issues had the flaws they did. With its intoxicating conceit finally in play, Retcon ups its game in nearly every way, delivering a story that is strikingly depicted and wildly creative. More than a surefire mainstream success, Retcon seems destined to be a series beloved by a few particular fans to whom it speaks with full force.
It mixes Hellboy action with a Morrisonian high concept, peppered with an indie wryness that gives it its own identity. If any of that appeals, it will likely appeal hard and, after this issue, I can honestly say that this is the time to give Retcon a look.