Airboy is the metafictional story of substance-abusing, selfish writer James Robinson and his hapless collaborator, Greg Hinkle, as they struggle to create a comic book that reboots the titular Golden Age superhero, inexplicably bringing Airboy to their own world in the process. Written and drawn, respectively, by Robinson and Hinkle themselves, the comic has some controversy surrounding it, but is it good?
Airboy Deluxe Edition (Image Comics)
Before we get started, there are two articles that I strongly suggest that you read for context. The first is an excellently written overview and discussion of the controversial Airboy #2 from shortly after the issue was published, and the second is a statement by James Robinson regarding the controversy in which he appears sincerely repentant and apologetic. Both are not only well-worth your time, but provide better context for the comic that I’m reviewing better than I could hope to do myself. It wouldn’t hurt to read our very own review of Airboy #2 either, as my colleague Nick provides some very good insight into the situation as well.
As I said of the similarly controversial (to a lesser extent) Wonder Woman: Earth One, it is worth noting that I am a cisgender man, and do not claim to be an authority on what is or is not transphobic.
And that’s why it’s so hard for me to say that, as problematic as the comic may be, I still found it to be a fascinating, immensely enjoyable read.
Before I go any further, I should note that I am judging the deluxe hardcover edition of Airboy that was sent to me as a complete package, not the four individual issues that were originally sold on the direct market. Having not read those issues in their original printing other than the selection that was highlighted in Charlotte Finn’s analysis, I cannot tell if anything else was changed. But the transphobic scene has been altered, and that is worth exploring.
Because unfortunately, that scene is still problematic. It’s a great deal less problematic, I’m sure, with offensive language such as the use of the word “tranny” being changed, but you still have that element of a trans person being portrayed as a promiscuous trickster of some kind.
It’s a relatively short scene, albeit a substantial one, and one that’s probably enough to make many readers give the book a hard pass. Yet it may say more about James Robinson as a person than it does about Airboy as a comic book.
After all, here’s what Airboy is about: (fictional) James Robinson, as written by (real) James Robinson, is a selfish, alcoholic, mess of a writer with a failing marriage and crumbling relationship with DC Comics, which has continued to publish his work despite the fact that the quality of his writing has dipped drastically. He reluctantly takes on a commission from real/fictional Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson to write a reimagining of the forgotten Golden Age hero Airboy, so he teams up with a young artist named (fictional) Greg Hinkle, as drawn by (real) Greg Hinkle.
After James pressures Greg into a wild night of enough drugs to kill Keith Richards, culminating in a three-way between James, Greg, and a complete stranger of a woman (despite the fact that both James and Greg are married), the hero that they were struggling to recreate on the comic book page, comes to life before their very eyes. While they initially assume that he is the result of a shared hallucination, they soon begin to suspect that Airboy may be more real than they thought.
Throughout it all, (real) James Robinson goes to great lengths to make it perfectly clear to the reader that he is a totally shitty person. This is a work of great honesty, or at least as honest as you can assume a writer is when they go so far out of their way to paint himself in such a deliberately negative light. So is it that bad, or that surprising, that a writer trying so hard to be revealing accidentally reveals that he has some deep-seeded prejudices?
Maybe. I’ll admit that if Robinson wrote an incidental Jewish character the same way he writes incidental transgender characters in Airboy, I’d probably feel a lot differently about this book. There’s privilege for you. But God help me, even with all the baggage that I carried going into a book that I knew wouldn’t sit well with my progressive ideals, I couldn’t bring myself to dislike this book. In fact, I kind of…loved it?
Some of that love has little to do with Robinson and everything to do with Hinkle. As the rare quadruple-threat of a penciler, inker, colorist, and letterer, Hinkle proves to be an extraordinary talent that’s well worth looking out for in the future, even if you’re unlikely to find him drawing any superhero comics for the Big Two, given how long I imagine his process must be when wearing that many hats.
The most immediately striking thing about Hinkle’s work here is his use of color. Everything in this comic’s version of “the real world” has a sad, drab blue tint with monochromatic details. Yet Airboy, and all the excitement that comes with him, is fully-colored. As far as symbolism goes, it’s not particularly subtle, but it works.
Hinkle’s figure work and backgrounds are both detailed and exaggerated, portraying his and James’ world as a grimy, depressing place, and his faces express a great deal even when they’re not reacting to anything in particular. I can’t imagine too many other artists that would be suited to draw this story; I don’t care how much you love Alex Ross, some artists’ styles are better suited to certain stories over others.
Of course, a great deal of credit for creating such a vision of our own world is owed to Robinson, too. Make no mistake, Robinson’s writing and storytelling is so self-indulgent that it’s almost masturbatory, yet he makes it fun, heartfelt, and consistently compelling (I must also admit that I am a complete sucker for metafiction, and I have wanted to write my own story for years using similar techniques and storytelling devices as Robinson uses here).
After all, this comic is not really about transphobia. It’s not about a wild sex and drug-fueled romp. It’s not even about a fictional character bringing a much-needed sense of fun, adventure, and bravery to the lives of two bored, jaded men. It’s about a writer at a crossroads, at a moment in his life in which his whole life seems to be falling to pieces, which somehow makes the time ripe for a creative resurgence.
And in that sense, Airboy is exceptional. If you used to enjoy Robinson’s work but found him falling out of your favor with his recent work, here’s your opportunity to see him becoming great again. And if you never read anything by him before but want to try something new, different, and exciting (if problematic, of course), Airboy is well worth your time.
Is It Good?
If you can get past the implicit transphobia of one brief scene – which, despite Robinson’s heartfelt apology, will be a high hurdle for many people to get over – you’ll find a deliciously raunchy, painfully revealing, and surprisingly earnest piece of metafiction. I look forward to seeing what both of these creators do next.