Normal meets the surreal in Paul Jenkins’ latest Aftershock series.
Paul Jenkins has always had a special place in my comic collecting heart. I still firmly rank his five year run on Spider-Man as one that should be ranked among the greatest of all time, right up there with the classic Lee, Stern and Conway runs. Unfortunately, it was brought to what I suspect was a premature end with insane amounts of editorial interference. While he managed to put out some more amazing work for Marvel and DC after that, eventually he got mixed up in the very crossover events that arguably sunk his Spider-Man run and it led to his departure from the big two. After a “mic-drop” sort of moment where he unloaded on both companies for this and other issues, he disappeared from comics entirely for nearly five years (other than a short stint at BOOM! Studios). Finally, in 2015 he resurfaced at Aftershock. It was here that he began writing series ranging from space opera (Replica) to mutant war stories (Alters) which went somewhat under the radar but received great acclaim for those that sought them out. Beyonders marks Jenkins’ third series for Aftershock and this time, he delves deep into the world of mystery and history.
This inaugural issue starts off with a summary of several seemingly unconnected incidents throughout the course of history that have some element of unexplainable phenomena associated with them. We find that these incidents are the obsession of our teenage protagonist, Jake Cody. Jake is an instantly relatable protagonist that fills the classic mold of a dreamer trapped in a miserable existence. While he lives with family that loves him, it’s clear the mystery and conspiracy theories he chases are his attempt to escape from a boring life. He strikes out in love when he tries online dating, where it seems outside forces conspire against him just as he’s about to make a connection. At school, we see him get lectured by his guidance counselor, who basically tells him he has no future. Pretty much the only thing that goes right for him is the loyalty of his corgi Shadwell. Just when it seems Jake is about to experience yet another boring evening while his aunt and uncle watch TV, that same night everything goes to hell. By the end of the issue, Jake’s entire life is turned upside down and the real adventure is poised to begin in the next issue.
Jenkins is a master of contrasting the normal with the surreal, and Beyonders is no exception. In just one issue, he manages to juxtapose distant historic events with an average normal modern-day teenage lifestyle, and then turn all of it into a war zone. He also doubles down on irony, where by the end we see that the people who seemingly care the most for Jake are actually nobodies, while a seeming nobody ends up being the person who actually cares the most for Jake. Most notably, he takes the juxtaposition of real life and fiction to a new high by inserting a treasure hunt for the reader (seriously!) within the pages of the comic and at the end of the issue, offers the readers who can figure out the puzzle an opportunity to win a real-life prize. This last part had me smiling as it’s a deceptively simple idea that for whatever reason has never been tried before to my knowledge. Clearly, Jenkins is having a blast here, as his note at the issue’s end that details the treasure hunt indicates.
One knock against the issue is the heavy degree upon which the story is dependent on its script. The story starts out with a history lesson and monologue that, while meant to be somewhat amusing, also drags a bit and risks boring the reader. On the other hand, the sketch like nature of the art in this issue doesn’t leave Jenkins with much of a choice to be able to rely on more visual storytelling. There are a few instances scattered throughout the book where the reader gets the impression that Wesley St. Claire rushed through things, evidenced by some characters missing mouths and noses for example. Despite this, the coloring (also done by St. Claire) really salvages things especially in the second half of the issue as things get intense.
This story is more than just the classic trope of teenage loser visited by fate. Jenkins distinguishes Beyonders by injecting some fun into it with a real-life treasure hunt and the careful building of a unique fictional history that we are promised will matter greatly in the future. While the visuals do a serviceable job driving forward the narrative, the frequent usage of irony is what takes the relatability to the next level. As the “real” story seems to start with the next issue, let’s hope things keep moving along now that we’ve been set up adequately.