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First Look – Hero House

A new graphic novel from Arcana Studios debuting at SDCC. Comic-con is also for comics. Who knew?

herohousecover[Arcana] Hero House Vol. 1: Pledge Allegiance
Writer: Justin Aclin
Penciler: Mike Dimayuga

Not to be confused with the sanitarium psychiatric rehabilitation program. Oh, Google, don’t ever change.

About three pages in, I’m thinking this is a hopelessly generic superhero comic. Then the real premise shows up and, while it’s not a dramatic departure from the opening tease, the book picks up from there. You have your standard world of superheroes, where powers are common enough that most everyone knows or knows of a superhuman, but normal humans still make up the vast majority. Like many series before it, this one takes a quasi-realistic approach by forming an institution that could only exist in a fantastic world but has its roots in reality. In ps238, there’s a superhero school. Here, it’s a normal school, a college, with a superhero fraternity. Both institutions exist to train people in the use of their powers. Where ps238 gets them young and does everything official-like with responsible adults in charge, Hero House waits until the start of adulthood. If you’re not too messed up already, they’ll offer what assistance they can. Don’t expect much other than peers who’ve had similar experiences growing up and have trained each other. Also, they’re exclusively male. It’s sort of a last ditch effort to help some of the people, but hey, no one said they were saints.

The protagonist, Nathaniel “Nate” Hedges, a.k.a. Turbine the Turbo Teen, joins the frat involuntarily, oddly enough, since his lack of direction post-high school makes this the perfect opportunity for him. More on that later. Nate is forced into the frat by the university’s moustache-twirlingly evil President, who I’m sure spends most of his off-camera time clenching his fists and yelling “Hero Hoooouse!!!” in his secret headquarters office. I should note that the frat is not referred to by that name in-story, aside from one bit of disposable signage at a party. It’s called Epsilon Epsilon Psi, which wouldn’t make for a catchy title but is far more palatable in a story readers are expected to take halfway serious.

The basic plot is reminiscent of Freshmen. Simply having supermen on campus break up fights and rescue cats wouldn’t make for much a story, so there’s a shady conspiracy plot lurking in the background. This would feel tacked on if we were following a regular frat in a regular world. In a fantastic world, it still feels tacked on. Only the barest details are provided, enough that the plot makes sense without having any reason to be here, and the villains’ motivations basically amount to them being villains. It provides a backdrop for the characters to fight, quip, and interact while under more stress than college normally provides. For that purpose, it’s acceptable, but in and of itself it offers little of interest.

The big difference between Freshmen and this is that this isn’t filled with toilet humor. There’s not much humor, period, but I’ll take that over a guy whose power is sympathy barfing. Here, the powers are standard issue, and Aclin doesn’t go out of his way to assign drawbacks to each one. There’s a speedster, a growing man, one with super strength, one who controls minds, etc. No real diversity. The premise limits female characters to minor roles, and one black guy lampshades his token inclusion in the cast. I can’t say I find the treatment or lack of minorities offensive here, it’s just that if you’re expecting anything but straight white males you’ll be disappointed. There are at least three non-white guys in the cast, but it’s easy to forget they’re supposed to be different. One of those cases where it truly is better to not try than fail.

Early in the second chapter, one of Nate’s fellow pledges, Langley, asks him what his power is. I’m not sure why. The previous page, same chapter, has a power display, so it can’t be there to remind readers who missed chapter one. In that chapter, Nate uses his power during a fight where Langley was present and should have seen him. I guess he wasn’t paying attention, but it strikes me as a bit odd. For the most part, this is a thoroughly professional effort. A few things, the conspiracy plot most of all, seem poorly thought out, but there’s always enough there that you can be reasonably expected to fill in the blanks. Any loose ends appear to be intentional, in case this makes it to a second volume, and nothing strikes me as an incomplete thought Aclin forgot to bring fully out from his brain to the printed page. There’s a definite ending, in case this doesn’t make it to a second volume, providing closure without completely satisfying curiosity. I also failed to notice any errors in grammar or spelling, which always helps with immersion.

Dimayuga uses a realistic art style that goes well with the grounded-in-reality story. Reminds me a little of Steve Dillon. It’s a bit stiff in places and doesn’t stand out, but it fulfills my #1 requirement for art, in that it doesn’t get in the way of the story.

More than anything, the characterization of Dave, a.k.a. Poltergeist, stood out to me. Somehow, broken characters always seem to have more effort put into them than the ones you’d feel safe around. The rest of the cast aren’t exactly flat, but they’re largely uncomplicated. When Dave arrives, I am quickly convinced that, as one character says afterwards, he’s a “mean drunk.” It was uncomfortable having him around in the way it is with a real person. Later on, we see Dave’s sober side and are left wondering which is closer to who he really is. His motivations are the most complex, his character arc the most twisted. It’s implied that a second volume would feature Dave heavily, which would go a long way toward getting me to check it out.

Conversely, Nate’s coming of age story is a bit weak. He protests about being “stuck” in the superfrat, as he was technically forced by a mix of promises and threats from the President. Nate’s a decent character with shades of grey, but his supposed misery is all talk. There’s precious little in the story to back it up, so he comes across as complaining for the sake of it. Arguably, this can all be chalked up to his wanting to date Brooke, who has an unexplained rule against dating frat guys; probably as simple as, you know… frat guys. Eeuch. As his acknowledgment at the end reveals, Brooke is named after the writer’s wife, a fact that retroactively nukes that bit of romance for me. Fictional Brooke’s lack of flaws leads me to believe Aclin won’t treat her like a normal character in future volumes, and that she and Nate will have a smooth courtship resulting in marriage. Not once in this volume does Nate look at or think about a girl other than Brooke, despite being a college-going male and Brooke refusing his every advance. The subjects of women and sex are largely avoided with all characters, the emphasis placed on action and brotherhood, so what romance there is being less than thrilling is a minor quibble.

Oddly, my favorite scenes, where I think the story and art mesh the best, are those with Yarwood and Lacie, the book’s other couple… or only couple, really. Lacie’s facial expressions in the restaurant scene and her costume at the masquerade party are two of my favorite details. The masquerade party as a whole is good fun, full of “cameos” by famous characters from comics and other media.

Overall, it’s a solid, enjoyable story. Nothing groundbreaking, but I’d read it again and would like to see more. I’ve been asked to inform you that the graphic novel, ninety-two color pages of story, four covers, and four pages of sketches and pin-ups, will be available first at SDCC at the Arcana Comics booth. It is not, however, exclusive, and is set to ship to comic shops in November.