Review: Street Angel Vol. 1: Princess of Poverty trade paperback (Slave Labor Graphics)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

[Continuing Doug Glassman's "Indie-Pendence Month"; Doug also Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]

As I mentioned in my review of The Wretch: Everyday Doomsday, Slave Labor Graphics was one of the first small publishers I ever encountered. They tend to put out some of the quirkiest books on the comics market with authors such as Evan Dorkin, Jhonen Vasquez, and Roman Dirge. At points, Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s Street Angel Vol. 1: The Princess of Poverty feels out of place amongst the oddities put out by its publishers; it feels like it should have been published by Fantagraphics or another distributor of “serious graphic novels."

Then you get to Evan Dorkin’s introduction and the drawing of the title character fighting a giant squid, and any concept of “serious graphic novel” being applied to Street Angel goes out the window. I wouldn’t call this unevenness of tone a weakness, however. Rugg and Maruca use the five issues of Street Angel to tell an impressive array of stories. We are introduced to Jesse Sanchez, an orphaned homeless pre-teen skateboarding martial-artist vigilante on the mean streets of Wilkesborough, which happen to be her home. She takes on the fearsome geologist Dr. Pangea and his army of cowardly ninjas who seem to have come straight out of the pages of The Tick: The Naked City.

One of the goals of Street Angel is to examine and parody crime-fighting tropes, starting with Jesse’s homeless background. There have been other homeless superheroes, most notably Spawn from Image and Demolition Man from Marvel, but the former is a supernatural creature and the latter is just insane. Jesse is a girl that the rest of the world has forgotten: she has no permanent source of running water and usually skips school to fight crime and scavenge for food. Her school progress report, printed on the interior covers of the book, show both her struggles and how the few adults in her life seem to overlook them.

For the initial stories, the book uses Jesse’s homelessness as a throwaway piece of background information to establish who she is. It’s used to contrast her horrible life with her fights against Incan death cults, time-displaced Spanish pirates, and a dangerously sacrilegious priest. She’s aided by Bald Eagle, her one-armed, no-legged sidekick; Cosmick, an Irish astronaut with an Australian accent; and Jesus himself, who turns out to be a bit of a letdown as an ally. The last of the original stories, “Hero Time!” introduces Afrodisiac, a pastiche of Blaxploitation characters like Luke Cage and Shaft, as he relives some of his old glories alongside Jesse.

But the heart of the book -- literally and figuratively -- is “Down in the Dumpster Blues," which changes the tone of the series entirely. “Blues” strips away any facet of fantasy from the book. The driving action isn’t a supervillain attack: instead, Jesse tries to avoid seeing a classmate while she forages for food in a dumpster and converses with old homeless men. It almost makes you feel guilty for indulging in the more adventuresome, early stories, when you know that such dumpster-diving is how she scrapes by. Her being an orphan isn’t just a backstory -- it’s a key part of why she is where she is. “Hero Time!” and the stories published for the first time in the trade were written with “Blues” in mind, especially when it comes to the character of Afrodisiac, who is similarly despondent.

Jim Rugg is the rare artist whose work is better in black and white than it is in color. This has a lot to do with his shading and inking techniques; much like Wasteland, proper shading can convey more color by having the reader’s mind color the work. His artwork is incredibly intricate, with one perfect example being in “Dr. Pangea’s Continental Conundrum," where he uses small panels to track Jesse as she breaks into the villain’s lair. Right in the middle of the action, it cuts to a sketch of Pangea’s hideout which looks as if it’s done on graph paper and shows parts of the hideout not even featured in the rest of the book. In “Hero Time," crucial parts of Afrodisiac’s backstory are told through the covers of his comic book, complete with Power Man and Iron Fist shout-outs.

The Street Angel trade, despite being printed in digest-size, is filled with extras, such as Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe-style profile pages for various characters complete with fake original appearances and power bar rankings for things like “Smarts” and “Basketball Skills." Unlike the original version of this trade, the full Street Angel Vol.1: The Princess of Poverty trade keeps the drawings of Jesse fighting the giant squid, a running gag which is never explained. Four bonus stories are added, which feature hilarious takes on the Hostess fruit pie ads and time travel paradoxes. The last sixth or so of the trade serves as a cover gallery and sketchbook, with covers spoofing Danger Girl, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, and Grand Theft Auto amongst others. Rugg’s sketches include character design concepts and unused cover ideas.

If you’ve never heard of Street Angel, it’s because the back issues and trade are very hard to find. Slave Labor Graphics is usually pretty good about keeping their books in circulation, and with the announcement of a new Afrodisiac series, there’s a strong possibility of a re-release. I can tell that Rugg and Maruca had huge plans for Street Angel, and five issues wasn’t nearly enough for a title so bold. Cast Kiernan Shipka as Jesse in a film version and I think the book could become an overnight sensation.
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