I enjoy getting free stuff. It’s always an adventure, to say the least, and often I am treated to something to something so original and enjoyable, it makes me feel my feeble attempts at comic book journalism are not in vain. Such is the case several weeks back when I was invited to review The Plaid Avenger #1.
The brainchild of John Boyer, the Plaid Avenger’s agenda is a simple one: knowledge. “The Plaid Avenger wants people in the United States to know what the living hell is happening on the rest of the planet, especially since their government plays such a huge role in global events,” says Boyer, a professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
He argues that the future continued success of the United States as a global power is going to rely on a much more well-informed citizenry than currently (or historically) exists. “We have relied far too long on our economic and military power as an excuse for not having to give a rat’s ass about the rest of the world, and my friends, those days are quickly drawing to an end,” he says. “Our fellow countrymen are simply going to have to be forced from their Jerry-Springer-watching-cheetoh-eating slumber and become engaged with the rapidly globalized world – if we want to survive, that is.”
The idea for the Plaid Avenger came to him a few years ago while writing a textbook for an introductory geography course. “I am a college professor that teaches big huge classes, and my primary objective has always been to get Americans 'caught up' on what the hell is actually happening out in the rest of the world...and to keep people involved, I really tell it like it is and speak the vernacular.”
In an effort to get folks more involved and interested in the wider world, entertainment and the graphic arts just seemed like a logical path for Boyer to follow. “I just remember thinking: ‘Wow, how cool would it be to have an educational cartoon TV show or comic book that was so cool you would just watch/read it for enjoyment....and then accidentally be learning real stuff?’ And then the idea/character was somehow born.”
When asked why plaid, Boyer says, “I just think its totally ‘60s/70s retro hip, and like all fashion will soon be back again. But quite frankly it is just the outrageousness of the colors/the look/the style which is so out of place in today’s world....but somehow still slightly intriguing and cool for those bold enough to wear it. The idea that you would have an ‘undercover’ superhero whose outfit makes him absolutely non-undercover always appealed to me.”
Boyers cites James Bond as an analogy. “Here is this wildly overdressed white dude sipping martinis in adventures all over the world, yet somehow he is supposed to be discreet and undercover. It’s all just such a farce, yet we totally accept that for characters like him. So I wanted to accentuate that concept to the max, and plaid does it all: bold and stylish, and a total farce of discretion.”
“And it matches every outfit,” adds Klaus Schmidheiser, Boyer’s artist on the project.
Schmidheiser was enlisted when Boyer put his project into motion. “I was a student at Virginia Tech, and I had heard about how awesome John's class was. The head of the art department sat me down with John to talk about this 'plaid super-hero' concept for a guy who teaches world regions. Immediately I thought, ‘This guy's insane’...and I love it!”
Boyer thought, “Wow, this is karma. I had just had the vision for the comic while producing the textbook, and now it was happening. And Klaus is truly gifted. I'm just a hack, but he has the skills.”
“I love the concept,” Schmidheiser continues “because we get to be political satirist (something I've always loved) and comic book makers (my biggest passion), and hopefully do it in a way that keeps people excited and entertained. I put in a few jokes here and there and try to do some extreme caricatures of the world leaders, but I don't know enough to input very much in regards to the current events. I'm learning a lot about world politics through this endeavor, which is great.”
Both Boyer and Schmidheiser are long-time comic book fans, and culled from their own personal likes and dislikes to create the Plaid Avenger. “I grew up on Jack Kirby and Stan Lee,” says Schmidheiser. “My dad read his old comics to me as a kid: Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Uncanny X-Men (original series) and the Avengers. I later followed the 90's stuff – Spawn, WildC.A.T.S., Battlechasers and all that good stuff.”
“I’ve always been big into the ‘real’ superhero types,” says Boyer, “those real humans that have no super powers but go out and kick some ass and have adventures. They have to rely on the wits, their skills, and their savvy....and they live in the constraints of the real world, which I like. Batman, Green Arrow, Green Hornet, Iron Man, Phantom, Nick Fury, even Indiana Jones, which had a short comic run.”
Boyer grew up reading and collecting, but like many one-time comic book fans, life got in the way, until recently. “Seeing so many comics now being made into movies has gotten me re-interested in the form, especially Frank Miller's stuff,” he says “Of course that just shows what a total dork I am that I only know the most famous stuff. But damn, The 300 was good! The old school stuff I grew up on is what shaped the look and feel that we want to achieve with The Plaid Avenger now though. The old campy 1960s Batman TV show was a huge inspiration, as was Johnny Quest. Damn! Why can’t they make good solid campy art like that anymore?”
Though a novice comic book writer, Boyer is quickly learning the ropes. “I'm more focused on the 'lesson' which forms the core of the story,” he says, “so shaping things around that lesson is just good clean fun. Okay, well it’s not always clean, but it’s always fun.”
Such enthusiasm quickly shows through. “We are mostly doing this because we are passionate about both the education and the art,” says Boyer. “And in doing so may be a little insulated, but we are just going to keep doing the best job that we can while remaining true to our vision. We welcome any and all input, of course! This is just great fun so far!”
So far, The Plaid Avenger has been met with mixed reviews, perhaps because some academics don’t appreciate comic books as a teaching tool, and perhaps because some comic book fans aren’t interested in “educational” comic books. “Some avid comic readers are hesitant to read a world events comic,” says Schmidheiser. “I think the worry is it might be too educational, but we're hoping to change their minds.
“The biggest critique we get,” he adds, “is that the concept isn't quite evolved into its own yet, or the education/action/comedy combination isn't quite fully cohesive yet, which is true; the character is still in its infancy. John and I see the vast potential of the series, so we are just anxious to get it out there.”
While such an assessment might be accurate, it is certainly no reflection of Boyer’s and Schmidheiser’s efforts. Popular characters such as Superman and the X-Men have evolved over the years, sometimes building an audience slowly. But Boyer sees the Plaid Avenger to have limitless potential. “Political, military and economic conditions change every day,” he says “Markets crash, civil unrest occurs, politicians become corrupt with power, and wars break out. And they always will. The storylines for this character are forever reinventing themselves, and the Avenger will be there to explain them, always.”
Much of the more positive feedback has come from Boyer’s students. He says, “All the input we have gotten so far is from the thousands of students of semesters past and semesters present who uniformly think its hilarious, informative and totally in character with the stuff I do in real life. And of course everyone thinks the art is awesome!”
According to Boyer, 99 percent of the students that have come in contact with the textbook and the comic book have given them wild praise. “They love the books because they are written in the first person, from the vantage point of the Plaid Avenger, and as such are really easy to read...more like having a conversation than reading some dull words on a page,” Boyer says. “I get comments all the time that The Plaid Avenger’s World textbook is the only textbook that some students enjoyed their whole college career, and some say the only one they actually read their entire college career! And I’ve even got dozens of notes and letters from parents who dig it too!”
Boyer tells of contacting the editorial board for Foreign Affairs, a well-respected, hundred-year-old periodical prior to referencing one of its articles in Plaid Avenger #1. “They absolutely loved the idea and encouraged me to do more! I also had to send the writer of the article that I referenced in Foreign Affairs about 20 comics because he loved it so much. Not a bad start I think.”
The initial response to the idea was quite favorable, though not without controversy. “Most people thought it was funny,” says Boyer, “but there were a few cranks with axes to grind against any sort of ‘non-serious, non-academic’ behavior, and, boy, did they have a fit!
“This handful of clowns kicked up a huge fuss and tried to get me fired and even went to the local newspaper to try to unmask this big story – which of course was just a big joke. We made the front page of the paper and just got more people interested in the comic concept, which I guess makes the old saying ‘all press is good press’ really ring true.
“By and large, most folks on campus think its pretty cool and an interesting avenue for future educational endeavors. I figure we are pretty far ahead of the curve on this one. There will probably be a ton of educational type of comics in the future....and not just the historical/bio comics that come out every now and again. I think they are cool too, but we need to start thinking more in terms of serialized adventures that explain the real world, both the past and the present, in a much more structured and integrated part of education as a whole.”
The comic book world has also yet to fully embrace the concept of the Plaid Avenger. “We are really new to this whole game,” says Boyer. “We have mailed out lots of copies to lots of folks around the country, but not heard much back from too many, but its all good. I know people are busy and that we don’t represent much of a market, or perhaps lots of folks just don’t take a small independent producer with just a couple of issues very seriously. I can see that. We will just keep doing what we love, and if it is worthy enough, it will eventually get noticed.”
Currently, The Plaid Avenger is scheduled to publish quarterly. “Klaus has a full-time graphic design job,” says Boyer, “and I'm a full-time professor, so we did it just for the love of the form and love for the art and love for the education. As time allows, we definitely want to move to monthly. There are just so many good stories and lessons to cover! But it is a lot of work for a single artist to pull off after his regular 40-hour work week. We will get there though. Klaus really wants to do this full-time, and he certainly has the skills to make a full living out of it.”
Upcoming issues involve Somali pirates, Mexican drug cartels, Chinese moon rockets and various assorted international hotties.
Katie Pritchard is listed as the Plaid’s personal assistant. “I took some of John Boyer's classes and eventually became his teaching assistant in graduate school,” she explains. “I loved his style of teaching and when he started talking about the idea of the Plaid Avenger I thought it was great and wanted to be involved. As for my duties to the Plaid Avenger, I make sure his martini glass is always full, he's well coordinated in plaid, and aid in spreading his antics to the world via the classroom and the business end of the comic line.
The business end includes maintaining an active and geographically diverse viewership on the Plaid Avenger’s live blog, www.plaidavenger.com. Visitors to the website can also purchase comics, posters, glassware and a couple stickers for now, all available at the online store. Plans are underway for a world leaders Top Trump card set and possibly a world leaders shot glass set. “What other superhero can boast of such merchandise?” asks Boyer.
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