Madman is a lot of things.

The flagbearer of the independent superhero, the definer of Mike Allred’s artistic career, a self-published and biblically allusive herald of the oncoming retro revival. But, most importantly, Madman is a superhero. While the reputation of his comics may give that away, it’s not necessarily certain at first: he doesn’t talk much, and doesn’t have any idea why he was put on this earth. The beginning of the comic squarely sets Madman in his present, without a past to really determine his actions. All he has is how everybody else seems to look, and how he looks.

“I wish i could see my self as a Romantic figure. Someone to be admired and respected. loved? I’m aware enough to know what a far cry that wish is. I have to face one simple fact. something is very very wrong with me.”

This is a hero brought up without a doubt in the iron, tin, aluminum, whatever age you want to call the event based and grim and gritty superheroics. He doesn’t think that his powers make him special. He knows that they make him different. Much more x-men than legion of super-heroes. It also doesn’t help that Madman isn’t necessarily a very powerful superhero.

how madman handles his enemies!

Blessed with an athletic body, an unnamed male was found unconscious along a river that passes through a doctor’s underground lair. And in case you’re wondering, Mike Allred would go on to relate the entire Book of Mormon through comic book imagery, so he definitely intended the Moses analogues which his narrative recalls. Instead of an Egyptian king, we get a mad scientist who makes a very mad man after reviving the john doe and renaming him Frank Eisenstein, after his two favorite men, Albert Einstein and Frank Sinatra.

He does have one special power, though, besides his cripplingly low self esteem. Whenever he touches someone, he feels whatever they’re thinking at the moment. If they lost a wife, he feels their pain, if they murdered someone, he feels their anxiety and paranoia. Which provides a great irony for a main character unable to remember his own identity. If only the man could truly touch himself!, this comic asks.

The narrative of the comic remains a simple question: who am I? Awoken in a world he doesn’t quite understand, the rest of the world starts to give Madman answers as to who he is. Rednecks call him a fag and shoot at him,

but he eventually becomes able to gain his own ground in conversation. He starts to use his words to protect his identity in conversation. “Oh, I’m going to a costume party”, he tells an old man getting on his case. The worst part is, this interrupts him just chillin on a bench, and having a beer.

The rest of the comic has lots more surreal moments like that with superheroes awkwardly attempting to do the mundane.

This is a comic showing superpowered people doing normal things, and it’s hilarious. It’s playful enough to invert the scheme for comedy, too, having its superheroes fail at being superheroes for a joke:

Madman can't even beat a running car! what kind of superhero is he!?!

Even beyond that, the comic asks that question, why?, as a precocious childhood wonder:


This is about a superhero who looks and acts much different than most superheroes. One who has time to wonder if he’s really doing the right thing, and who, more often than not, becomes the pawn in two greater men’s schemes, because he’s spending so much time pontificating. It’s a superhero independent comicians could all really relate to, and in a field defined by its parodizing of the form (see: Cerebus and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), we saw this comic really take down, in its first issue, what it really means to be a superhero. Instead of just deconstructing it like its contemporary brethren, Allred builds it back up: superheroism is actions that help the people around you (a similar conundrum that Green Lantern and Green Arrow’s comics brought up, when they saw their superheros having many unintended consequences they used to just fly away from, in search of another problem to “solve”). Instead of having magnificent powers, it’s the ability to feel what other people are feeling. To be able to really help them out, you have to know what they’re going through.

Besides his altruism, one other trait guides Madman’s actions: his cripplingly low self esteem. It’s why he wears his mask (or is the mask why he doesn’t think highly of himself?), and, I have to say, for an edgy alternative superhero initially published by Kevin Eastman, of TMNT fame, it sets up a really sappy story at the end. It turns out that because he saved her from danger, and because she trusts him from their former friendship, that she loves him and wants to be with him. It’s all about your personality and relationship, guys, not how hot you are! although I’m sure Frank’s bulging biceps don’t hurt.

And that’s pretty much the narrative of the comic. I mean, in order to save the girl he also has to revive a professor, and team up with a colleague of his own mad scientist, all while getting hit on the head to end almost every fight scene. It’s also a comic about not giving up, and the value of teamwork.

I already mentioned the artist would go on to illustrate the Book of Mormon in comic form, right?

Thankfully, he would also go on to draw and co-plot X-Force (along with co-plotter and scripter Peter Milligan), an ultra violent parody of reality television shows like Road Rules where everyone did drugs in new and exciting ways or had crazy kinky mutant sex. Most of the team even died in their first issue. Those that did it, and didn’t learn from it, often died, though. There were many strong and well developed portrayals of gay superheroes in that comic, too, as well as one faking it for the press. But the extent of Mike Allred’s religion, fascinatingly devoted and passive as it may be, is not the real meat of this article.

No, it is how Madman fascinatingly resembles the development of superheroes in print, but does so subtly. In the sixties, the Marvel superhero (basically, the one who had feelings and a girlfriend compared to DC’s bright and imaginative filled short form superheroics) arose not from an industry wide censorship on displaying the unjust, but instead from the monster comics Marvel published prior to Fantastic Four (fantastically articulated by fellow comics blogger Plok!). These stories would have a monster land, and focus on his troubles as he rose to some sort of social infamy that humanity would have to stop. The stories were about 50/50 split on whether or not they focused on the townsfolk who did the actual saving. The pondering superhero came from these monster stories where a tremendously powerful being would gaze at the world around them, and wonder why people saw them as different.

Madman, however, comes from a (slightly) different context. After Cerebus opened the doors for independently published comics to be successful, a slew of anthropomorphic comics ensued. Critters, a black and white anthology based on showing off anthropomorphic characters (initially published right after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit it big), lasted for 50 issues, despite its very very inconsistent quality. Madman, however, was the sole independent comic to ascend past a private publication (the first appearance of which sits above) that took its morals seriously. Instead of cracking jokes at something too grotesquely cute (basically, the strand of humor that became mainstream with Conker’s Bad Fur Day), Allred is revising the superhero, published as the indie monster hit of a funny animal character. Still, it remarkably still has some moments where a superhero becomes the hilariously out of place animal:

 

This is a comic where the main hero can’t even say a curse word, despite everyone else’s affluence with swear words:

In the same moment, we also learn that he also can’t even imagine being able to love the woman of his dreams, either.

His comics would go on to move from the mom’s basement to the comic convention, getting brightly colored costumes (as well as full color instead of the blue washes done by Mike’s wife, Laura, in this volume). Here’s how the mini-series ends:


And that prety much sets the tone for the rest of the series. Madman lets his hair come out of his costume, he gets to meet cool and friendly people with powers whose trust he gains, and who help him save his hometown, his girl, or one of his friend’s lives. The comics never get galactic, threatening the ending of the entire world, but they do become brighter and happier.

In the meantime, Madman figures out that not being able to say the right words doesn’t have to ground you in existential agony. It means that you can just trot by without needing to speak. Still, there’s something really special and never imitated about these initial Madman comics, wanting to depress you and as much as make you laugh.

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