Leaving Megalopolis is a fantastic example of how grim and gritty superhero comics should be done.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that, for the most part, readers are a little sick of grim and gritty superhero stories. Maybe it’s because there are too many dark comics, but I suspect it’s that there are too many bad dark comics. For every Watchmen, we have dozens of hardened superhero protagonists avenging their families, murdering surrendering villains, or always being the best at what they do. (And what they do involves unnecessary violence.)
That’s a big part of why Leaving Megalopolis feels like a breath of fresh air. Sure, it may be the darkest graphic novel produced by Secret Six‘s Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore yet. It’s set in an apocalyptic wasteland where an insane superhero could show up at any moment and disembowel a supporting character. But it provides an excellent cast of characters who engage your attention right away. It’s written with a love of superheroes in mind, even as it critiques the dark state they embody. It’s also filled with well-written twists and gorgeously realized artwork that always make for a fun read. And now that the Kickstarter project has been reprinted as a Dark Horse Comics graphic novel, you can see for yourself why it’s an invaluable addition to your comic book collection.
Written by: Gail Simone
Art by: Jim Calafiore
Colors: Jason Wright
Publisher: Dark horse Comics
Release date: September 17, 2014
Leaving Megalopolis is set in a universe where superheroes exist, but have gone completely insane. Now the city of Megalopolis, once the safest place on Earth, has become a wasteland where powerless humans are brutally murdered at the hands of their beloved heroes. The good news is that whatever drove the heroes insane keeps them trapped in Megalopolis, unable to cross the city’s borders. The bad news is that escape means braving superheroes who won’t let anyone leave, not to mention the rare civilians who form an alliance with them.
On the surface, Leaving Megalopolis is a “What if” story taking grim and gritty superhero violence to an apocalyptic extreme. It’s certainly not the first to do so: Irredeemable and even Marvel Zombies covered similar ground. But where those books dealt with fallen superheroes, Leaving Megalopolis focuses squarely on ordinary humans, individuals with no powers and personality types we can easily recognize. With a few exceptions, the deranged superheroes aren’t characters as much as an omni-present threat that can emerge that any time.
It’s an obvious direction when you think about it, but focusing on civilians over superheroes is actually pretty rare. Most “superpowers gone bad” stories either have another hero save the day (Irredeemable, Injustice), or revel in the insane destruction these beings are capable of (Marvel Zombies). That’s not happening here; these very vulnerable characters have to rely entirely on themselves and their struggles are absolutely horrifying. The tricky part is balancing a cast of engaging human characters with the flashier superhero designs comic book readers are familiar with. On that score, Leaving Megalopolis does a fantastic job. Each survivor has their own identity and personality, while the crazed heroes are a very believable threat.
Mina takes center stage here as the group’s most hardened survivor, a police officer whose abusive past taught her to be ready for any situation. She’s mistrustful of strangers, despite having a soft spot for victimized individuals, and is certainly capable of holding her ground against Megalopolis’ former protectors. But she’s surprisingly uncomfortable with her role as the group’s de facto leader, especially when they keep trying to help fellow civilians and ignore her pragmatic advice to leave them behind. Of all the characters, Mina has the clearest arc as she struggles with the idea of being a hero, albeit one very different from those flying across the sky.
Leaving Megalopolis is essentially Mina’s story, although it still manages to pack an impressive amount of other plot points into its small page count. This initial volume could easily have been spaced out across a mini-series, but introduces new concepts and resolves them at blinding speeds instead. It highlights the battle that drove Megalopolis into chaos, encounters with individual crazed superheroes, and even an apartment building of survivors who sacrifice humans for protection. But everything is so well paced and structured that events flow quite nicely, and tells a complete story of its characters in the process.
Where Leaving Megalopolis really shines though is in how it balances its dark tone with hope and optimism. From a glance, Megalopolis is pretty similar to any other post-apocalypse landscape; you could easily swap out “crazed superheroes” with “zombies” or “Godzilla” and it wouldn’t look much different. But Simone and Calafiore are doing something unique. While superheroes are ripping people’s heads off or lighting them on fire, the protagonists are more interested in saving other survivors. By pitting insane superpowered beings against ordinary civilians, Leaving Megalopolis also works as a commentary on grim and gritty superhero books.
Not that Simone and Calafiore hate superhero stories or ridiculously over-the-top violence. This is the team that produced Secret Six, after all. It’s just that in Leaving Megalopolis, the violence is contextualized by a golden age where superheroes didn’t behave like animals. Meanwhile, the central characters aren’t behaving like your usual post-apocalypse survivors, transforming into harsh killers the moment the power grid goes down. It’s a hopeful reminder that whether you prefer your heroes with powers or not, there’s no reason they need to be so damn dark all the time.
One final point without giving anything away: As a long-time fan of Superman, this ending tugs hard at my heartstrings every time I read it. Every freaking time.
Bottom Line: Leaving Megalopolis is a rock-solid story of human drama and darkly violent superheroes that keeps you hooked across the entire readthrough. Balancing a love of superhero comics with subtle criticisms of the medium, Simone and Calafiore have made a fantastic first volume, and I can’t wait to see where they take the sequels.
Recommendation: Whether you love tales of grim and gritty superheroes or are sick to death of them, Leaving Megalopolis is a great example of how to do them right.[rating=5]
Disclaimer: This reviewer funded the original Leaving Megalopolis Kickstarter in 2012.