Mark Millar and Duncan Fegredo's MPH might go down in history as Millar's most irritating comic ever, which is a high hurdle to climb.
Millar's plot never really goes anywhere new, and his characters are appallingly self-aware, speaking to each other in broad platitudes, instead of anything approaching actual conversation. It's also another blatant bid for movie money, and on the ideological scale, it's dodgy as hell, with the politics coming off like they were created by a 19-year-old kid who has just watched every episode of The Wire.
All that, and it was still a fantastically entertaining read, and it's almost all thanks to the typically wonderful art from the mighty Duncan Fegredo.
Like a lot of his peers, Fegredo started his comic career with a wave of relentless experimentation – his work on Grant Morrison's Kid Eternity comic showed how easily he could have followed artists like Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean into scratchy abstraction, while his work on the Enigma comic with Peter Milligan was heroically ambitious.
But he soon found his own voice as a comic artist, with a thick line surrounding lots of delightfully delicate details. He had really nailed his style down by the time he worked on Milligan's criminally under-rated Girl comic in 1996, and spent the rest of the next decade showcasing his work in a bizarre variety of comics, including work on 2000ad titles, Vertigo short-story anthologies, Spider-Man books and Kevin Smith comics.
He found the perfect outlet for his wavy and centered art in a fruitful collaboration on Mike Mignola's Hellboy from 2007-2011, getting to draw an apocalyptic battle at the end of the world, without forgetting to show the pain in the title hero's brow. His work had power and life.
Fegredo has been reasonably quiet since helping to send Hellboy to hell, but then Mark Millar did what Mark Millar does best, and gave a great artist something awesome to draw.
MPH is a story about the world's first super-powered human, and he's an ambitious working class criminal who can run faster than light. The five-issue series is packed with set-pieces at supersonic speeds, action and melodrama all peaking at terminal velocity.
Fegredo captures this world perfectly, nailing the high-speed shenanigans as people blast forward on a forced perspective, right off the fucking page. And he's just as good at the moments between seconds, where everything stands still as a speedster wanders through a silent world.
This is harder than it looks. Creating that frozen world is particularly impressive in the comic medium, which is nothing but frozen slices of time. Creating the illusion of one person walking through a world of statues takes real storytelling skill, and Fegredo certainly has those chops.
Fegredo's art has noticeably evolved, even since his Hellboy days. His line is surer, more defined. The artist, who inks his own work, still has that distinctive wriggly linework, but it's harder and more certain around the edges.
The action sequences in MPH certainly benefit from Fegredo's well-deserved confidence, but he is also a master of character work – he draws some of the best goofy grins and wild gesticulating figures in modern comics – and no two characters ever look the same, they all have their own idiosyncratic touches. And his ability to create recognisable and real faces on those characters left me wide open for the story's final curve ball.
For all its speed – and the plot does move pretty fast - the story of MPH is ploddingly predictable. The wish-fulfillment angle offers up hedonistic thrills, but even the inevitable come-down and rejection of materialistic concerns is a well-worn path.
Even the time-travel shenanigans which blast through the final issues of MPH could easily be seen coming, because that’s the sort of thing that happens in comic books where people run faster than the speed of light. They're going to come unstuck in time. It’s only to be expected.
All that, and I still totally didn’t see the final issue’s twist coming, and I feel like a happy fool for missing it, especially because it’s a plot development that almost entirely succeeds thanks to Fegredo’s fine work.
The twist comes out right at the climax of the story’s big final fight, and reveals that a mysterious character hanging around the edges of the story is actually one of MPH’s main protagonists, who got lost in time and had to spend decades waiting for it to catch up with him, so he could rejoin the story.
And it's a blindingly obvious twist, hidden in plain sight, but that doesn't mean you don't see it coming. It's the kind of twist that could feel like a frustrating deus ex machina, but it is really set up right from the start, and Millar has been playing totally fair. (Although, the fact that the two characters spoke the same way meant nothing, because all Millar's characters speak the same way. I cannot tell you how happy I am that other people have started noticing his 'What are you talking about?' thing)
But Fergedo has also been playing totally fair, and once you realise these are the same characters, it's all there on the page. The young and old characters share the same body language and facial structure, hidden beneath different hair and decades of time. They're obviously the same person.
Fergedo's faces are some of the most recognisable in comics, and they all look ruggedly characteristic, and when that is paying off on a fundamental storytelling level like this, it's still pretty fucking impressive.
And it's still absolutely delightful to get suckered into a decent storytelling twist like this. To not even see it coming, even when you're marvelling at how different all the characters look, that's still a thrill in this jaded world of modern comics.
Hopefully it won't be too long before Fegredo is given another meaty story to get into, but it will be worth the wait. because his work is always welcome. His art is stylish, and smart, and beautiful to look at. At any speed.