THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF SUPERBEING
by Ilan Moskowitz
10 Years Later, San Francisco’s Only Superhero, The Punk, Is Almost Wiped Off The Face Of The Earth.
“I wish you had contacted me a few months ago,” Jason McNamara, co-creator of the comic said. “I just threw a few hundred copies in a recycling bin before moving out of state.”
This leaves, at this publication date, 10 sets of the Less Than Hero series available for purchase through McNamara. Co-creator Tony Talbert believes he still has a stash of copies stored at a relatives’ somewhere, but has moved to Mexico after this final time of being priced out from San Francisco, a city he loves. His stay, like many now-delocated small business or low income tenants in this gold rush city, was prolonged by the initial dotcom bust at the turn of the century.
I stumbled on this gem of a comic book a few years ago while living in the decommissioned portion of a halfway house in San Francisco’s Mission District. The building has since been torn down and turned into one of those luxury condos the developer has going up all over the Mission. This abandoned space at the time was the only way our band could afford to be in San Francisco as Twitter ‘beautified’ the once cheap neighborhoods with rent hikes, doing a touchdown dance over their city-blocks wide corporate tax break zone. The currency is intellectual and composed of ones and zeroes in this city prospectors built when the currency was nearby buried gold.
A full set of Less Than Hero’s run was right out there on Mission Street one day, held in the kind of curbside box indicative of another soul being pushed out of a boomtown. It had been left behind by someone, recycled like co-creator McNamara was driven with his copies en masse. But such a feeling always hangs in a boomtown, hence all the terminal (suicidal or dying) characters in McNamara and Talbert’s Less Than Hero. They reflect how little one can hold on to in a boomtown between turn-of-the-century spikes in a technological gold rush.
In the city of San Francisco between Less Than Hero’s black and white, vintage Marvel esque pages lurk characters like The Sleeper, an evil investment banker, high up in a California Street skyscraper, who controls people's financial futures and their bodies as they sleep.
But even The Sleeper couldn't afford living in San Francisco around 2004, so he had the SFPD robbing banks for him somnambulantly to abate. Then the Punk got caught in his craw and suddenly all of San Francisco’s sleeping bodies were at war with this street drunk in a stolen costume. Stan Lee eat your heart out.
I lost my original copies of Less Than Hero when I gave up on the rising expenses and uncertainty of the Golden Gate city and its dot com yuppies in hippie clothing. But they had survived about 5 different apartments of rising rent prices in four years.
Upon searching, there was very little information on the Less Than Hero series and no way to buy new copies on the internet. It was gone to me forever until, through an article the Bay Guardian assigned just before the whole 48-year-old newspaper was aggressively priced out of existence, I was put into contact with probably the only people who could save Less Than Hero.
Reviving this dead-in-the-water newspaper piece has brought these two old friends back into contact. Talbert explained he’d recently been “forced out of [San Francisco] by Google gentrification” and now lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. Google does not have its offices in San Francisco, but down south with many employees using the city now as a bedroom borough. Their company buses, seen in the streets of up-and-coming neighborhoods during commuter hours, have thus become synonymous with this rising rents in San Francisco.
Currently there are no plans to continue the adventures of The Punk, a fittingly self-destructive, narcissistic anti-hero for a boomtown full of pretentious homeless; concocted by two erratic souls in their mid-twenties out of pure love for the minds of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. There aren't even concrete plans to make scans for internet distribution.
McNamara, who Talbert defers to as the “businessman behind the anti-establishment, psuedo-underground, comic enterprise” beats himself up about the comic’s lettering (typos, all caps, etc.) and wants to re-do much of for there to be any kind of re-release anywhere. It’s not even collected in a graphic novel, like subsequent collaborations between Talbert and McNamara because of how independent and low budget their imprint was. This means that there are literally 10 copies of the series left. After getting on McNamara to make this project available (a perk of writing this article), they can be purchased here. FOR LIMITED TIME unless you hassle him about it yourselves through his website www.Jason-Mcnamara.com
But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves . . .
“Holy Folsom Street Fair!” remarked San Francisco’s only masked crusader at a leather-clad, masked opponent near Embarcadero Station. What he doesn’t realize is his challenger is actually a terminally ill kid named Lyle that some sort of Make-A-Wish foundation has provided with a powerful suit to fulfill his dream of becoming a supervillain.
The hero rode to the battle on his two fingers down the Market Street F train’s electrical wires, remarking “Nothing like a cheeseburger and a hot dump to return one’s telekenetic powers!”
He says this because the night before when he’d first encountered these two, our hero had gotten way too drunk and had to postpone. “I’m too stoned,” a thought caption from the Punk’s head explained, “my powers aren’t working! I’M FUCKED!”
This is par for the course for The Punk. Mcnamara and Talbert have since gone on to publish other comics in far more established publishing houses, but at the time, in 2004, the two were wage jockeys in their mid-20s and under the one-off moniker Polite Strangers, a thousand copies of each episode of the Less Than Hero miniseries were published. Which for about an afternoon, according to McNamara, was a proposed surname “like the Ramones; Jason Stranger and Tony Stranger,” the Polite Strangers. Another potential punk band name thrown to the wind.
“[That 4,000 issue order was] the minimum amount from our Canadian printer . . . The orders coming from Diamond Comics, the distributor, hovered only between 350-400 hundred copies,” McNamara explains. “We were actually pretty lucky that Diamond accepted the book into its catalogue. Not long afterward they changed their minimum order threshold and we wouldn’t have made it.”
With far too many unsold issues and a very limited release at the about-to-raise minimum of their distributor, it was just one of many times that Less Than Hero was almost priced out of existence in the city where it's set. “We sold the remainders at shows, bars and left them on Muni trains.”
In the notes at the end of each of the comic’s four issues, one could see the tensions and ultimate instability of creating this totally independent comic book while drinking off day shifts at their shared cafe job.
“If you ever want to question your mental health I recommend you self publish a comic book. This book drove us bipolar. We think it’s great. We think it’s terrible. Back and forth. I’ll always see the flaws. Tony will always look past them (the lettering in the first print looked about as straight as Rock Hudson). In the end we agree it’s a book we would want to pick up off the shelf. Nothing makes me happier than reading a good funny book. It’s why I’m on the planet.”
You see, the reason why there are no superheroes from San Francisco has to do with the flavor of the psychedelic city: a carefully maintained, pretentious, explicit, politically charged, lefty, alcoholic, LGBTQ, countercultural capital where everyone is so blase towards spectacle that Marvel’s X-Men moved in recent comic years to chill out from all the East Coast’s bustle. San Francisco’s a place that’s weird enough for a school for mutants to be completely invisible, met with the kind of indifferent attitude found in a city with corporate funded sexual fetish parades open to all ages.
“I think,” said McNamara, “that the Rancid song Tenderloin was as close as anybody got” in the early 2000s to portraying such a nuanced and jam-packed little boomtown as websites were flocking and the income gap became bigger than ever.
This lack of representation inspired the Polite Strangers.
Under their pens, Less than Hero’s protagonist becomes the “psych-kinetik” Punk following a failed, dotcom bust fueled suicide attempt. “The only crimes [The Punk] perceives are against his sense of ego and his diminished sense of entitlement which is the sought after rights of all technocrats and start up cannibals” says Talbert. “[For instance] He gets loaded and after breaking into the tomb of a dead leader of an esoteric community, strips the man naked and shits on the floor then runs around town making an asshole of himself in the dead esoteric's holy burial costume ”
Talbert inserted the undertone of the mysterious death-defying cult, Clear Light in Less Than Hero’s long-term plot. They are located on 40th and Noriega Street in the Outer Sunset district of San Francisco, inside of one of many brick religious compounds with large gates; isolated in the semi-suburban sprawl leading out to the Pacific Ocean.
“This was particularly a response to growing up in the Bay Area in the ‘70s and ‘80s” says Talbert. “I remember the principal announcing the mass suicide of the People's Church over the p.a system of Loma Vista Jr.high . . . I came up with the name "Clear Light" for the cult, naming it after a brand of LSD that was very popular in the Bay Area back in the early seventies. [Clear Light]’s uniform, the high priest version becomes the Punk's costume. Back in the day, before I stopped reading superhero books in 1985, a character's costume was directly tied into his power and origin. It was a personal mythology visualized, rather than an empty pro military industrial complex, video game uniform with a corporate movie studio's thimble dick shoved up it's pooper. I think that whatever weight the character carries is due to the heavy culture and established history that is part and parcel with the cult uniform which masks the traumatized yuppie wash out.”
It is hard to find anyone too sympathetic towards The Punk’s alter ego’s attempted suicide. As one of his friends says in the first issue, “his start up went south. Big fucking deal, everybody’s did too! Now buy your inner child a snow cone and shut the fuck up already!”
According to Less than Hero illustrator Tony Talbert, living in San Francisco at this time felt like wallowing in the shadows of a “designer ghost town left behind by failed startups . . . everyone believing, foolishly, that we had survived another surge of gentrification in an increasingly neo liberal San Francisco; it's feral population of artists, bar bums, fishermen, baristas, skaters, bartenders, commies, activists, hot black bohemian actresses,homeless people . . . punks,strippers,etcetera all settled back into the long established daily routines of maneuvering the streets.”
During this time Talbert had been kicked out of his Tenderloin apartment (an area now having its long-empty, boarded-up storefronts purchased for their proximity to the so-called “Twitter Tax” zone) for being two months behind on rent. He was quite literally living in the streets with his panel sketches for Less Than Hero.
“I kept my clothes and drawing supplies in a half dozen travel and bike delivery bags in the employee break room on the second floor of the Peet's Coffee on Market street” Talbert said. “I'd shave and bathe in the employee bathroom and eat much of my daily meals out of the pastry case. Half the time, Jason let me crash at his place which was also in the Tenderloin, but he liked girls,booze, and privacy also so some nights I'd just be shit out of luck. I'd head over to the Original Thieves Tavern on Shotwell and write and draw there,once they closed up, I'd grab a bus across town and throw down some hot chow and coffee on Geary, drawing and nodding off over the last twenty pages of LTH until it was light enough to crash in the park or head in for a morning shift at the cafe.”
“Tony and I worked in a corporate coffee shithouse together” says McNamarra, “and then we’d go out drinking together. We’d toss ideas around and beat [Less Than Hero] into shape while getting loaded. Then I’d take all the things he said he wanted to draw, all the ideas we workshopped and put them into a script. Tony would give it a read and we’d discuss any changes . . . and then the script was locked and Tony would go off to draw it and I would letter the pages as they came in . . . It’s a game of telephone, you’re telling a story to the artist and they’re telling it to the world. I knew that if I got a laugh out of Tony, it was probably a good idea. He wasn’t shy about telling me if something wasn’t good enough, and he was usually right.”
“Most nights we’d drink our pockets empty,” says McNamara, “berate bartenders into whatever free drinks we could, we’d ingest snort or swallow whatever anyone handed us, then we take turns punching each other in the face, then we’d hug each other tell each other how much we loved the other, then we’d go a liquor store at 2 AM and beg them to sell us a bottle, we’d take it to my place and we’d keep going. The alarm would go off at noon. I’d get my ass to the coffee shop where, because I was briefly in management, I was always getting dragged into these class action lawsuits. You get $3 here, $17 there. I always joined just to hurt their bottom line. Well, we had issue four of LTH finished and it was ready to go to the printers but I was tapped out and my credits cards were maxed. I thought we were screwed but then out of the blue I got a check for $2,450 from a class action lawsuit I had forgotten about, which was $10 more than I needed to pay the printer. So we got the book printed with a twelve pack to spare. Yay lawyers.”
This hapless careening about a city filled with untouchable wealth from behind distinct class lines is the core of the Punk’s temperament. “Unfortunately for you, I don’t mistake cynicism for intelligence” replies one villain, a dead ringer for Joseph Stalin who is attempting to secede the Castro District from the rest of the United States while conducting illegal dental surgery with his goons. Every district is represented in Less Than Hero.
Conversely, McNamarra says being unable to identify an exact community to support the comic was the biggest hindrance in stability for Less Than Hero.
“Had we been able to find our core audience we could have transitioned to an ongoing story-model. [Tony and I] could have done a better job of enlisting local forces and identifying alternative / punk music influencers [too]. I did invite Jello Biafra to a release party, but he didn’t come. Not making a [trade paperback] available as soon as the series wrapped was also a critical error. The series had no room for discovery or growth.
In not identifying an audience, McNamara says he and Talbert sought Quixotically to compete with the biggest mainstream superhero names. “You know what book debuted the same day as Less Than Hero? DC’s Identity Crisis. [Tony and I] couldn’t get the comic press to give our strange little book the time of day. That I ended up buying Identity Crisis myself shows how hard it is to change the buying habits of comic readers.”
The project did manage to spring a career with other publishers to life from the strenuous efforts of the no-longer dubbed Polite Strangers.
“[Following Less Than Hero] we were exhausted and discouraged,” says McNamara, “each book lost me over a grand. [Tony and I] had a green light to do a book with AiT/Planet Lar, a local graphic novel house, and we put LTH down while we worked on First Moon and then Continuity.Tony and I completed 3 consecutive books together. We had actually started a fourth called SUCKER but…it wasn’t like we were making any money or getting any traction in the industry. After 4 years of beating our heads against the wall the creative inertia that held us together just fizzled out.”