Polarity – The 2015 Weekly Writer Challenge: Max Bemis (Part 1)
52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
Max Bemis is a fairly recent transplant into the comic world, first finding success in the art form of music. Bemis is the lead singer and songwriter for the rock band “Say Anything”, having toured the world and released multiple records with the band. Back in 2013, Bemis decided to make the jump into comics with today’s book, “Polarity”, from Boom Entertainment. Writing a story about the world’s first bipolar superhero, Bemis drew inspiration from his own life as he too suffers from bipolar disorder.
Two years ago Tim Woods walked out in to the middle of a busy Brooklyn street, butt naked and was struck by a passing vehicle during a manic breakdown. That’s when Tim discovered he suffers from bipolar disorder, with the simple joys he had in life becoming muted out by the heavy dosage of drugs he was forced to take daily to suppress his mania. Now, Tim is a fairly average artist living out in Brooklyn, becoming part of (but equally loathing) the subculture he has come to exist within. Surrounded by false hipsters, snobby art critics, and all around awful human beings, Tim questions where the substance he desires in life has gone. He hates his pretentious “girlfriend” and has now come to struggle as his art lacks the unique nature it once had. Deciding to take a stand against his mundane life, Tim stops taking the pills that keep him in check and he begins to do a plethora of different drugs as well as consume copious amounts of alcohol to instil a sense of excitement back into his life. Everything changes for Tim when he realizes that the longer he goes without taking his medication, the more he appears to develop special super human powers. Then he head butts a guy and accidentally makes his head explode. Suffice to say, from there his life gets a little more complicated as he discovers he’s the world’s first bipolar superhero.
Max Bemis becomes a fresh new face for comics with his debut miniseries, Polarity. It’s a wild romp, that mashes superheroes, mental health, satire, and Brooklyn hipsters together in a story that is as unconventional as it sounds. To start from the top, Bemis approaches the topic of one’s mental health in a unique way, as he himself suffers from bipolar disorder, much like the main character of Tim Woods. The unique insight he has on the topic shines through, as in most instances someone with a bipolar disorder is usually portrayed as unhinged, manic, and fringing on psychotic. It’s just a natural occurrence for writers nowadays to cast someone with a mental disorder, or someone who’s transgendered, or even racist as a crazed villain because that’s been the archetype these sort of people have been lumped into since writing first developed as an art form. Bemis shucks that trend with the loveable protagonist of Tim though, showcasing a different side of what it means to be bipolar.
Tim Woods is an incredibly average individual, the type who is ripe for the picking when it comes to crafting a character into a “superhero” like so many origin stories have done before. The bipolar disorder that Tim suffers from is the twist injected by Bemis to give the character a unique spin, differing him from the likes of your Peter Parkers, Bruce Waynes, or Clark Kents. Again, he’s average, white, not that well off, and has a mental disorder, but Bemis spins that as an almost empowering aspect of the character instead of making it a constant and crippling wrinkle in the indestructible superhero facade we’re often fed today. Bemis’ approach to bipolar disorder is the highlight of this comic, largely due to the new ground he paves with this take. Tim isn’t this depressing lump of a human, nor is he a crazed lunatic. He’s astoundingly normal, to the point where if it wasn’t a key element of the story, one might miss the fact that Tim has mental health issues. It would’ve been easy to make this a story about the insane ups and downs of bipolar disorder but Bemis twists everything in just a different way than what you’d expect at every corner of the story. That’s not to say that Bemis still doesn’t address the struggles of living with bipolar disorder, as he most certainly does, it’s just that it’s not this massive, consuming aspect of the story that needs to be detailed on every page of the comic. We get plenty of glimpses at Tim’s highs and lows, as he goes from feeling muted and grayed out by his pills, to essentially being the definition of euphoria when he’s set loose without medication. Seeing the dips and dives in Tim’s personality is interesting as again, it is so different from what you’re strung on to believe about the disorder from just a baseline understanding as a reader. Max Bemis uses the character of Tim to change your view on bipolar disorder when you come into the story and have an entirely different outlook on it when you reach the last page.
Behind the strong interpretation of bipolar disorder is a whip smart, hilarious story with plenty of satire backed up by a loquacious vocabulary from Max Bemis. Even though Tim does develop “superpowers” he’s far from the standard definition of heroism readers would associate with characters like Captain America or Spider-Man. Instead, the story pokes fun at the idea of giving someone with a mental disorder superpowers, showing readers how easily one could stray from using his powers in a positive manner. Make no mistake that Tim tries to be a “hero”, he just isn’t someone who is really designed to be a hero and that’s what Bemis shows throughout the script. Tim will just as quickly use his powers to break up a drug deal to protect impressionable young hipsters as he would to viciously spank a rude jock for picking on a nerdy teenager. If anything, I’d say that Tim is cast as the human equivalent of your anti-“facebook activist” who actually decides to use his powers to make people more socially aware instead of posting a status for likes or shares. As a result of this, there is a lot of bashing the Brooklyn hipster “movement” in the story, with Bemis taking any chance he can to provide comedic beats through the examination and deconstruction of this “cultural movement”. It starts with casting Tim within this group of twenty-something hipsters before going to great lengths to show why he doesn’t belong within this category yet still kind of does. From there Bemis juggles between the hipster and superhero comedy to strike a chord with readers that they’ll remember, using strongly constructed sentences to really sting points into your brain.
For a clever, witty, and generally enjoyable as Polarity actually is, it still suffers the unfortunate pitfall of a conclusion that feels far too rushed. Everything that occurs through the first three issues feels well paced out and provides you with an enjoyable reading experience. Bemis builds a rich environment for the reader to settle into, gleefully encourage you to want to read more about Tim’s woes with the rising plague of Brooklyn hipsters or the mischief he can cause with his superpowers but then everything comes to a rushed halt with the final fourth issue. I think the problem is that Bemis built so many interesting directions for where the story could go that there simply wasn’t enough time to wrap it all up in a fully acceptable manner. It’s a solid ending but it all feels out-of-place when you consider how intelligent the story had handled itself up to that point. It went out of its way to pave new ground, only to fall back on cliché genre tropes instead of constructing a conclusion that felt original and new for the this wildly imaginative take. It’s a story that acknowledges it’s a superhero story but doesn’t go over the top until the last 25% of the tale that’s being told. Even with all this in mind a story that ends with a decent conclusion doesn’t ruin all the originality pumping through the first three issues of this collection. If anything, with a little more time and polish, Bemis could be a pertinent voice for this generation of comic book readers, especially appealing to the readers who are looking for a bit of direction in this directionless world we’re living in.
Collects: Polarity #1-4
Best Character: Tim Woods
Best Line Of Dialogue: “They say not to let your illness define you.” – Tim Woods
Best Scene/Moment: Tim quickly rips a new one to a room full of hipsters – Issue 2
Best Issue: Issue 2. The second issue of this collection, to me, perfectly encapsulates everything this series is and should be. You have Tim discovering that he has powers and begins to use them to do whatever he wants. You get some brilliantly comedic scenes, ranging from a sit down between Tim and his psychiatrist, Dr. Mays, to Tim destroying a room full of hipsters and wannabes because he can read their every thought. Bemis gives Tim some breathing room to have some fun and then reels him back in to show the true heart of the character. To top it off, the issue ends with Tim using his powers for the right reason in a perfectly Tim-like way.
Why You Should Read It: Polarity is an honest take on bipolar disorder with a wacky superhero kind of twist. Max Bemis displays plenty of wit and charm in nearly every issue, speaking with the type of voice that can resonate with this generation of readers. There’s humour, drama, heartbreak, and plenty of action as the reader climbs through the weird life of Tim Woods. If that’s not enough, every collected edition comes with a free downloadable EP from Max Bemis so you basically get music and comics in one. How can you say no to that?