They have a saying in football: “That’s why we play four quarters.” For the sports impaired, essentially the saying imparts that no matter how great/poorly your team plays at the beginning of the game, there are four total quarters in which they can do better/worse. Comics work the same way. A great run or mini-series can start strong and fade fast, or debut limply before powering through the finish. Polarity is a bit of both. The new mini from BOOM! Studios starts fast, loses steam, and then ends a winner. How’s that for analysis?
Polarity is a tricky beast from the start. The brainchild of Say Anything frontman Max Bemis, Polarity follows bipolar artist and hipster hater Tim Woods as he struggles to find balance between his illness and his life. Diagnosed after a breezy meltdown that left him hospitalized, Tim now uses pharmaceuticals to keep his mania in check, which in turn squashes the fits of brilliance that once made him a popular name in the Brooklyn art scene. Tim seems doomed to live his life as doped up and empty minded as the vapid hipsters he loathes until the day he decides to take control of his sanity by losing it once more. Going off pills leads to some expected side effects, yet also invites an unexpected one: the sudden onset of Tim’s formerly repressed super powers. Twist!
For a first time comic writer, Bemis does a remarkable job making Tim engaging yet aloof, easily drawing the line between medicated Tim and manic Tim without devolving into caricature. His script is solid, if a bit meandering, and Bemis really nails the conflict continually roiling behind Tim’s societal mask. He also showcases a real knack for dialogue, as many of his characters’ interactions come across as genuine and earned. His relationship with the girl-of-his-dreams Lily is particularly engaging, as the two of them have a genuine chemistry that’s a joy to read. That said, there are a few moments where the writing is a bit too clever, as the banter and (not so) veiled jabs become too well constructed and thus obvious in their humor. It’s a minor nitpick, though; Bemis’s overall voice is one of real talent.
However, there are some things that don’t quite work. One point of contention I had was with the overall plotting. Given that the mini-series is just that, mini, I was perturbed by some of the storytelling choices taken here. The first issue is fantastic, but issues 2 and 3 flounder a bit in their telling before hurtling towards the finale in issue 4. There’s a lot going on here – manic montages, meet cutes, therapy sessions, super powered romps – and with only four issues to tell the whole story some things left me unsatisfied. A reveal at the end of issue three left me more puzzled than excited, and as such the finale came off as a bit rushed. Still, Bemis does do a solid job bringing most everything together in the end, and the book as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Bemis takes a tough subject (mental illness) and attacks it in a way that’s open minded and interesting without turning it into a PSA. Polarity is a trip, and Bemis is clearly familiar with the ride.
On art, Jorge Coelho absolutely kills it with every page, depicting Tim’s descent into madness (and back!) with a gusto that never lets up. His designs are always a touch away from “out there,” which makes the inevitable truly “out there” moments even better. Through Coelho we get to dip into Tim’s mind in a visual manner, and it’s portrayed as a wildly interesting yet ultimately terrifying place. Coelho also nails the vibe of the anti-consumerist scene, as every character outside of the core trio drips of pretension and elitism. I found myself chuckling at some of the character designs, as I’ve easily seen one of “those guys” in my personal life. Polarity needed an artist that could match Bemis’s energy panel for panel, and found just the guy in Coelho.
In the end, I was surprised by how much I liked Polarity. There are some rough spots, but save for one truly “wtf” moment I enjoyed every chapter. Bemis creates a rich world filled with strong and memorable characters while tackling a tough subject in a direct yet inventive way. He proves a capable and funny wordsmith, bringing real world experience into a most abstract space. If you like your tights and capes stories a little off the beaten path, take a chance with Polarity. You’d be crazy not to.