When the first issue of 27: Second Set came out, I wrote about how much I’d loved the triumphant ending of the first limited series and how disappointed I was that the continuation of the series necessarily had to begin by robbing our hero Will Garland of his triumph. Now that we’ve come to the end of this second series, Garland has achieved another triumph, but even though I liked his journey to it, this one feels hollower.
In the first series author Charles Soule dealt with the concept of the flameout musical genius, the creator who burns so bright he burns himself to death: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Robert Johnson, Amy Winehouse, Elliott Smith. Will Garland is such a talent, but he’s lost the use of his playing hand to a repetitive stress injury, and makes a deal with the god of artistic creativity trying to get it back. Instead of his playing hand, though, he gets a console embedded in his chest; each time he presses its buttons, he gets a different superpower for three hours, but after the 27th time he uses it he will die.
The first series ended with an extended monologue on the nature of artistic creation. Yes, some people are given the gift of aptitude, Garland says, but they make real sacrifices of time and effort to turn that gift into greatness. Art is earned through hard work, and great artists don’t merely love the products of their genius, they love the work. Garland flips his guitar over and plays with his left hand.
Sounds awful. But I’ll get better. And the music I make—it’ll be mine. And it’ll be loud.
Second Set starts a year later. Garland has grown frustrated trying to play wrong-handed. He can’t make the music he hears in his head, and audiences aren’t responding to the music he can make. Moreover, he’s playing soft, not loud.
He picks a fight with his girlfriend/manager and sleeps with a groupie, who accidentally triggers his console. Garland runs outside shooting lights from his hands and is captured on video, which makes him famous again. A washed-up, one-hit-wonder singer from the 1980s sees him on TV and sets in motion a plan to steal from him the fame she’s lost.
As with the spirit of creativity in the first book, Fame is personified and demands sacrifices for his gifts. A series of plot twists ends with Garland and the one-hit-wonder playing before an audience of all the people in the world, in a competition for Garland’s power.
For a while as I read Second Set, I thought maybe I was less engaged than I had been with the first book because the question of how one becomes or remains famous is less interesting to me than the question of where great art comes from. That is part of it, but I think Soule did raise interesting sub-questions about fame that should have held my attention: What happens when you have talent, and you do the work, and the world refuses to listen? Fame is fickle and doesn’t always touch the most deserving.
But that gets to the greater problem I had with Second Set: Will Garland is acted upon by others rather than initiating action himself. In First Set, he sets in motion everything that happens, from his first attempt to make a deal for his hand to the final confrontation he forces with the creative spirit. Often he doesn’t understand what he’s causing, and the repercussions of his actions may spiral out of his control, but everything arises from his desires.
In Second Set Garland is much more reactive. The groupie triggers his console. The one-hit-wonder tries to kill him. The personification of Fame forces him to play for his life. He can and does reclaim agency within these situations, but he does not create them and isn’t really driving the story.
I don’t think this is an accident. I think Soule has quite cleverly matched his storytelling to his theme—the arbitrariness of fame. The trouble is, a hero thrown around by caprice is simply less compelling than a hero who makes things happen. When at the end Garland vows to do something big with the fame he’s been given, in a final page that deliberately echoes the final page of First Set, his conviction doesn’t grow out of a struggle we’ve been watching up to then. His triumph this time is vague to the point that he has no idea what what that “something” might be, and neither do we.
I still think Second Set has interesting things to say, and Renzo Podesta’s art is still gorgeous. It’s still a very good book, even if I didn’t love it the way I did the first.
P.S. A complaint about distribution: these issues obviously take a long time to write and draw, so there have been long gaps between them. I’m fine with that. I’m not fine with Image’s decision to put out the trade paperback in lieu of issue #4 of 4, presumably because #4 has been delayed a long time and everyone’s waiting for the trade anyway. The exact same thing happened with First Set (and it looks like the same is going to happen again with Mondo, another Image title). When you do this, Image, you tell all of us who have been buying the issues that we are suckers, because now we have to shell out for the trade to see how things end. If you’re going to expect everyone to just buy the trade, then just put out the trade. I might buy issues for Third Set to review them (I assume it is coming), but no one who isn’t writing reviews and who has half a brain is going to continue buying Image issues. Be aware of that, Image, and don’t cancel Soule’s deal when your sales figures go tits up. You’re forcing fans not to buy titles they like; make sure it isn’t the creator who suffers from your shortsightedness.
I have been fairly reliably informed that this is all probably my local comic book store’s fault. My bad.