It’s been a while since I’ve been as pleasantly surprised by a book as much as I was by The Flying Friar. Granted, the only thing I knew about this book going in was the title and having been a reader of writer Rich Johnston’s online comic book gossip column for years so I had no preconceived expectations, but I wish there were more comics like this one. Put simply, Johnston has taken actual records of a 17th century friar whom multiple witnesses claim flew and subtly remade them into a story of Superman versus Lex Luthor. Really. And it works far better and way less contrived than any Superman Elseworlds you can name. It’s either a credit to the story or a highlight of my somewhat being clueless that I was a third of the way in before I realized what Johnston was doing with the narrative. I then immediately started the book over just to catch the little things I missed, for what a rich (no pun intended) tapestry Johnston weaves with this tale.
Friar begins in Italy, 1602 where a meteor in the sky is witnessed by a small town. Notable among the witnesses is a distant descendant of the Protestant reformer Martin Luthor named Lionel and his son Lux. The meteor storm causes Lux to lose his hair. Sound familiar? Several years later, Lux, now a man of science, befriends the hapless Joseph of Copertino, the future patron saint of air travelers, aviators, people with a mental handicap, and weak students. Indeed, Joseph doesn’t seem to be overly bright, but is singularly dedicated to the Church and becoming a friar. The trouble is, Joseph is prone to moments of drifting suddenly into a state of staring blankly into space which sometimes results in spontaneous fires igniting in the direction he’s staring. Since Joseph is Lux’s only friend Lionel, a rich man, is prone to bail him out of trouble and to also use his considerable influence for Joseph’s benefit. Lux also shares a secret with Joseph; he is building a machine which will allow him to fly, something that causes a further division between the two when Joseph appears to fly without assistance. The elegant story touches on themes of friendship, religious differences and the corruption of greed, not only that of money and power, but also in a zealous lust of faith. Those are some very heady ideas for a Superman story, but make this one shine.
The artwork by Thomas Nachlik is crisp and tells the story in a simple yet emotive way. His artwork is sometimes reminiscent of Matt Wagner and I look forward to seeing more work from him in the future. The lettering by Thomas Mauer complements the art well and does a good job of reminding the reader of the setting of the story. The coloring by Ian Sharman in this new edition from Markosia is quite beautiful. He’s taken the black and white story and added an almost sepia tone-like wash to it with subtle use of Lex Luthor’s signature green in places. In all respects this book is a true work of art.
I know that even Rich Johnston describes this book as Smallville meets The Name of the Rose, but I personally found it more in the style of the Silver Age Superman imaginary stories. I can almost picture a Curt Swan cover with Supes in a monk outfit being berated by a purple and green silk adorned Luthor. I think this story would have fit nicely amongst those others. All in all, this is one terrific book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Buy this book, get cozy on the couch with nice cup of tea and prepare to be entertained.