Earthman & Torch, a new release from Floating World Comics and Power Comics, isn’t what one would first expect in the bins of a comics shop. Drawn by the now 92-year old Robert Nunn, primarily in the 1970s while he worked as a welder in St. Louis, the collection expresses many of the cultural tensions of its time. Throughout Earthman & Torch, the men are heroic and strong, the women are crafty and enticing, and machines exert their own agency in the human sphere.
For a novice attempt, some of the content would be more at home with other outsider artists whose work was preoccupied with religion and gender, such as Howard Finster and Royal Robertson, rather than illustrators and writers that follow standard professional conventions. This I find to be part of its intrigue, not a weakness. In a time when linear perspective has unquestionably been held as an important standard of mastery, and digital toolsets increasingly homogenize rather than diversify style, something as weird as this is an entertaining curiosity.
That being said, sincerity of voice is stronger in this work than its storytelling, and part of what gives the collection a somewhat disjointed pacing stems from its influences. Nunn was a lover of Li’l Abner and Dick Tracy, and initially aspired to draw 3- and 5-panel comic strips for the newspapers. He admittedly didn’t read comic books and never cared about Marvel and DC superheroes. Much of the enjoyment of Earthman & Torch is at the level of the panel, less so the coherence of a narrative at large.
Some of this also has to do with how it even came to be printed in the first place. For outsider art, so much of the intrigue revolves around how it became public. The original run and design wouldn’t exist if not for Nunn's wife, Erlinda, who deserves credit for spearheading a small print edition of his work in 1990. For a working class artist, the stops and starts to his efforts were significant, despite the couple also running an art gallery in Missouri a few decades before. Sometimes coherence has more to do with funding and support than desire or talent.
The book is split into three main sections. The first is composed of the original 24-page "Earthman" story from the 1970s–a murder mystery where vampires and vixens confound the men of the Universal Space Patrol. Supernatural and horror elements find their way through what appear to be a castle, a rural home, and a hospital staffed by a robot. The witchy villain is tricky, but the protagonists’ sleuth-like powers of observation crack through the deception.
The next section shows a brand-new 9-page "Earthman" sequel drawn after Power Comics' principals expressed interest in Nunn’s work–an almost 50-year gap between the two. In this regard it would make a fun companion read with Brian Chippendale’s Ninja, which opens with work that the artist made as a child and then continued 18 years later. Whereas the first "Earthman" story was largely unpolished sketchwork, far more impressionistic than consistent, the update to the story is now told through the occasional text printout and drawn in pen and colored markers. Where protagonists Zan Galax and Alex Starr were terrestrial in his first adventure, they now see interstellar action in its contemporary sequel. The story focuses on a space battle involving weird creatures, a strange planet, and some throwback slapstick gags.
In the 24-page final story, also from the 1970s, “The All Man Torch” fights against an evil force, Demona, who uses a beautiful woman, Betty Lou, against the superhero like kryptonite. Undoubtedly influenced by the era of Jack Chick tracts, the story is appropriately situated in the religious fervor that culminated into Satanic panic a decade later. As Torch is powered up by the amount of Bible verses he reads, his mission is to break ties with (and proselytize to) those who go to the wrong kind of church, or none at all.
Nunn valorizes rugged masculinity in the text, showing the transformation of a dandy named “Shanacy” into a militarized man named “Max”. By the end, it turns out that following Christ isn’t just a heavenly reward. Torch's human alter ego is satisfied by Betty Lou’s conversion, accepting her hand in marriage–by the last frame it's revealed that she’s given him a brand-new car for his birthday, and he now has privileges to her multimillionaire parents' fortune. For a simple Christian story, the logic returns to the worldly. Praying really did pay off!
An oddity such as this can be refreshing in a time when publishing is largely consolidated, and artists increasingly create from a mode of brand management rather than the joy of inspiration. Sometimes the raw and puzzling can be as or more pleasurable than sense-making and control. Although there is peril to fetishizing artists who maintain a deeper purpose or personal calling to create, hopefully we can continue to turn to those working “outside” established modes of publishing and distribution, and continue to invite them in.