Husbands: The Comic has a lot of very strong selling points. It’s co-written by Jane Espenson, a name familiar to genre fans from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, and more. It has an introduction by Neil Gaiman and an afterword by Russell T. Davies. Never mind that I’d never heard of co-writer, Brad Bell, or watched the Husbands web series, this book was clearly worth a read.
A little background reading (and viewing), revealed that before Husbands came around, Brad Bell was well known on YouTube for pro-gay rights satirical work under the pseudonym “Cheeks”. These videos caught the attention of TV veteran, Espenson, and the pair developed Husbands, a web-based sitcom about a newly-wed gay couple. In the series, professional athlete Brady and actor “Cheeks” are surprised to find themselves married after a drunken celebration of newly-passed marriage equality laws. Not wishing to provide political fodder for opponents of marriage equality, Brady and “Cheeks” elect to remain married. In a bit of a departure, the comic doesn’t spend much time on politics or traditional marriage plots. Instead, a mysterious and powerful gift sends Brady and “Cheeks” hurtling through a succession of alternate reality storylines, each with a lesson to teach about building a successful relationship. As soon as that issue’s lesson has been learned, the pair jumps to another genre and platitude.
This central conceit works well for the jump from sitcom to comic and keeps things lively. Bell, Espenson, and several artists romp through superheroes, sword and sorcery, Holmesian mystery, sci-fi, Archie-style teen romance, and super spies. Brady and “Cheeks” retain their essential qualities in all their iterations and the whole thing manages to remain true to the spirit of the show, even while bouncing through so many strange settings and plots.
But, there are downsides to this schizophrenic plotting. Taken as a complete volume, the book lacks any sense of overall narrative arc or deeper thematic unity. Each story is built around a specific moral, but these tend to be thin and predictable — sufficient as a plot device, but not deserving of any greater attention.
The art is similarly disjointed. This is by design and done for good reason. Each chapter is drawn in the style of its adopted genre and this results in some great moments. I particularly liked seeing Brady and “Cheeks” transformed into flat-colored and thickly-outlined residents of Riverdale, mostly because the Archie-inspired section was the greatest departure from realism. It felt the most daring and innovative — qualities one looks for in a book adapted from a web series that bills itself as using a new medium to challenge the status quo both artistically and socially.
If anything here is transgressive or ground-breaking, it’s the extent to which same-sex romance is normalized. Our couple runs into plenty of antagonists, but none of them blink an eye at two married men. In his afterword, Russell T. Davies praises the authors for eschewing polemics in favor of the inherently political act of simply being gay in the twenty-first century. In this case, it seems the more interesting statement comes from being gay in a host of timelines and realities.