It's a familiar trope of kid-friendly superhero stories, specifically those designed to sell action figures: a group of people (usually teenagers) are randomly gifted with super-powered uniforms (usually all-but-matching in an array of colors) which they use to fight big monsters and save the world. These Sentai stories are their own entire sub-genre in Japan, with stock footage exported to the United States and used to create such sensations as Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and all their various spinoffs.
This, of course, requires some suspension of disbelief. It's almost always a group of friends, right? Worst case scenario, it's a bunch of strangers who happen to be in the same place at the same time and have to learn to get along — though luckily, they are all good-intentioned, wanting to save the world, even when their personalities clash. And for whatever reason, it almost always happens to a bunch of people who should be in school, studying and learning and planning for their future, instead of punching kaiju in the face.
This is where Radiant Black, a new comic series from Kyle Higgins and Marcelo Costa, starts to riff on the form. Instead of focusing on a group of teenagers, the story begins with Nathan, a 30-year-old aspiring writer with $40,000 in credit card debt and not much to show for it. His circumstance means he has to move back in with his parents — which might suck for Nathan, but is welcome news to Marshall, his high school bestie, who now works at a video store and seems to have no ambitions beyond the small town where they grew up. The two go out drinking one night, and that's when the super-powered alien Sentai suit that randomly grafts itself to Nathan — a cool opportunity for a teenager, maybe, but one that doesn't really offer any helpful solutions to this low-point in Nathan's adult life.
Of course, that doesn't stop him from using the suit. Which, in turn, gets in the way of his writing, and paying off his credit card debt so he can leave his parents' house again.
That's the real crux of Radiant Black — which just released its first trade paperback collection this week, along with its seventh issue. Writer Kyle Higgins previously worked on the recent comic book reboot of Power Rangers (which is surprisingly delightful), and also contributed some work to Marvel's super-alien-suit-powered teenager Darkhawk, so he's more than a little familiar with the genre. But what he does here is twist those tropes, and throw them into a fascinating new scenario — adulthood, particularly one that's not going so great. Higgins understands how it feels to feel like a failure; all the pain and embarrassment that comes with being an adult child still asking your parents for help, and trying to figure out a new life and career path once things didn't work out the way you'd planned. When your childhood ambitions — whether that's being a writer, or a Super Sentai — don't turn out how you'd expected them to. As the author explained in an interview with ComicsXF:
We're also the last generation that was sold the idea of the "American Dream." Maybe it was more viable to generations prior, but the way it gets talked about to this day has not been viable for quite some time. We don't like to talk about debt in this country, or the failures of our systems. My generation, all my friends, we're all going through the same thing — trying to navigate this world where maybe we're OK at social media and doing video stuff, but not as good as people younger than us. But it also feels like we're too old to start over. The creative industries are all changing so rapidly. If you're older and established, with an audience, then you've certainly got a leg up. Or, if you're just starting out, you're going to be far more nimble and malleable with regards to what avenues you're probably interested in creating for. But for me, in my mid-30s, I've often had a feeling of not knowing what to do, or what my place is or where I can go next.
So yeah: it's Power Rangers for depressed 30-somethings. And that's what makes Radiant Black stand out amongst a sea of other superhero comics and shows, which so often deal with YA-adjacent themes. It's the kind of superhero story where the most moving scenes are the ones drenched in realism — like struggling to write, or confessing to your father how disappointed you are in yourself. It's hard enough when Spider-Man has to lie to his loved ones to protect his identity; but it's heartbreaking when Nathan has to fess up to a lie he told about his career prospects. Oof.
The story also offers some surprising twists, because adulthood's full of tragedies, too — the kind that can be worsened by risk-taking, but can't be undone with Super Sentai-like suits. (Seriously, the end of the fourth issue was quite a surprise.)
In keeping with the genre tropes, there are of course other colored Radiants in Radiant Black. They don't all get their super-powered suits together at the same time, but they are all dealing with their own adult issues. You don't often see superhero stories that deal with mortgage payments, or partners with normal gambling problems. Nor are those the kinds of problems that you would normal expect to solve with an alien super suit. But when the opportunity falls in your lap, well — if you can't save the world, at least you can use your super powers to save your marriage, right?
Radiant Black [Kyle Higgins and Marcelo Costa / Image Comics]