Reviewed by Ken A. Fjord
Superheroes dominate popular culture. It would be difficult to find someone whose childhood had been untouched by Marvel or DC. After encountering a comic strip in an Easter Show Showbag, a school-aged Sammy J found himself investing his time, effort, and love into The Phantom, a purple-clad pirate fighter with no real superpowers. Sammy’s decision may not have been a miracle cure for his schoolyard popularity. But he does have The Phantom to thank for a chain of events that lead to him intentionally throwing the results of a Young United Nations’ summit, meeting his wife, and, central to this story, making a lifelong friend out of his school gardener, Duncan. And because of all this, the audience has The Phantom to thank for a remarkable evening of storytelling genius with a heart so palpable that the laughter almost feels like a welcome side addition.
With a slideshow game that would make any year six-er blush, Sammy runs us through his life from daily 1:45 wedgie appointments in the schoolyard to his career as a musical comedian. This is definitely comedy and there are many, many laughs – so much so that when one audience member completely lost it, Sammy J stood back and marveled at the timbre of her laughter, enjoying its bizarreness while fretting about running overtime – but the fact that this tale is true makes Hero Complex feel like an evening of very fine storytelling, interspaced with laugh-out- loud musical numbers, rather embarrassing reveals from Sammy J’s earlier life, and general linguistic dexterity.
Driving this story is a series of coincidences and interactions that would be impossible to believe if Sammy J didn’t have hard evidence. Diary entries and photographs and influential comic books – it feels like Sammy J has been accidentally preparing himself for this show his whole life, arming himself with the materials necessary to prove each unbelievable moment. This autobiographical tilt makes Hero Complex a surprisingly personal hour of entertainment. We cringe at the photo of Sammy J posing alone and awkward on a class trip to Canberra, marvel at the breadth of his comic book collection, and are astonished as he keeps almost-but- not-quite crossing paths with his old friend Duncan.
The further we go, the more things start to pay off. Jokes from the beginning of the show pop up again, newly layered with meaning and now even more funny. It’s a technique used by many, but Sammy J exercises mastery, each motif made more entertaining by the fact that he can prove it all happened.
By the time the show reaches its conclusion, we have been included in the story not of a superhero but a man with a quick wit and a deep appreciation for what life has given him. This show doesn’t feel performed; it feels shared. Like a good friend has pulled out an enormous comic book collection and now wants to show you the best bits. Sammy J’s investment in The Phantom appears to have paid its dividends nicely.