Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
Yes, usually I review things in these posts in the order I get them. I’ve been sitting on several longer form graphic novel type thingies, though, so I decided to simply review them alphabetically. When it comes to alphabetizing, I’m the king!
Our first fine selection is Aetheric Mechanics by Warren Ellis, Gianluca Pagliarani, and Chris Dreier. This is the latest comic from Ellis’s Apparat line, and it’s published by Avatar and costs 699 cents. It’s a slim volume, but that’s still good value for your hard-earned coin.
This book from Avatar gets back to what I was ranting about in my post about November’s Previews. If you have something against Avatar because they began as a porn publisher, okay. If you have something against them because they let Ellis and Garth Ennis write stories in which people do horrible things to each other that they couldn’t do at Marvel, fine. But when Avatar publishes something good, should you hold it against them because of the other stuff they publish that you hate? The Apparat line allows Ellis to do one of the things that he does really well, which is re-imagine a world that is very much like our own but with significant changes that fall in line with old-school pulp fiction. Ellis has always been a “hard” science fiction guy, for the most part (I’m not getting into whether his science actually works, because that’s usually beyond me, but he’s still fascinated with cutting-edge science and tech), and when he writes in that genre, he often produces some very good stuff (even something like Planetary has a lot of elements of that). But he’s also excellent at pulp fiction, so when he combines those two, the result is usually worthwhile. The final thing he seems to be interested in the most is puzzles (which ties back into the science and technology, if only obliquely), so Fell becomes a fascinating exercise in detection (when, you know, it shows up). What he tries to do at Marvel, and why he often fails, is shoehorn this kind of stuff into their existing characters, which works on something like Iron Man but doesn’t work as well with some other characters. Plus, because he’s working within a set framework, even when he can write this kind of stuff at Marvel, it feels like he’s bored. But at Avatar, he can indulge his weird fascination with carving up bodies, but he can also write something like this, which is a marvelous piece of short fiction. Yes, this is a roundabout way of me saying that Aetheric Mechanics is a damned fine comic book. Aren’t you glad I’m so long-winded?
We begin the story in March 1907 in London, where Dr. Robert Watcham has just come back from the war. Those history people among you might recall that England wasn’t exactly engaged in a war in 1907, but that’s okay, as this isn’t our world. Watcham has been fighting Ruritania (which is pretty much Germany) and we see on the first few pages technology that was far beyond what humanity had achieved in our 1907. So we’re in a standard steampunk world, where we get a Victorian (or, in this case, Edwardian) setting and outlandish technology. Lots of writers have made this work, and it’s always fun, so we’ll let Ellis take us along. If, while we’re reading the first few pages, we notice something familiar about Dr. Watcham, that’s not surprising, as he soon returns to his rooms on “Dilke Street” and reunites with his old friend, the world’s greatest amateur detective, Sax Raker. Raker looks and talks a lot like Sherlock Holmes. Ellis is writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche set in a steampunk world. Not a bad way to go, if you ask me.
Raker and Watcham immediately get involved in a case, one Raker calls “The Case of the Man Who Wasn’t There.” Apparently a murderer was seen by witnesses to “have flickered in and out of view” while killing his victims. Both victims were involved in the study of, you guessed it, aetheric mechanics, which is how the world manages to have space travel in 1907. According to Raker, “apergy engines and cavorite rotors bend space, and the space impels the craft.” That’s helpful! As Raker has nothing to go on with regard to the murderer, he must concentrate on the reason engineers who specialize in this area of expertise are being killed. So he does.
The case follows a fairly standard Holmesian line, as we meet Raker’s ally on the police force, Inspector Jarratt, and the mysterious woman in his life, Inanna Meyer – Watcham even mentions that Raker refers to her only as “that woman,” which is how Holmes referred to Irene Adler – and Holmes solves the case seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a fine pastiche of the Holmes stories, for what that’s worth. If you think it’s simply a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” book, though, Ellis is smart enough to give us a truly grand ending, one that not only explains the case but also helps illuminate both the world Raker lives in and what is important to him. It’s a breathtaking ending, and comes full circle to something that occurs earlier, when Dr. Watcham is flying back to his rooms. The naval pilot with whom he hitches a ride talks about flying in space thusly: “The vibrations from the spin of the drive arms, sir, and the motion of heat through the casements to space, which is very cold. The whole ship sings quietly, like a gently struck tuning fork.” This is a very nice Ellisian sentiment, and it gives us a glimpse into this world and helps explain what happens at the end, beyond the obvious (and I’m not giving it away, which is why this is difficult to discuss). In many ways, this is a typical Ellis comic. But when Ellis is fully engaged, his typical stuff is dazzling, and this is a good example of it.
Pagliarani has that incredibly detailed art that is kind of an Avatar house style, but I’ve always enjoyed the Avatar house style, and for this book, it’s almost necessary. This is a world of intricate and artistic engineering, and so the comic must look not only like something from early in the twentieth century, but also hyper-modern. The page with the giant robot attacking the town is astounding, for instance. The book looks like it leaped from the pages of a pulp magazine, and it’s wonderful to look at.
If you’re a fan of Warren Ellis, you should give up buying all those Marvel books he writes and give this a try. Even if you’re not a fan of Warren Ellis because you’ve only read his tired Marvel books, this will show you why so many people like him. Aetheric Mechanics is a marvelous comic. I just wish we got more like it from Mr. Ellis.
Next we have Almighty by Edward Laroche (it’s lettered by Jaymes Reed). It’s self-published and costs 10 dollars. It’s the first in what appears to be a series of graphic novels, so let’s keep that in mind.
The back cover of Almighty reads “A girl has been abducted/And a killer hired to find her/And bring her home.” This intriguing premise is actually better than the actual book, which does indeed feature an abducted girl and a killer hired to bring her home. Laroche begins an ambitious tale in this volume, but it’s perhaps too ambitious, as we lose that simple idea and get involved in something much bigger and a little less interesting. Almighty isn’t a failure, especially as it’s the first part of a bigger story, but its loss of focus hurts it.
We begin in AD 2098, which is the first problem. Almost immediately we recognize that we’re in some post-Apocalyptic world. Now, I have no problem with post-Apocalyptic worlds per se (Wasteland is one of the best comics out there right now), but it’s a mileau that can too easily fall into cliché, and Laroche struggles to keep it from doing so. The girl – Del – escapes from an isolated compound but is quickly tracked by her captors. As they’re about to get her, gunshots explode from the wilderness and blow them away. Del’s rescuer, a bald woman named Fale, tells her they need to make tracks.
It’s a gripping beginning, full of tension and sudden violence, and it sets the mood nicely. Laroche doesn’t have a problem writing or drawing tense action scenes. As we move along, we discover how Del was captured, and eventually the rest of the gang chases after her and Fale. We also find out a bit about the world, which has been shattered into anarchic zones through which our heroines must navigate to reach Del’s home. Del learns a little, but not much, about Fale, and there’s a confrontation with an evil creature living in one of the zones that turns people into pseudo-zombies. It ends ambiguously, but that’s to be expected, as it’s volume 1.
The problem with the book is that it doesn’t offer anything new. It quickly turns into a chase with weird creatures thrown in, and although Laroche does a nice job with the action, the actual plot is nothing special. A way around this, of course (as most plots are recycled), is to make the characters compelling, but Del and Fale aren’t – at least they aren’t yet. Del isn’t kidnapped for any reason, just that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We know almost nothing about her, nor who her parents are (or whoever hired Fale). We know almost nothing about Fale either, so the two of them don’t really build a relationship over the course of the book. Fale obviously knows what she’s doing, and she is very protective of Del, but we don’t know if it’s just a job or if there’s something else that motivates her. Presumably we’ll find out in subsequent volumes, but it’s frustrating not getting anything like that here, especially with the expanded format Laroche chooses to work in. The blurb on the back promises a creepy psychological thriller (who is the girl? why was she kidnapped? who is the killer and why hire a killer?) but none of those questions are answered. Fale is a killer, true, but the implication is that she was a soldier – and although soldiers do kill, I doubt if many of us would call a soldier a “killer.”
Laroche does a good job with the art, evoking a crumbling world nicely. The inks are heavy and brooding, and the panels often tight and oppressive, making this a comic that feels like it’s closing in on you, which given the gang chasing Del and Fale and the monster at the end of the book (no, it’s not Grover) is probably appropriate. Laroche has some problems with faces, as Del looks a bit too cartoony to be in this book, but overall, the art, while rough, fits well with the tone of the comic and helps with the building of tension.
I’m not sure if this is Laroche’s first comics work or not, but it’s definitely rough. It has some potential, but falls too easily into predictability and cliché to work well. It is only 10 dollars, which is a plus, because it’s a nice thick volume, but it also doesn’t really make you want to find out more about the characters, which is a shame. I don’t know how many volumes Laroche has planned, but it would be nice to find out more about Del and Fale, which would probably make the book a lot more interesting. As a frenetic chase through a blasted landscape, it’s not bad. But it could be a lot better.
Moving on, we come to Dad! by Scott King, which is labeled as a “documentary graphic novel” (and yes, the exclamation point belongs in the title, confound it!). It’s published by Th3rd World Studios, and as I got an advance copy, mine doesn’t have a price on it. But hey! I checked the web site, and it’s 20 bucks and should have been available on 8 November. So there you go.
Dad! is an interesting comic. King appears on the first page in a photograph, and he tells us that he is indeed a “living stereotype” – he’s 24, is unemployed, lives at home, and reads comic books. But there’s a good reason he lives at home – his father has severe health problems, and he’s taking care of him until he leaves for graduate school. The comic is a “documentary” of the final two weeks of his life at home. In the back of the book, he explains he took over 8300 photographs and recorded 16 hours of audio to make the book. The first few pages are photographs arranged as panels with word balloons (it’s an odd effect) and then most of the rest of the book features the art, which, as King explains, are the photos run through four different filters in Photoshop, then sent to Illustrator, where they were “traced” and then sent back to Photoshop for more tweaking. I’ll get back to the art.
This is a fascinating comic, and its greatest strength is also, conversely, is biggest weakness. It’s almost painfully naturalistic, as much as a carefully manipulated version of the events of the two weeks can be. Much of the book takes place in the Kings’ small house and even more in his father’s – Kevin – bedroom. There are a few asides in the book – King shows us how to pick a hard shell crab and how to make an omelet, both of which are relevant to the narrative, plus we get three separate sections going over Kevin’s life and medical history, which is important – but it’s usually just King and his stepmother (with some cameos by other people) dealing with Kevin. This gives it an immediacy and emotional closeness that makes this a powerful examination of a man falling apart and how his family has to deal with him. This also makes it a bit more claustrophobic than might be comfortable. But what King does is eschew narrative almost completely, so there’s very little arc to the book. We keep waiting for a epiphanic moment, but, like real life, those are often lacking. When it ends, it ends, and we get a brief epilogue in the form of a letter that Kevin wrote earlier this year (the book takes place in 2006) which again offers little in terms of resolution. Does this matter? It depends. It’s a compelling book mostly because of what has happened to Kevin and how King and Kevin’s wife struggle with his orneriness (and he can be ornery), so the lack of a story is mitigated somewhat. But you shouldn’t expect any deep insights into what it means to care for an ailing parent, beyond the fact that it’s really difficult. We could, I suppose, glean some deep meaning from it, as Kevin’s condition spiralled out of control from a seemingly innocuous initial problem and perhaps speaks to a lack of health insurance or the callousness of the medical community, but it does not feel like King is trying for that. He simply turned on a “camera,” left it running for two weeks, and then turned it off. It’s an odd sensation.
The art, similarly, adds to this claustrophobic feeling. As it’s not drawn but photographed and then filtered, it has a very “realistic” feel to it, not in the way artists like Greg Land are “realistic” but in a far grittier way, as King doesn’t smooth out any rough edges and, in fact, makes the finished art rougher than the photos from which they’re taken. It’s not perfect art because occasionally it’s bit too washed out, and the grittiness is often over-rendered, making it difficult to see some of the smudgier corners of panels. Like the naturalism of the story, the naturalism of the art is both a strength and a weakness. It provides no distance from the story, but occasionally the closeness overwhelms us.
Ultimately, this is a character study of a man who is confined to bed and isn’t happy about it. Kevin is not really all that pleasant a person, because he refuses to accept the limitations that his health has placed on him. King himself remains somewhat of an enigma, as he stays off-camera for the most part and narrates the story somewhat dispassionately. This is perhaps why his departure is awkward, because suddenly he’s a character in the story interacting with the focus of the book. It doesn’t add the emotional resonance that would wind up the book well, and it takes away from the detachment that King has used throughout. Like the rest of the book, King’s brief appearances (he shows up occasionally before the end) feel strange, as if they don’t quite fit.
Again, all of these criticisms about the book don’t necessarily make it a bad comic. They might, for you, enhance the reading experience. King does a fine job with this, actually, given that Kevin’s condition could make the book overly sentimental or even mawkish. That King stays away from that is a credit to him. Nobody ever feels sorry for themselves, even though everyone is sad at one point or another, and that helps invest us further in the story. We get to know Kevin very well, and it’s fascinating that King, in delving so deep into his father’s life, pulls a nice trick where we feel sympathetic for Kevin without liking him all that much. That’s a bold move, because it is his father, after all. That we can feel all the emotions for Kevin that we often feel about our own parents is the book’s true triumph.
Dad! is far from perfect, but it’s a powerful comic nevertheless. I’d like to thank Th3rd World Studios for sending it to me and point out that on the inside cover it reads that some of the material might not be included in the final version. As I’m not getting into too many specific details, I think I’m safe. King has attempted something rather rare in comics, and has produced an interesting book. It’s worth a look.
Next in the alphabetical queue is Fishtown by Kevin Colden. IDW published this sucker and slapped a $19.99 price tag on it. You can find this on-line, however, if that’s your thing. Despite the fact that I have to spend money for something like this, I really do prefer reading solid books. I’m just a Luddite that way!
The name of the book comes from the neighborhood in Philadelphia where the events take place (here’s a map). In May 2003, four teenagers killed another teen and dumped his body in the Delaware River. Colden takes that event and spins a horrifying tale about the murderers, the victim, and the motives behind the crime. It’s not a terribly pleasant comic to read, but it is gripping, even though it might be a bit too nihilistic for its own good.
Colden sets the story after the teens have been arrested and are being interviewed separately by (presumably) a psychiatrist. He does a nice job introducing the principals – Angelica, Justin, Keith, Adrian, and Jesse – through these interviews and almost washed-out panels conveying information about who’s who. We get deeper into Angelica’s home life than any of the others, but we all learn quickly that these kids are seriously disturbed. Angelica has problems at school and her mother is tired of her using drugs and generally wasting her life, while Keith and Adrian (who are brothers) live with their uncle, who beats Adrian and wants him out of the house when he turns 18. They simply move through life, doing drugs, getting drunk, and, in Angelica’s case, screwing more than one of them. There’s nothing likeable or even all that sympathetic about them – except for the brief moment of sympathy we have for Angelica, who cuts herself and obviously has serious mental problems. Other than that, they’re complete sociopaths, so when they decide to kill their friend for $500, it comes as less of a shock than it might otherwise (well, the fact that the book is based on a real-life case and that we know someone is going to die also lessens the shock, but even so, we’re not surprised that these kids are willing to do this to another human being).
Colden tells the story with a chilling lack of emotional involvement, as he simply presents the kids telling their story. This makes it a much more powerful comic, because he’s not preaching about anything – the facts in the case are these, the book says, and it’s up to us to glean meaning from it. Colden doesn’t even imply anything in the writing (he does in the art, and it’s wonderfully subtle, but I’ll get to it) about why these kids did this. The advertising text on the back reads, “[T]his story explores what led these teens to commit such a heinous crime, and the lasting consequences of their actions,” but what’s horrifying about the book is that Colden does not do this – the kids want $500, sure, but their true motives remain hidden, which makes the comic all the more troubling. What we can infer from the comic is that these kids were simply abandoned by anyone who could have made a difference in their lives, and they saw so much horror in their everyday lives that they simply shut down, turning into automatons for whom a murder is nothing. This certainly doesn’t excuse them, but it’s fascinating to look at the way their lives have worked and what Colden does to implicate others. He does this mostly with the art.
Colden’s art, which is colored like it is on the cover, all yellow tones except for the salmon-colored blood, is wonderful. The yellow gives it a flatness (which I don’t mean as an insult) that adds to the effect of ennui and makes it believable that these kids could do something so terrible, and when Colden does get to the murder, the art becomes horrifyingly intimate and chills us to the bone. What Colden does with the kids’ faces is stunning, as they barely betray any emotion, and when they do, it’s fleeting. It’s as if there’s so much that is horrible for these kids that only the worst things can get through. What is really amazing about the art is the way Colden implicates the adults in the crime. We never see an adult completely in this comic. We see half-faces, cut off by the panel borders at the nose or, in rare instances, showing only an eye. The adults are so aloof they don’t even inhabit the same world as the kids, and although Colden never accuses them, the art implies that the adults are as bad as the kids, but they have somehow learned to live in the world without actively committing crimes. But that doesn’t make them any less guilty.
Fishtown is an uncomfortable comic. It’s a brilliant portrait of evil, one that strikes deep because it’s so familiar. As we work our way through the book, we keep wondering where the redemption is. Colden, however, isn’t interested in that. He’s far more interested in showing how far these kids are willing to go. It’s not pretty. But it is compelling. You can find out a lot about this case on-line, but Colden has done a masterful job fictionalizing it. Check it out! And Master of Comics Tim Callahan has an interview with Colden, as well. If you’re interested.
Phew! More to come, as we head to The Martian Confederacy by Jason McNamara and Paige Braddock. Girl Twirl Comics (Braddock’s own publishing company) published this, and it will set you back $15. We need a break from the bleakness that is Fishtown, and The Martian Confederacy provides it!
It’s strange, because Braddock (who came up with the idea) mentions on the indicia page that she wanted to do a “humorous” science fiction adventure. This is relatively light-hearted, I would say, but that doesn’t really make it humorous, other than there are some clever lines in it. It’s much darker than you might expect, although both McNamara, through his scripting, and Braddock, through her cartoonish drawings, don’t allow it to get bogged down in angst. It’s certainly entertaining, but it’s a bit deeper than Braddock leads us to think from her note.
So what’s the deal with the comic? Braddock describes it as the Dukes of Hazzard on Mars, but it has a bit of Total Recall in it, too (unless you didn’t like Total Recall, because it’s far quirkier and interesting than Total Recall). Essentially, Braddock and McNamara imagine a Mars in AD 3535 that was colonized prior to a disaster that wiped out records about how and why it was done. The planet was made habitable for humans (except for the lack of air, but that’s a key plot point) and became a tourist destination, with the permanent population living in trailer parks and scrounging by under the dominion of a few powerful companies, one of which controls the portable breathing supplies that everyone needs. Oh, and there are several kinds of talking animals and other alien types. Oh, and the money they use is called a “Shatner.” It makes perfect sense in the context of the book, believe me.
In this marginalized world, one man keeps law and order. His title is the Alcalde, and he quite literally makes laws on the spot and then prosecutes people under those new laws. A scientist has discovered a way to bring breathable air to Mars, which will end the power of the corporations. Naturally, the Alcalde doesn’t want this, and soon the scientist is dead and his research destroyed. Of course, if you know anything about this kind of comic, not all the research was destroyed! What would the plot be, if it was?
Obviously, we need heroes, and we get them in Boone, an antiques dealer (who’s not above stealing said antiques to make some money), Skinner, his ursine friend, who runs a local cantina, and Louise, an android. There’s also a girl Boone hooks up with, a belly dancer from Pluto, and a woman who is … well, it’s hard to describe Sally, but she has a split personality that is quite literal. Trust me – it’s weird. Boone gets pulled into the scientist’s death, and it becomes a good old-fashioned action-adventure comic, with double-crosses, threats on the lives of innocent bears, hot android sex (okay, not really, but hot android flirtation!), and sand sharks, who crawl around the Martian desert on stubby feet. Things play out pretty much as we expect (except for the bizarre wedding, of course).
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. McNamara’s script crackles right along, with plenty of wit and wry humor, so even though it’s predictable, it’s a nice story to read. I have a couple of minor quibbles with poor use of apostrophes and some weird thought balloons and omniscient narration, but overall, it’s a good story. Braddock does a fine job with the oddity of Martian life. First of all, the book is all in red, which is a nice touch. The characters are nicely drawn, and Braddock does a good job with the action scenes. Where the book shines, art-wise, is with the trailer trash vibe that comes from the pages. Braddock does a fine job showing us a Mars that is completely unglamorous and rather seedy. This is space travel after the flush of conquest has passed – people are just trying to get by, and Braddock has a good feel for the mundane of life, which adds a great deal of realism to her story of kooky events on another planet. We never forget that we’re on Mars, but we also never forget that people don’t really change much, no matter what planet they’re on.
(Yes, that’s a sentient bear hitting a shark with tiny legs with another shark with tiny legs and then punching a shark in the gills. That sound you hear is Chris Sims’ head exploding with sheer joy.)
The Martian Confederacy isn’t an unqualified success. It’s a tad too familiar for that. It’s a charming, entertaining read, certainly, and McNamara and Braddock even skirt some issues about the dominance of corporations and equal treatment for sentient creatures without getting too far into it. The cover claims this is “volume 1,” but it functions perfectly well as a complete whole. I’m not sure if Braddock has more of these planned, but that’s for the future, I guess. We’ll see.
Obsession isn’t a very good comic, but it’s an interesting failure. Rees tells the story of Clarissa, a teenager who lives with her invalid mother in a spooky house in a small town and dreams of getting out of there, not surprisingly. One night she sneaks out to a party and almost gets run down. The man driving the car, George Simmons, gives her a ride home, and while she talks to him, she decides she’s head over heels in love with him (we never find out how old he is, but he’s at least in his mid-thirties). Later, George Simmons shows up at her house and tells her mother that he knew Clarissia’s father, who left them years ago. As he lay dying, Clarissa’s father felt guilty about leaving, so he sent George to give his estranged wife and daughter $50,000 in cash. Clarissa continues to pursue Simmons, and of course, things aren’t what they seem. Events spiral out of control quickly, and we can figure out the plot pretty easily, even if we can’t see every twist coming.
Rees does some nice things with the story. Clarissa has a vivid fantasy life in which she’s a nurse and George Simmons is the dashing doctor who falls in love with her. As she becomes more obsessed with Simmons, her fantasy life and real life start to collide, to the extent where Rees leaves it unclear if Clarissa is really a teenager or a nurse. Clarissa’s life with her mother is clichéd, but Rees does a decent job showing why her mother has become so bitter and angry. Clarissa’s obsession with Simmons is silly, but perfect for a teenager – she instantly falls in love with him, and acts goofy about it for the rest of the book. But the book fails for as many reasons, too. The writing is poor, especially some of the omniscient narration. We can forgive Clarissa being silly when she writes in her diary and in her fantasy life, but when it’s just narration, it becomes too florid and ridiculous. And although Clarissa’s teenaged mindset is captured somewhat well, her portrayal is all over the map, and it can’t all be explained by being a teenager. Her true problem is never explored, either, so the ending has less impact than it could. It’s frustrating, because it seems like there’s a good character study here struggling to get out, but it’s swamped by a fairly standard plot.
Clemens has some ability, but a lot of his figure drawings are odd. George Simmons looks too big in proportion to the panels, as if the perspectives are off a lot. Maybe it’s the design of the book, because it looks like Clemens is trying to pack a lot into each panel and often Rees doesn’t give him enough room, as the narration threatens to swamp the drawings in some places. Clemens lacks a lot of fluidity in his figures, so they look stiffer than they should. It’s certainly not awful art, but it doesn’t do a lot to help the book, either.
I can’t really recommend Obsession, because although there are some things that work, on the whole, it’s just a pulpy comic that doesn’t do much with what is set up. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it that much either. Too bad!
Slow Storm takes place the day after the Kentucky Derby, as tornado season comes to Oldham County and has an impact on two lives, firefighter Ursa Crain and illegal immigrant Rafi Sifuentes. The title has a double meaning, but the obviousness of the name is the only thing unsubtle about this book. It’s not a comic for someone looking for a big plot or even a deep and meaningful relationship. It’s much more lyrical than a usual comic, and it leaves us without resolution, just a feeling of loss, even if we can’t quite explain why.
Novgorodoff does an excellent job making these two characters full-fledged people without much effort. Rafi is a bit more of a mystery, as perhaps befits his shadowy status in the country, while Ursa fights against her condescending brother and chauvenistic co-workers. When the fire company is called to a barn that has been hit by a lightning strike, it sets the plot – such as it is – in motion. Ursa does something that is shocking and potentially horrific that completely upends our expectations, because we’re unprepared for the certainty of her actions. It’s a desperate act, born of the loneliness she feels in her chosen profession and her distance from those around her. Later, when she’s babysitting the ashes to make sure no more sparks fly up, she discovers Rafi, who had been living in the barn and lost every small thing he owned in it. He was knocked unconscious and ended up under some rubble. Ursa drops him off at his employer’s house, but Rafi, wisely, doesn’t go in. Later, she finds him on the side of the road, so she takes him home and lets him stay the night. He leaves before she wakes, and disappears from her life.
As I mentioned, it’s not much of a plot. Novgorodoff isn’t interested in that. What she does is create this brief moment in time, when Ursa might be at her lowest ebb, and lets her see someone even lower. Rafi doesn’t regret his decision, although he does wonder if he made a better one than his brother, who stayed in Mexico. Still, his life is much harder than the indignities that Ursa deals with, and their brief time together lets her see that. Ursa and Rafi are as tossed about by their environment as the trees and trailers that the tornado uproots, and it’s breathtaking to read the few pages where they both sit and talk. It’s simple conversation with a great deal of subtext, but Novgorodoff doesn’t beat us over the head with it. Ursa and Rafi simply fall into speaking, and it leads to a painful moment of truth for both of them.
Novgorodoff does a great deal through her art, which is magnificent. The watercolors she uses for the weather create a brilliant sense of foreboding, as the sky itself seems to be alive and stalking the two main characters. The scenes on the ground, as it were, are as powerful, as Novgorodoff does a wonderful job with expressions and gestures, especially late in the book when Ursa and her brother Grim are riding in the back of a police car together. Their silence is palpable, and the looks that pass between them speak of a relationship possibly fractured for good. Novgorodoff also chooses to add some whimsical fantasy to the pages, mainly during Rafi’s flashback showing how he crossed the border. He is literally accompanied by Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, who appears as a large, shaggy, bearded hermit. At one point Rafi shows up at the Pearly Gates, where they don’t want him either. I wasn’t sure about Novgorodoff’s use of actual coyotes dressed like men to transport Rafi across the border – do enough people know that’s the term for people who do that? Well, if you didn’t, that’s what they’re called, and so Novgorodoff shows their animal natures. Her use of fantasy elements is an unusual choice in a book so grounded in reality, but it works well, as it makes Rafi seem even more otherworldly and therefore makes his connection with Ursa more profound – if she can find common ground with him, we can find common ground with others whose experiences are vastly different than ours. The truly amazing parts of the book, art-wise, are when Novgorodoff paints full-page tableaux of the countryside, a vast and unknowable living thing in which the men and their horses are dwarfed. They help create the mood of the book and are beautiful to look at, as well.
Slow Storm isn’t for everyone. It might be frustrating for someone who really likes things to happen in their fiction. But it’s a moving work of art, worth the effort, and illuminates simple kindness in a world where there is often little to be had. It’s a story about real people with real problems who are struggling to make sense of their lives, and it’s gorgeous to look at, as well. Novgorodoff has created a fantastic comic, and it’s a pleasure to simply let it wash over you.
Finally, another comic I received in the mail recently (even though the letter that accompanied it was addressed to Brian) is Tiny Life: l)a by Nick Jones, who wrote it, and Nicolas Colacitti, who penciled it. This was published by Sliver, Ltd. and costs $9.95. I saw it in Previews recently, so it’s coming out, but I’m not sure when.
Jones has no problem with self-confidence, as his web site proclaims that Tiny Life is “destined to be one of the greatest comic stories ever told.” I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but I will say that Jones is amazingly ambitious, as he writes in the introduction that he has ten volumes of the book planned. That’s something!
The problem with planning for ten volumes is that this first volume feels truncated, as it must. That doesn’t make it bad, necessarily, just incomplete. Given that this is a tiny little comic that’s self-published, it might take another 30 years before the whole thing is out. As frustrating as that must be for the creator, think of the readers! How frustrating must it be for the poor readers!
It’s a shame, because l)a (the subtitle is explained, trust me) is a decent introduction to Jed, that stick figure dude on the cover. Jed is an orphan, which is important, and an OCD sufferer, which is also important. The crux of the story, as we learn toward the end of the book, is that his father had a huge secret and Jed needs to deal with it. It’s an interesting secret, and it informs a lot of how Jed lives his life. At one point Jed narrates, “We focus on the details because the big pictures hurts,” and this is a perfect summation of his obsessive-compulsive disorder and why he doesn’t want to know more about his dad. He comes across several characters who knew or knew of his father, and they paint a portrait of who he was and what he meant to them, and Jed doesn’t seem to know how to handle it. This leads him, in a vicious cycle, back to things he can control, and it leads to an absolutely chilling final page. Jones isn’t the greatest writer, and that’s evident for much of the book, but plot-wise, it works, and the ending is a good springboard to the rest of the series.
Colacitti’s art is interesting, too. There’s nothing flashy about it, but he too concentrates on details that flesh out Jed’s world. When we see the world through Jed’s eyes and how his OCD manifests in his mind, it’s disturbing partly because it’s so mundane. He does a marvelous job with facial expressions, especially on Jed, who is, after all, a stick figure. Jed has no body language, so Colacitti concentrates on his face, and as Jed isn’t all that talkative, we get a lot of his inner turmoil from his face. The fact that Jed is a stick figure is fascinating, too. It’s part of this idea of obsessive-compulsion, of paring away everything that is unneccesary and leaving only the essence. Jed wants order in his life, and as we see when he looks at his foster parents, they are examples of entropy (as we all are). Jed is “perfect” in that he has no sagging skin or large waistline or atrophied muscles, and it’s a nice effect in the comic.
Tiny Life is a tad verbose (look at me, calling the kettle black), as Jones overdoes it just a bit on the internal narration. The worst part of the book is that there are several letters relating to Jed’s parents, and those are a tough slog to get through. I’m not really sure how Jones would convey the information, but he probably could have cut them down a bit. Plus, they’re literally difficult to read because of the font Jones uses. The internal narration, though wordy, is a relief from the letters, and although the writing isn’t that great, it does help build up a picture in our minds of Jed’s struggles, and it pays off on the final page.
I appreciate Jones sending this to me, because it’s a decent comic that deserves a larger audience (Jones might have confidence in his writing ability, but he doesn’t have a lot of confidence in getting this to a large audience, as he explains on his site). Tiny Life is a far more complex work than we might think, and Jones does a fine job establishing the premise without giving too much away. I wish him the best of luck with this, and I hope we get to see more volumes before I’m old and gray. Check out Jones’ web site for some preview pages and more information!
Man, that’s a lot of comics. Let’s review, Cronin-style!
Aetheric Mechanics: Good alternate-world Sherlock Holmes pastiche from Ellis. Definitely recommended.
Almighty: Interesting set-up but not quite successful in the execution. Slightly not recommended.
Dad!: Flawed but interesting. Slightly recommended.
Fishtown: Brutal and horrifying, a true portrait of evil. Definitely recommended.
The Martian Confederacy: Entertaining action comic with some social commentary. Recommended, although it’s familiar.
Obsession: Interesting story that doesn’t come together well. Not recommended.
Slow Storm: Moving and poetic tale about two damaged people sharing a deep moment. Definitely recommended.
Tiny Life: A rough effort, but it gets better as it goes along. Recommended, although it has some flaws.
There you have it! Some big chunks of comics for your reading pleasure!
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