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Despair and Hope in “Borderx”

BORDERX

CONTENT WARNING: This graphic novel covers the human rights violations of migrants imprisoned in ICE detention centers. This includes scenes abuse, starvation, neglect, physical violence, and racial slurs, many of which involve children.

SPOILER WARNING: There are spoilers minor and major ahead.

DISCLOSURE: A copy of BORDERX was provided for by a contributor.

Publisher: BORDERX Publishing
Editor and Producer: Mauricio Alberto Cordero
Project Assistance: Roel Torres
Design Assistance: Adriana Cordero
Story & Art: Various Artists


Comics can be more than just escapist entertainment. I don’t just mean the dark, gritty “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” kind of stuff, although I do enjoy a good bit of sex and violence in my panels. Increasingly, the medium has been used to tell real stories about real people. Whether it’s autobiographical comics such as Spinning and Fun Home, or historical comics like Maus or Big Black: Stand At Attica. Many of the latter aren’t just good stories. They provide context to important moments in history and can inspire a sense of urgency to continue on the good fight against racism, homophobia, police brutality, and so much more.

BORDERX is a charity anthology about the current crisis of the injustices against migrants here in the U.S. The goal as stated by publisher and editor-in-chief Mauricio Alberto Cordero is to educate readers about the border crisis and raise money for charity. Not only that, but Cordero hopes to make the focus on the migrants themselves, paint a human picture of them that reminds everyone that these are people–not criminals–who deserve rights and respect.

The cover to this anthology shows a red skeleton approaching a border. This should make it clear the position the anthology has on the crisis. The contributors are not fans of ICE, the Border patrol, or the American government. These groups are clearly placed in the wrong, sometimes artists interpreting agents as vicious dogs or eldritch abominations. If you’re coming into this book hoping for a pro-ICE stance or “both sides” deal, well I suggest you look elsewhere, preferably here:

True Story Behind the 2016 Election Dumpster Fire GIF

However, I must comment that the cover does not set a clear tone. The design here induces dark feelings. It’s a forewarning to content that will be unsettling. Certainly, it is. I would argue though that a cover should clearly match the tone of its content. In that regard, BORDERX is a mix of both darkness and light, something the cover fails to capture. Yes, there are stories in here about horrible human rights abuses, but it also includes hopeful and educational ones as well. Having a cover that reflects only half of your content is insufficient.

I appreciate the anthology’s clearness of intent. There are no meaningless apolitical platitudes found here. It also provides important context to the reader. Introductions by Senator Jeffrey A. Merkley, Warren Binford, and Michael Garcia Bochenak describe the poor conditions migrants experience in the ICE detention centers, the brutal and traumatizing practice of separating families, and the subsequent public responses. From there Cordero chimes in to layout how the anthology addresses the crisis, namely through 5 segments, each with their own purpose:

  1. The Exhibits — views on the border
  2. The Responses — profiles of people and organizations helping migrants
  3. The Context — personal accounts of people whose lives have been touched in various ways by the border crisis
  4. The Ruminations — fictional allegories and satire
  5. The Posters — art pieces

BORDERX is clearly an anthology with lofty goals, clear intent, and what looks like a well thought out plan. Unfortunately, I found the execution to be mixed. Starting with the Exhibits section, there is a conflict between Cordero’s stated intent and the content provided. When he described this segment as “views on the border”, I imagined it would be a series of experts giving their thoughts. Instead, it’s a collection of comics illustrating various accounts from migrants in the detention center. This is not a bad thing. These stories are the meat and potatoes of the anthology. However, it is disappointing that Cordero wrongly stated what the Exhibits would be about when he started off with such a clear plan in mind. I know this is nitpicking, but a work like this tackling such a serious subject matter cannot afford muddling its intent.

As for the comics themselves, these are easily the best in the anthology. Each of the stories are real life declarations from detainees provided by Project Amplify, an organization dedicated to collecting and making their stories available to the public. The creative teams do a fantastic job of transferring the declarations into the comics medium. They all follow the usual formula of filling panels with images and narration captions that correlate with one another. The visuals all vary, ranging from presentational to expressionistic, realism to surrealism. There are even styles that resemble children’s cartoons, no doubt a purposeful subversion to highlight just how horrible these events are. I can’t say that every comic is a work of art, but each one does accomplish its goal of bringing to life the detainees and what they went or still are going through.

The Exhibits is also the most difficult part of BORDERX to read. The stories are brutal. The detainees live in freezing cold buildings, locked up in cages. There are insufficient supplies, terrible food, not enough beds and blankets, insufficient medical care, limited if any times to bath or brush teeth, sickness, abuse and neglect from ICE staff, lights kept on all day and night, and the detainees have no idea what their rights are or what will happen to them. All of these accounts are from children, including newly born babes. Just imagine being separated from your parents and forced to live in these conditions, constantly treated like dirt. These aren’t even all the stories, or even the worse ones.

Reading the Exhibits boiled my blood. An anger that lay dormant from when I, like most Americans, learned about these abuses rose in me, tenfold this time now that I had faces to associate to all those poor children. Which is a good thing. This visceral reaction I experienced should be the end goal of illustrating these stories. Probably the best piece is “Eisegeis” by Lee A. Gooden, Rod Jacobsen, and Dan Demille. It interrupts the regular flow for scenes of two roommates watching the story being told from a T.V. It’s in the point-of-view of the more sympathetic viewer, and a meta challenge to the reader not to forget what is happening here. Outrage and empathy is not enough. Those feelings must fuel action.

The Responses is the shortest segment of BORDERX, and the most consistently educational. We learn about important individuals and organizations supporting migrants. I was surprised to see Peter Kuper in here. For those of you who don’t know, Kuper is a critical-acclaimed indie comics artist, probably most known for his work on MAD Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy”. He is easily the best artist in his anthology, and I couldn’t help but experience delight as his cartoon animals explained migration law.

Throughout the Responses, I learned about organizations like Safe Passage Project and the Southern Texas Human Rights center, how they help migrants in various ways. I found this not only educational, but also uplifting. After reading about all the abuse in the previous segment, it was important to know about people actually helping immigrants. Links to these organization’s websites are also provided, which is a great way to encourage readers to continue educating themselves long after they’re done reading.

As much respect as I have for this segment, there are deeply flawed pieces. “Crisis in Clint” is about Warren Binford, an activist who helped Project Amplify collect declarations from detainees. It’s an inspiring story, but one told with choppy progression that left me feeling like there was information lost. I get a strong feeling that the creative team struggled to decompress her story properly. I can’t imagine that it was an issue of page limit. Kuper‘s comic gave a clear picture of the Safe Passage Project with 15 pages, and there pieces that tell their narratives with as little as 4. Another piece, “Anime Blue” by Paolo Massagli, is not very educational despite being about Open Arms. It’s an NGO (non-governmental organization) dedicated to search and rescue at sea. I didn’t learn any of that until I googled them. The only thing you learn about them is their name alone.

It’s a shame because the comic itself is amazing, a work of goddamn art I would even argue. It’s a wordless tale about a drowning baby that is lifted to the safety of the surface by the spirits of dead migrants. The visuals are profound in both their beauty and melancholy. I had quite the emotional reaction, tears of both grief and joy running down my facee.

Issues with the anthology continue onto the Context segment, not so much of quality as organization. These are supposed be personal accounts from people whose lives have been touched in various ways by the border crisis. The pieces I read are split between autobiographical and historical. Yes, they do give context to the border crisis, but not in a way completely accurate to Cordero’s statement.

Let me just start off by saying that these pieces are fantastic. “As Long As They Come Here Legally” by Phoebe Cohen and “Cynthia” by Roel Torres tell the stories of how their families immigrated to the U.S. under legally dubious circumstances. If they didn’t, they would have been dead, something they hold in common with many migrants in those horrible ICE detention centers. These pieces challenge the reader to think about their own families. Many were immigrants as well, and probably had to do what was necessary.

The historical pieces talk about various immigrant crises throughout American history. “…But It Does Rhyme” by Paul Axel, Craig Florence, Alvon Ortiz, and Jerome Gagnon features a different atrocity committed against migrants and indigenous people by the American government and our military. The Trail of Tears, Japanese-American internment camps during WW2, the list goes on. Each and every one of them shows how we were tied to a migration crises, and how we only made it worse by responding not with compassion but violence. What is going on at the ICE detention centers is violence, cold and sadistic. And the sad part? It seems to have always been that way.

Other pieces in this segment don’t seem to fit at all. “Dora”, for example, reads more like the stories from the Exhibits. It’s also the worst written. For some reason, the writer tried mixing English and Spanish together, which makes for a reading experience that is choppy and often bewildering. Actually, to be quite frank, the entire organization of the Context is messy. Even the good pieces I find should have been put in different categories from each other. It would have made the segment much stronger.

The Ruminations is by far the worst part of BORDERX. The comics here approach the border crisis by using genre fiction as an allegory, kind of like The Twilight Zone. Despite me liking a lot of the art, the stories are mostly half-baked ideas with mediocre writing. For example, there’s one story that tries to take the monkey’s paw concept into a new direction, only for it to be a confusing, repetitive slog. Given how much the editing in previous segments was superior, I do wonder if time was running out on the deadline and the publisher had to make do. Cordero does mention all the contributors worked on a tight schedule.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t good pieces. “Rose Colored Glass” by Sal Fitzgerald and Raymond Griffith is a post-apocalyptic scenario where apparently there are certain people in America denied the permission to breathe oxygen, so they must wear these helmets that look like old scuba gear and not take them off or their heads explode. The world-building is vague and the whole concept in of itself is ridiculous, but it’s the most successful in using genre fiction as an allegory for immigration.

The most irritating of them all is “Sink?” by Tom Hart. It’s stylized as a newspaper comic strip, starting off with a guy going on an incoherent rant, then the whole thing cuts to a bunch of guys on boats. They rant as well, but are more coherent, mostly just about how unhappy they are with their marriages and jobs. Every now and then, a scene of war, floods, and other horrible events interrupts the rambling. This whole comic is a ham-fisted attempt at tut-tutting first world problems while the real problems are happening elsewhere. It’s not righteous or supportive. It’s cynical and condescending. Yes, it’s framed as a bunch of privileged men acting like their privilege is the worse thing ever, but I too often see people with ADHD, depression, and anxiety get swept under the same vague umbrella. It’s not about actually caring about real issues, but smugly showing off a sense of moral superiority.

The best piece is “Silence” by Dean Westerfield. The art style is an underground, black-and-white style without much of the stylistic grandeur as other comics in the Ruminations. However, it also has the most impact. It’s dialogue-less and interlaced with passages from Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence to Language and Action”. A woman wakes up early, tired and old. After getting her kids off to school (no father in sight) she has to work, her facial expression growing increasingly melancholic. Turns out she is a janitor at one of the ICE centers. She cleans up while passing by all those cages full of children sleeping on floors. At the end of the story, the Audre Lorde passage ends with this observation:

There is so much you can observe about this comic. Are we to judge her for not speaking up, or should we consider there are reasons she can’t? After all, we don’t know much about her other than being a mother of two small children and working a janitorial job. That’s not someone with a lot of options to rebel. She could be an immigrant herself and scared to speak up. The message about silence being deadlier than indifferences rings true while not judging her coldly, and I appreciate that. It should say something that the most effective piece of fiction in the Ruminations doesn’t rely on genre as an allegory.

Which isn’t me saying genre fiction can’t work as an allegory. Classic works such as The Twilight Zone, 1984, and Aesop’s Fables proves that it can. The problem is that if you put those allegories in the same book as the real life atrocities, they will always pale in comparison. Personally, I would have taken the material at hand and done two separate anthologies. The first would be the real life stories from the Exhibits, the Responses, and the Context; the second could be the allegorical stories in the Ruminations, and in both you could give the contributors more room to make their stories better.

The Posters is the last segment, and it’s top quality! The point here is to use the artform of posters to make commentary, much like the WPA era. This commentary ranges from the strength and beauty of migrants to ICE brutality to satire. Some of these posters are one page comics, a particularly brutal one by Donna Barr that shows the different reactions between Germans learning about the concentration camps and Americans finding out about the detention centers. It is incredibly chilling.

All in all, BORDERX is a mixed reading experience. On one hand, its lofty goals are muddled by issues of organization and quality control. It should have been either shorter or split in two. With that said, it does succeed in educating the reader about the border crisis. Most importantly, it recognizes the humanity of the detainees, reminding me that this is an issue that I and every American have to continue fighting for. We can’t be so naive as to think that just because Donald Trump is out of office, we can rely on his Democratic replacement to fix it. After all, this is an issue the American government on all sides has been contributing to for centuries.

The electronic PDF version includes bonus material, which I do encourage you to get because it’s all spectacular. Probably the best piece is this one:

This is the future we should be fighting for, even when we’re not at our best.

NOTE FROM REVIEWER: I apologize for not being able to talk about all the contributors to the anthology. Whatever my opinion of each individual work is, I recognize and respect how hard you all worked on your comics.

Available at Amazon

You Can’t Bring Work to Home In “Bliss #2”

Bliss #2 - cover

So, Bliss #1 acted as an introductory issue. You met the main characters, you got to know the setting of Feral City, and that Lethe, Greek Goddess of Oblivion, plays a huge role. Although, issue one mostly focused on the villain hero, Benton O’Hara, and his backstory. Our narrator is his son, Perry, desperately urging a courtroom full of people who, rightfully, want Benton dead for murdering their loved ones. The central theme of Bliss is Forgiveness, and I felt that was a hard sell given both the lack of information and heavily biased viewpoint. I concluded my review on a positive hope, expressing hope that future issues would complicated both whether Benton deserves forgiveness and the Lethe mythos which were only slightly mentioned.

I’m happy to report that Bliss #2 does succeed, mostly, on the former while dropping more hints on the latter. First though, let me talk about Caitlin Yarsky’s art. If you read my previous review, it should come as no surprise how excellent it is. The trademarks are all on display: A detailed gothic aesthetic, fluid motion, unique character designs, invocative body language and facial expression, and ornamented panel layouts that effortlessly decompress the narrative. I think all of Yarsky’s best qualities can be summarized by the very first page. 

Bliss #2 - image 1

Just marvel at how the oasis is both extremely detailed, yet maintains organic fluidity. The color choice invokes a deep supernatural feeling, its radiancy both alluring and intimidating. The silhouetted figures below are placed in a way where they aren’t overlooked, yet still show just how massive this structure is. This image alone should convince you of the overall quality of the art. 

Even with the familiar hallmarks, Yarsky still manages a few new surprises in her bag of tricks. In one scene, for example, Benton is waking through a tunnel and starts having visions. They start sweet and idyllic, him and his family together, happy. This is Benton’s guiding light, a reminder of the greater good he’s sacrificing his humanity for; a point made more explicit by Perry’s narration. But the visions soon turn dark. They become memories of all the people Benton’s killed. No matter how far he runs, every monstrous act he’s committed follows him. The nightmare doesn’t stop until he drinks more Bliss.

Interestingly, these memories are presented as emerging from eggs similar in color to the orbs from issue #1, and just as grotesque. I’m not sure what the shape of an egg is supposed to symbolize, but it sure does look cool and shows without telling that Benton is haunted by guilt. This also suggests that, perhaps, the effects of Bliis are not permanent. In the story, Bliss is supposed to be a drug that wipes away dark memories. The three reptilian humanods whom serve Lethe utilize this drug for witnesses or, in Benton’s case, to keep his mind at ease. It’s how they keep Feral City under their control. Ignorance is bliss, right? Or maybe not so much. 

It’s a nice way of visual world-building strong enough to imply without spelling it out. Clearly, the storytellers trust the reader to come to their own intrepretations. It’s now a matter of keeping an eye on how this develops, whether or not it has bigger implications later down the road.

Bliss #2 - image 2

The images of this scene are so strong, they are enough to communicate to the reader how Benton feels guilty. This doesn’t make Perry’s narration unnecessary though. What better way to argue that his father wasn’t a heartless? It’s certainly significant to the main theme of Forgiveness, but I’ll save that discussion for later. 

Another neat trick that Yarsky pulls, one that I hope doesn’t go unnoticed, is her use of micro sequentials. There’s probably a better term for that, but what I mean is decompressing seemingly simple actions that, as a result, makes movement appear gradual. Usually, these are done with 3-4 panels and put a lot of emphasis on seemingly mundane actions, yet because of their gradualness it builds up a strong emotion behind them. Whether that be happiness or guilt, the impact is felt, not like a ton of bricks but more of a gentle wave. I think how it’s formatted into a page, as smaller panels comparative to the rest, is what makes it so deceivingly effective. It just goes to show how the small moments matter as much as the big ones.

Bliss #2 - image 3

With that, it’s time to talk about Sean Lewis’s writing. First off, I want to address how one of the major criticisms I had for issue #1 is not just improved, but also the best part! When Mable O’Hara, Benton’s wife and Perry’s mother, was first introduced, I initially felt disappointed because my expectations were high given Lewis and Yarsky’s previous series, Coyotes. However, in this issue, Mabel becomes a fully-fledged, active character. It all starts with an argument between her and Benton. 

Benton comes home after another assignment and, while talking to Perry, has a mental breakdown, and he runs off. A little later, he comes home and Mabel is waiting outside for him. She is pissed off.  It’s not because of him running off though. Mabel knows Benton is hiding something from her and wants to know what. The way she delivers this interrogation, still loving Benton while not having his bullshit, is simply badass! Lewis’s writing is so poignant, and Yarsky’s body language equally so, that if Mabel were an actor, this would be an Oscar-winning performance. By the time she delivers her ultimatum, I was fist-pumping the air. This is my favorite scene in Bliss #2 and, honestly, I would rank it highly based off of this scene alone.

Bliss #2 - image 4

 

The only criticism I have is that there are minor formatting errors. For example, there is a balloon where the dialogue is slightly off to the right instead of the center. It’s easily overlooked though, certainly not the massive eyesore I’ve seen in some comics with regards to lettering.

Image

God, I get a panic attack just looking at that page.

Anyway, for the most part, the characters are all very well-written and consistent. Benton is the conflicted murderer that just wants to provide for his family. Perry is still the faithful son trying to save his father’s life. There is an outstanding side character, one of Benton’s victims. Despite her brief existence, she is a fleshed out character, an activist risking everything to bring down the corruption in Feral City. I couldn’t help but feel so compelled by the gusto this woman had even in the face of death. It just goes to show you how memorable a side character can be. 

So, technically, everything is all well and done, right? That’s great, but the real meat of Bliss #2 is the theme of Forgetting. Going back to the opening image of a bizarre tree, Perry narrates how all human societies have a tendency to forget the darkest chapters of their history. There are scientific explanations, but also mythical ones such as Lethe. Next page, Perry continues on his speech, transitioning to how forgetting the past allows us to survive. 

We see an image of a family at Thanksgiving, yelling at each other; pedestrians walking on a street, passing by a homeless man and his dog; people minding their own business on a subway, ignoring a woman begging for change; a group of boys living in squalor, yet they find time to enjoy a ball game. What all of these scenes show is the conflicting reality of Forgetting. On one hand, forgetting can allow us to continue enjoying life. On the other, ignoring the past can cause us to become oblivious of the injustice around us. In Benton O’Hara’s case, it can effect personal relationships too. 

Benton can drink all the Bliss he wants, but it’s not permanent. His crimes re-emerge as haunting visions, which leads to drinking even more Bliss, and I’m guessing that’s definitely not going to be good later on. Worse yet is how this affects his home life. I already talked about his argument with Mable, but it’s also create distance between him and Perry. He may not be abusive, but his sporadic behavior and refusal to tell the truth is still hurting them. It also affects Benton’s relationship with the reader. We want to be sympathetic because we know the circumstances of why he is a murderer. At the same time, though, the aftermath of Benton’s actions make that sympathy uncomfortable if not completely burnt away. 

Bliss #2 - image 5

Another major criticism in my review of issue #1 was how the narrative is seemingly biased toward Benton, not giving the other side of the equation–that of the victims–as proper representation as Perry’s. It made the central theme of Forgiveness seem too one-sided. However, issue #2 complicates this by making Forgetting complicated as well. We are shown one of Benton’s victims, we get to know her; we see how his actions affect his family, and how self-destructive he has become. Yes, you can make the argument that Benton is enslaved to servants of Lethe, but that doesn’t mean he is guiltless either. 

Whether or not Forgiveness is completely out of the question, Bliss #2 makes the answer uncertain. We can forget the past, but that doesn’t make the atrocities go away. We cannot just ignore their consequences. Eventually,  they come back, repeat themselves, and nothing gets better. We do not forgive. We do not move on. 

Sean Lewis flawlessly explores this theme of Forgetting in such a riveting way that doesn’t feel forced. It comes out naturally, allowing the story to be entertaining and trusts the reader to ponder the deeper implications. I mean, that is what I did just now. Maybe it is all gibberish, but the fact I had such profound thoughts should proof how Bliss, much like all of Lewis’s comics, inspire me to think critically. This is the kind of comic I want to read.  

The last thing to bring up is the world building. Much like the first issue, Bliss #2 has sprinklings of it, mostly visual, mostly visual ones. The suggestion that the effects of Bliss aren’t permanent, how Bliss is a known drug throughout Feral City, that the servants of Lethe fully control, and, to a larger extent, use it to control the city itself. There isn’t much else concrete until a twist at the end, which I’m not going to give away because it completely turns the tables of the story. All I will say is that things are about to rev up pass eleven. 

Much like the previous issue, this one is more focused on Benton and his family. The larger threat of Lethe and why Feral City is such a big part of her plot to destroy the world, is still just finally boiling up. As much as I enjoyed issue Bliss #2, that the barrel needs to go off on this powder keg. We understand enough about our main character, let’s have something happen. Let us explore the interesting ways the mythology of Lethe is implemented into the narrative. 

Bliss #2 manages to be a terrific follow up to an audacious debut, expanding upon every element introduced previously. Where this goes in the next issue, I have no idea, which is exciting. If the ending is any indication, Hell is coming to Feral City, and no one will remain blissfully ignorant for long. 

Story: Sean Lewis Art: Caitlin Yarsky Publisher: Image Comics
Purchase: comiXologyKindle Amazon

 

   

In “Bliss” #1, Redemption Is A Hard Sale

Bliss #1 title cover

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! IF YOU DO NOT LIKE SPOILERS, GO ELSEWHERE!

CONTENT WARNING: There is a lot of discussion of some heavy topics in this review, including suicide, mass murder, and abuse. You’ve been warned.

After being disowned by their families, Benton O’Hara and his pregnant wife Mable move to Feral City. The metropolis lives up to its name with rampant crime and corruption. The last place you would dream of raising a child, and yet the young couple make it work. That is until their son, Perry, falls ill. Unable to pay the exorbitant medical bill, Benton turns to working for three reptilian humanoids who control Feral City. They make him into a hitman, easing him of the guilt with a drug called Bliss that wipes away unpleasant memories. Years later, Benton’s crimes have caught up with him. The families of his victims want retribution, but Perry, now a young man, is desperately trying to change their mind. Lethe, Goddess of Oblivion, is coming, and only Benton can stop her.  

Okay, full disclosure, I was very excited that Sean and Caitlin were collabing again. Their last book, Coyotes (which is also from Image) is one of my favorite series of all time. It criss-crossed feminism, lycanthrope mythos, and body horror in a glorious grindhouse story full of action and gothic art. It’s like a hybrid of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  So, I have to admit a little bit of fanboy bias on my part, but I’m still a professional critic. Out of respect for Sean and Caitlin, I’m going to be completely honest about their new baby, both the pros and cons. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on Bliss #1.

The first thing that drew me straight into Bliss #1 is the cover. I mean, look at it. That’s how you make a freaking comic book! More specifically, I love how everything is composed. Benton O’Hara dead center in the foreground, his eyes full of woe, back to the reader except for his head turned toward them. It’s almost kind of sensual in a way. I can easily see our boy here modeling for an Irish Spring ad.  

Then there is the title raised just slightly above his head. Big ups to Caitlin for creating such a bold and striking letter design. Also, there’s a myriad of interesting details around Benton. The lake of black liquid he’s submerged in (which I assume is Bliss); the red orbs floating around him that, honestly, are unsettling given human heads are in them. As for the background, well I honestly don’t know what’s happening there. It looks like a huge dust cloud, so I’m guessing something’s either crumbling or exploding. 

Looking at this cover overall, I get strong feelings of both sorrow and Armageddon. It’s like the cover is warning me that a cataclysm is coming. Don’t know why I feel that, except maybe the fact the main antagonist is the goddess of oblivion. Whatever the case, this cover does an excellent job of wowing me into reading the book. A-freaking-plus! 

The issue opens up to a scene of Benton, old and looking like Yosemite Sam, belly-flopping  into a large body of black liquid. It’s more than likely a suicide. Did I mention those content warnings? Anyway, I can’t praise this page enough. I love how the four white-bordered panels in the center create the illusion of movement in an otherwise static landscape. I also love the choice of a mauvish color palette. It’s calming yet strangely sinister, like beneath the placidity is a dark undercurrent. Makes sense for a suicide attempt. Everything in the scene ties back to Perry’s narrative captions, too. He feels relief knowing he’s an insignificant speck in the universe. However, Perry and his dad are anything but insignificant to the citizens of Feral City. 

The next scene is a two-page spread that gives us a panoramic view of a courtroom that looks like it’s built inside of a cathedral. Up in the balconies and down in the pews are people crowded together, and I have to give more applause to Caitlin here. She drew every individual in this large crowd distinctively instead of making them all featureless cut-outs. There’s yet another brilliant color palette, as well. The yellow is so garish and bright that it captures the intensity of the scene. Perry is all alone, glared down by countless accusing eyes. He’s the only one arguing for his father’s life. Everyone else wants his head on a stake. 

Bliss #1 image A

This is what I love about Caitlin Yarsky’s art. It always invokes a mood and emotional response. I think that’s largely because of her art; it’s Gothic, literally by the definition in arts and literature. You can see European Gothic in the elaborate ornamentation of architecture and intricate, sharply-shaped panel layouts.  You can also see Southern Gothic in her characters. They’re drawn with a heightened plainness: bulgy eyes, disproportionate limbs, and facial expressions so over the top they cross into caricature. It reminds me a bit of Flannery O’Connor’s cartooning.

Illustration

 Even more impressive is that the characters aren’t ugly. These plain, lumpy people integrate with the beautiful architecture around them. Caitlin Yarsky’s art is a contradiction. That’s not a negative. Her style is such a fluid infusion of both European and Southern gothic that it creates worlds and characters that are both gorgeous and dark, enticing and foreboding. Even when she draws monsters, you can’t help but gaze in awe of them. 

Each page of Bliss #1 is executed flawlessly, aesthetically intoxicating while allowing the story to flow free of choppiness. Caitlin is the foundation of this book, essential and irreplaceable. If this series doesn’t recognize her to the industry as one of the great up-and-comers, we’ll be worse off for it.  

So, the art’s fantastic. Whoop Whoop! What about Sean Lewis’s writing? Well, that’s where things get uneven. As a playwright, Sean naturally uses dialogue for characterization. How characters speak to one another tells you the type of people they are, more so than exposition. A good example is Perry in the courtroom scene. He admits to being nervous, his body language only further confirming this fact. However, the love and loyalty he feels toward his father gives Perry the strength to try. That would be commendable if not for the kind of man Benton is, but we’ll get into that later.  

Sean’s dialogue, unique as it is, wouldn’t work without Caitlin’s character designs. Each person she draws is distinct, both in looks and body language. The best character is the one where you can recognize by name, voice, and looks all at once. I never confused a character for another, never forgot a single face. Considering how many comics I read, that’s a feat! 

With that said, there are some characters not as well-defined. Some are intentionally so. From reading Bliss #1, all I know about the three reptilian humanoids is that they run Feral City, serve Lethe, and want Benton to take care of “problem” people. After each job, they give him Bliss to wipe away the memories. I assume so the guilt doesn’t cause Benton to resist. I don’t know how they control Feral City, why they target certain people, or exactly how Bliss conveniently only gets rid of the memories they need gone.  Their ambiguity works though because it makes them scarier and powerful. It keeps the reader on their tones of just exactly what the trio is capable of. Also, it builds up anticipation for the next issues. 

However, there’s also Mabel, Benton’s wife and Perry’s mother. So far, she’s just a passive character, even the beautiful dance scene between her and Benton does more to characterize him. Bliss is obviously a father-son story, but I still can’t help feeling that Mabel is underwhelming, especially after Coyotes offered a superb cast of women and girls equal to the few male characters that appeared. I still think the O’Hara family are great characters. I hope Mabel gets to develop more in later issues. 

Another mixed bag is the world building. Feral City is introduced during Mabel and Benton’s backstory. We don’t see the full city, but are treated to a section of it. Both Caitlin and Sean establish the setting as a whole from this single splash page. Just look at the architecture with all its grit and decay. Combine that with the narrative caps personifying Feral City as a place that spies on you as much as the predators that live in it. 

Bliss #1 image B

We get to further learn just how messed up this place is in the next scene. As Benton walks by hospital rooms, we see. a woman slashed by her partner for trivial reasons, a man drained of his blood on the mere assumption of a crime, and a torturer waiting for his victim to heal so he can further torture him. Jesus in a Buick! This place makes Sin City look like 100-Acre Wood! 

That’s as much as we get to know about the world though. While I admire keeping the reptilian humanoids cryptic, I still feel like not enough was established about the world. I don’t even know how Lethe fits into all this. She’s not even mentioned by name. I only know she’s involved because of the solicitations. For a series compared to American Gods, I was hoping for just a little more of an established mythology. Coyotes #1 did so flawlessly, or at least from what I remember. I suppose it’s a matter of subjectivity.   

Bliss #1 image C

Speaking of subjectivity, it’s time to get serious. The main themes of Bliss are Forgiveness and Redemption. In spite of everything his father did, Perry’s trying to convince everyone to spare him. If they don’t, Lethe will destroy Feral City, and possibly the whole world too. It’s a very interesting twist. It’s also one that’s going to divide readers. 

Issue #1 focuses on Perry’s perspective, and he paints his father in a sympathetic light. He recalls memories of Benton’s love for his family, like when he fought off a mugger to bring Perry oranges while sick in the hospital. He then danced with Mabel to comfort her after getting an exorbitant medical bill. As much as I criticized this scene, I can’t deny how beautiful it is.

Bliss has also been compared to Breaking Bad, and I can definitely see similarities between both Walter White and Benton O’Hara. The thing is Walter White gets steadily less sympathetic during the show’s run. It’s hard to justify his actions when the bodies start mounting up. It stops mattering that he only wanted to provide for his family. By the end, most of everyone, including the audience, has turned on him.  

We already know Benton’s crimes. His downfall has already happened. That’s driven home when we see the faces of all his victims’ loved ones. Their grief and anger is painfully clear. It can’t be blamed on brainwashing. Benton chose to be a killer. Bliss merely wiped away any guilt he might have felt, which he eventually does as evidenced by his suicide attempt. 

Bliss #1 image D

Perry’s perspective cannot erase his father’s crimes. In fact, the focus on one side of the story makes him suspicious at best, and manipulative at worst. Perry does have a reason beyond self-interest. If Benton isn’t forgiven, Lethe is going to annihilate Feral City, probably the rest of the world included. You would think “Forgive my dad or an ancient deity will burn us all to a crisp” is a good trump card to play, but Perry doesn’t. This whole song and dance in the courtroom makes no sense.

Now, I know Sean Lewis. He’s a writer that plays the long game. All the unanswered questions are purposefully left in the air, both to build anticipation for subsequent issues and give time for readers to reflect. He’s a writer that wants to encourage critical thinking as much as entertain. That’s what I love about all his comics. I’m not one of those readers that demands to know everything right away. Hell, I despise that kind of thinking. I’m definitely thinking a lot about Bliss #1, which is why I have concerns.  

Forgiveness and Redemption are clearly themes Sean is tackling here. It even came up in Coyotes, which took the latter half of the series into a wildly new direction from your typical revenge tale. Setting up these themes around a horrendous individual is a daring risk, one that could have a big payoff if done well. On the flip side, it’s potentially a disaster if the bad guy is unjustifiably let off the hook. So far, I’m not really convinced Benton deserves forgiveness because I can’t find justification yet, and I’m concerned the Lethe angle could be a manipulative plot device if nuance isn’t applied. 

I think the reason I’m worried is everything happening in real life right now. If you don’t know, a number of professionals in the comics industry have been outed as sexual predators. This isn’t the first time. It’s been an ongoing problem. Some perpetrators have been reprimanded, but usually only if they become too much of a PR problem. Two camps have come out of this discourse. Those who want justice but also healing and reform, and then those that want no second chances. 

I mostly agree with the former, but I can also see where the latter are coming from. Forgiveness means nothing if perpetrators don’t really change, not if all they’re given is a slap on the wrist. Hell, many times they don’t even get that. I was told once that forgiveness isn’t for the perpetrator, it’s also for the victim, a means to let go and be free of all the hurt. It’s a nice thought. Too bad that same person hurt me worse than anyone else ever has. They weaponized their own advice to get away with it. Since they show no remorse, I don’t feel compelled to forgive them. 

That doesn’t mean forgiveness is impossible, nor that it can’t heal both parties. However, it is a complicated issue, there are no easy answers, and no one case is the same. Also, personally speaking, there are crimes that are just unforgivable. Some villains just deserve to burn, end of story. 

With everything said, I applaud both Sean and Caitlin for tackling these themes. It frustrates me and I question its moral implications, and that’s a good thing. I’m so tired of stories that are unchallenging, that only want to assure an audience’s moral certainty. I want to fight with a story, argue with it, have it dissect me, and vice versa. For that alone, I recommend Bliss #1 on top of Caitlin’s amazing artwork. Whether or not the story succeeds depends on how it unfolds. At least for now, I’m compelled to keep reading. 

Story: Sean Lewis Art: Caitlin Yarsky
Story: 7.5 Art: 10 Overall: 8.5 Recommendation: Buy

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review


 Purchase: comiXology KindleZeus Comics

Stars and Memories: CANOPUS #1-2 Review

CANOPUS - Cover

Canopus #1-2 is written, drawn, colored and lettered by Dave Chisholm, with color flats by Dustyn Payette and production by Kurt Knippel; published by Scout Comics

Helen wakes up marooned on a lifeless alien planet 300 light years from Earth with no memories beyond a hazy sense of extinction-level urgency to return to Earth. Joined by her robot companion, Arther, she explores the planet to find materials necessary to repair her ship. However, circumstances are not as straightforward as they seem: along their perilous path, Helen’s most painful memories return to her, as monstrous manifestations hellbent on her destruction. In this mind-bending sci-fi adventure, Helen’s story unfolds into her past and future, revealing a poignant conclusion that will leave you speechless.

From Scout Comics’ website

Dave Chisholm is a creator who seems to always be pushing new boundaries. Always trying something new, or doing old ideas in new fashions; always trying new genres, and trying new things with his signature art style. More importantly, he always approaches each project with a thematic goal in mind. He’s not just trying to be all style. There’s always a substantial theme that every artistic and storytelling decision circles around in, exploring every corner that he can before bringing it all together in a satisfying conclusion. For Canopus, his first foray into science fiction, Chisholm delivers yet again, this time with the addition of colors and a theme of letting go of grudges. 

Chisholm’s previous work, Instrumental, was black and white and took full advantage of that aesthetic by experimenting with linework, inking, and the whole plate of comic art basics. He did so much to push the boundaries of what black and white comics could look like that he created a unique, experimental, and surreal style of art that was far above and beyond even some of the great comics done in color. It would take too much time to describe it all, so I’m just gonna leave this image here. I think you’ll get the picture:

Instrumental - Image

In Canopus, Chisholm decides to embrace color, and while the heavy amount of stylistic experimentation from his previous book is absent, he more than makes up for it by just how good the coloring is. I don’t know if these colors were implemented traditionally or digitally, but either way they bring an atmospheric layer to the setting. Purples, blues, and the impenetrable blackness of space pierced only by the blaring whiteness of stars really gives that sci-fi feel. This really becomes apparent when Chisholm does both establishing and long shots in his panels. You really get a real sense of scale and a surprising amount of detail on this mysterious, seemingly empty planet. I think a good chunk of credit also must go to Dustyn Payette whose flats keep the colors clear and distinct without losing its character.

CANOPUS - panel layout

Panel layout is probably the strongest element of Canopus. There are, on average, about 7-9 panels per page. However, never once does it feel cluttered. That’s because the dialogue is straight to the point and lettered in a thinner font than usual; Another aspect is the art itself. It’s kind of like European comics, particularly the works of Moebius and Herge, where panels are drawn so that environments, characters, and action are all able to coalesce without a detriment to any one of these elements. You really do feel like you’re on this planet, traversing it with Helen and Arther, and taking in all the wondrous, natural spectacles around you. It’s so much more absorbing than having an avalanche of mindless action and particle effects that clutter the page just to shove as many trademark characters as possible. At that point, you might as well stare at the sun until you’re blind. 

Chisholm goes to great lengths to make his characters as visually unique as possible. Keep in mind, there’s only three so far and some dudes that show up in the flashback scenes, but I can’t help admiring how distinguishable they all are, particularly how looks match up with personality: Helen’s short, slightly spiky hair reflecting her headstrong attitude; Arther’s large eyes and sock puppet body that are characteristic of his childish sense of wonder. Even more detailed are the mysterious monsters that the duo encounters. These things are straight out of nightmares, packed with metaphor, symbolism, and repressed trauma; Freud and Jung would probably be huge fans. They’re scary, really scary. You’ll probably find yourself both terrified and unable to look away just because of how ingenious their designs are. Even if it doesn’t have the same level of madness as Instrumental, Chisholm still brings a lot of surrealism to Canopus.

CANOPUS - Monster

Don’t let me forget the action scenes! Yes, even though Canopus is a highbrow sci-fi with a focus on atmosphere and character, that doesn’t mean our heroes don’t occasionally bring out the kung fu against their psychoanalytical foes. Thanks to Chisholm’s expert panel layouts, these scenes are very well-paced. Blows are satisfyingly delivered with close-ups used to build up anticipation, then pulling back for a medium shot when impact is made. Even though these action scenes aren’t the main focus, it is incredible how Chisholm can do just about any type of scene.

Probably the cream of the crop of art in this series are the two-page spreads. These occur whenever Helen finds a familiar-looking object that triggers a forgotten memory. It can be a doll, a pair of dentures, or even a pair of socks. From these objects, we’re open to the spread:

CANOPUS - Two page spread

These flashbacks are all four pages long, starting with the object that triggered the memory, and ending on them as well. The spreads might seem like a mess, multiple panels of a particular object in descending order, all over the page like multiple packs of scattered cards. However, there is a deeper reason for this. 

In my interview with Dave Chisholm, he told me that the biggest influence on the formatting for these flashbacks was the graphic novel Asterios Polyp by the legendary David Mazzuchelli. He described to me in a scene from that book where the main character has a flashback triggered by a blistered toe, then something in that flashback triggers another memory, and so on and so forth until the memories become a kaleidoscope of sorts. It’s a visual representation of how memory can be processed sometimes, where we try to put together in order seemingly random sights, sounds, smells, and whatnot into an order so we can recollect. Remember that Helen has amnesia, so every time she recollects a lost memory, it probably hits her so hard that she finds herself transported back to the past and relives an experience. It’s sort of like PTSD, although Chisholm also made it clear to me that such a serious mental illness does not dictate the layouts. He is not trying to visualize PTSD. 

What Chisholm does visualize however, is a genius kind of layout to represent recollection of memory that puts the reader in Helen’s shoes. You might find yourself confused at first, trying to find a recognizable sequence of events.It does not take long though and, again, like Helen, you soon figure out what happened, why this memory is so important and even how these events both led Helen to where she is now and how they shaped her as a person. Another part of this is how each flashback has a unique color palette to it. These palettes are restricted to very few colors, usually with the prominence of two certain colors. I’m not sure there is a deeper meaning to these choices, but hey they look awesome and distinguish each flashback so much that the images will stick in your own memory long after you’re done reading. 

Of course, fantastic art on this scale is nothing without a solid story, especially in comics right now where the science fiction genre has taken off so expediently that it can be hard at times to find the sweet bread amongst the stale white loafs. Chisholm gives us the best kind of sci-fi, or really any kind of genre fiction, where the genre is used to explore deeper themes beyond mere entertainment. Paraphrasing Chisholm, Canopus is about letting go of past hurts, and this all starts with the main character. 

Helen Sterling is an obvious protagonist. She is intelligent, strong, courageous, and determined to save Earth from an unspecified armageddon. This makes her the most likely person to cheer for, however at times she’s not always likeable. She can be stubborn, easily angered, and has a tendency to hold onto grudges. The worst of her tendencies come out in her interactions with the only other person…well, “person” on the journey. 

Arther is a highly advanced robot with a special kind of body. It’s not metal but something of a flexible substance that gives him a cartoonish appearance. The comparison that comes immediately to my mind is Fone Bone from Jeff’s Smith Bone. The difference between the two is that Arthur’s main power, at least so far, is the ability to turn his body from that of a toddler to that of freaking Flex Montello by blowing on his thumb. 

CANOPUS - Cover 2

Temperamentally though he is always like that of a child. I don’t mean that he’s constantly in need of attention or guidance. He’s actually surprisingly mature-minded in a lot of ways. It’s more like he has a sense of wonder to the world. He is programmed to look forward to learning new things and having new experiences. He is also intensely attached to Helen, so far as calling her “Mother”. Arther is loyal to Helen and will protect her from anything. 

Which is why it seems odd that even with their very first interaction, Helen is hostile toward Arther. She will dismiss him, accuse him of slowing her down, and at one point yells at him furiously. Also, his reference to Helen as “Mother” annoys her to no end, so, honestly, it doesn’t shine Helen in a good light. At the same time, Arther is not all that innocent. He seems to be holding back a lot from Helen despite her amnesia. If he was really loyal, you would think he would tell her everything. 

Also, it is revealed that Arther is tied to one of Helen’s memories, a pretty terrible one involving betrayal. Helen is someone that throughout her life has experienced heartbreak, loss, and betrayal at every stage in life. It’s no wonder she has issues with anger. In this way, the sci-fi/fantasy elements come to serve the purpose of Helen’s story, particularly the flashback scenes and symbolic monsters. Helen is not just trying to save the world, she is confronting her past. How this all plays out will have yet to be seen in the next two issues. 

There is also an ongoing motif involving plant roots. Don’t know exactly what that is about yet, but definitely keep your eyes on it. 

There are very few issues that I have with Canopus. One is the amnesia plot. I don’t think it’s bad. In fact, Canopus is one of those rare stories where amnesia is used as a proper story device and not a cheap trick. The only issue is how selective it is. Helen doesn’t remember where she’s at or how she got there, doesn’t remember anything about her life, and yet she immediately knows how to communicate with the ship using the correct terminology. Another issue has to do with the manifestation of an important person from Helen’s past. I won’t spoil it, but Helen, with all her intelligence, falls for it. At first, it seemed reasonable enough since she had no idea what was going on, but even after she deduces that the planet is somehow taking her memories and conjuring monsters from them, she still keeps this person around. She shows a lot more suspicion toward Arther. I’m still trying to figure out why she made this choice. 

Whatever flaws there are in Canopus, they are small. This series is two issues in and already shows so much promise. Art full of atmosphere and color, panel layouts that take full advantage of these qualities, complex and characters that are both complex and uniquely designed. The two-page spread flashback scenes are by far the best part of the series, an ingenious art technique that I hope everyone will consider the highlight by the end. How exactly the theme of letting go of grudges plays is yet to be seen, but already the seeds have been placed, and I am confident they will grow into something spectacular. 

Story: Dave Chisholm Art: Dave Chisholm
Color Flats: Dustyn Payette Production: Kurt Knippel
Story: 9 Art: 10 Overall: 9.5 Recommendation: Buy

Dave Chisholm Talks His New Series Canopus

Canopus

Helen wakes up marooned on a lifeless alien planet 300 light years from Earth with no memories beyond a hazy sense of extinction-level urgency to return to Earth. Joined by Arther, her strange robot companion, she explores the planet to find materials necessary to repair her ship. However, circumstances are not as straightforward as they seem. Along the way, Helen’s most painful memories return as monstrous manifestations hell-bent on her destruction. Canopus is Castaway meets Annihilation, with a healthy dose of Phillip K. Dick trown in for good measure! 

–From Previews website

Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of Dave Chisholm‘s. Awhile back, my fellow Graphic Policy writer Madi Butler interviewed Dave about Instrumental about an inspiring jazz trumpet player whose ambition leads him to a mystical horn that may give him masterful skills, but could also result in the end of the world. Ever since reading this masterful book, I’ve been following Dave and eagerly waiting for his next big project.

That last desire has recently come in the form of Canopus, his new sci-fi miniseries from Scout Comics. I had the pleasure of reading Dave’s book beforehand, and I immediately knew this would be on par with Intrsumental and give a medium clouted with many sci-fi stories that just about look the same. I sat down with Dave to discuss Canopus, how sci-fi can be used to funnel personal issues, many of the new bag of tricks he learned along the way during the making of this project.

Graphic Policy: Where did the idea for Canopus come from? 

Dave Chisholm: I had a speaking engagement in Boston. I was sitting on the flight toward it, and at that point I had just a basic idea for the main conceit of the story which I’m not going to give away.

GP: No spoilers!

DC: Right, no spoilers. Basically, I was just flying out and ruminating on some big ideas I had. Not the characters yet, but more the bigger sci-fi stuff. The character ideas stemmed from a deeper place from my struggles of learning to let go of resentment and pain from my past. I had tendencies to hold onto grudges. It reached a point where I was like, “Man, that’s not good for me.” I couldn’t really figure out a way to let go of it, so I decided to take that angst and channel it through the story with a character who is going through a similar issue. That character’s Helen. That’s the basic origin story for this book.

GP: I’m familiar with your first book, Instrumental, and Canopus is a totally new idea, which is what I admire about you. You’re not just repeating yourself. You’re going with something fresh. Instrumental was a surreal urban fantasy; Canopus is surreal sci-fi. What made you want to do that kind of story now?

DC: I’m a huge fan of sci-fi media. I love Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clark, and writers like that. I wanted to throw my hat in and do that kind of hard sci-fi story. One thing that draws me to Philip K. Dick, in particular, is how he will take a really personal idea and filter it through this completely bananas sci-fi setting. He’s trying to understand his own struggles with hanging onto reality or his other well-documented struggles. He uses a book like his own personal diary, therapy, or exploration of ideas for topics that might be a little more personal for him. I love the ability of sci-fi to explore a big concept, like healing from trauma or love or parenthood. Something like that.

I could’ve told a story about someone living in Rochester, New York in 2019 who’s trying to understand the trauma that they’ve been through, the pain that they’re feeling, and that stuff. I think it would’ve been a good story, but I also had these bigger ideas. Why not merge the two together?

GP: Helen seems like the perfect protagonist for your story because she is the type of protagonist you would expect: an adventurous scientist type, but she’s also working through her personal issues from the past. Not going to spoil that because, again, no spoilers. How did you conceptualize her character?

Helen looking over landscape

DC: It boiled down to essentially writing her life story, figuring out events in her life that led her to point we first meet her, then figuring out which one of those life events would be featured in the book. Specifically, these flashbacks that occur from time to time in the story. From there it was sort of, like, reverse engineering it in a way that made sense to who she was as a character, what she wanted, and how she grows.

When the story starts off, she (Helen) is a pretty intense person. She’s very on edge. She’s not a warm or nurturing person. She is very stern in getting things done.

GP: “You’re gonna do this, and you’re gonna do it NOW!!”

DC: Yeah, that kind of vibe. Hopefully the reader will be wondering why she is that way and get a clear picture of her life.

GP: Sympathize with her.

DC: Yeah. As far as what she wants vs. what she needs, and what her goals are–some of those are plot driven, some of those are character driven. Hopefully there will be a nice marriage between the two.

GP: The only other character that exists along with Helen is her companion Arther. I won’t spoil too much about him because he’s so unique, but I want to know how did you come up with him?

DC: How Arther came into the picture is a fascinating story. A lot of it had to do with workshopping with a cabal of editors. For example, my wife, Elise, is an amazing editor. She has the keenest eye for plot holes. I’ll give her something to read, like “You gotta read this!” She’ll read it and say “I just love it…here’s a plot hole”, and I’ll be like “OH NO!”

GP: Oh no! The ego has been pierced!

Arther

DC: Haha yeah! She was so helpful with this project. Thanks to her help and those of my friends who also workshopped it, Arther evolved over time so much. He started as something that was pretty different from what he ended up being. I hate to say this, but one of the last, big revelations for Arther, when I put the last piece of the puzzle in, was quite late in the process, even as I was pitching this to publishers and had a couple of issues drawn. Probably wasn’t the smartest thing. It’s one of the bits in the story that I’m most proud of, too. So, for people working in comics, publishing, working on art and stuff, you should work on it all as you go, like re-examining plot points or anything really. You’ll figure those things out, you’ll find something.

Anyway, Arther turned out to be a great character. His look didn’t really ever change. His look was based on a character I’ve been doodling for years, and he’’s really fun to draw. I really liked the idea of a robot that was squishy and plushy, not hard and geometric. I struggle with those shapes, so if someone asked me to draw a Transformers, I would have a hard time. I think Arther’s design makes him cute and adds to that child-like quality of who he is. Arther’s always curious, always wondering what’s going on, and everything like that.

GP: What strikes me about Arther’s relationship to Helen is how complicated it is. It starts off with her relying on Arther to act as a guide given that she has lost her memory. As those memories slowly resurface though, it turns their relationship into a parent/child kind of deal, except there’s some serious resentment toward the child. Was figuring out that out part of conceptualizing Arther, and does it tie back to Helen’s issues with letting go of past grievances?

DC: That’s a little bit of a difficult question, mostly because the answer would give away too much. I’m just going to embrace the fact that their relationship does get complicated over time as those memories are revealed, and I’m just happy those story beats fell into place.

GP: I’ll move on to a less sticky question then. Canopus, the star. Up until I read this comic, I was not aware that it actually existed. It’s such a unique choice for a setting. It’s not something generic like Mars or creating a phony-baloney planet. You chose something that actually existed in space. Why did you choose Canopus? What is its significance to the story beyond just the setting?

DC: I knew the comic was going to take place on a star that was far away, and, frankly, I just googled star names thinking “Maybe I’ll find a star with a cool name.” There isn’t a whole lot more to it than that. It does sort of tie thematically into the story, again without spoiling anything. I’ll leave it at that.

GP: I noticed that instead of a full-length graphic novel like Instrumental, you decided to make Canopus a four-issue miniseries. Is this your first time doing single issues?

DC: My first series in single issues was a book I did called Let’s Go To Utah! That was self-published from 2007 to 2009. It was a 9-issue series that was done before Instrumental. I did that back in my 20s. I still sell it when I go to conventions, but let’s just say I look forward to when I have enough books on my table that I don’t have to sell that one anymore.

GP: Haha. I get it. Not all darlings are precious. Some you look forward to killing.

DC: HA!

Monster

GP: Another difference I see is that Canopus is in color. Did you know this was going to be in color? Like did you have a deeper reason for that choice? I feel like Instrumental was purposefully black and white because the visuals you put in that book had to be that way. Canopus seems like a book that works more with color and uses it to tell the story.

DC: Right! It’s cool because the story behind that is I got hired to draw a children’s book a few years ago that I don’t think is out yet. It was a really cute children’s book, independent contractor, and it was a very fun gig. I didn’t realize until after I signed the contract that they expected me to color the art as well. My coloring experience before that was pretty limited in terms of the workflow, meaning that it took me a really long time to color a page or an image or whatever.

Over the course of the 20-some illustration images I did for this children’s book, I really learned how to have a good workflow for coloring and just how to color in general. It was really just a great education for me. I’m a real autodidact. I can mostly teach myself, go at my own pace, find my own approach, and always be critical of my own process. I learned from that experience that I really like working in color. It’s super fun and adds this element of storytelling I had been ignoring as a creator. In that moment I was like, “Oh man. I gotta color the next project I do!”

The first project I wanted to get to was a much larger one than Canopus, but I wasn’t in a place with my comics career to pitch it. I sat on it and decided to pursue Canopus instead. With how the color plays into the story…hoo boy, this is going to be a long-winded answer, but the one thing I’ve really learned in music school, like 10 years of music college, is this idea that sometimes crafting a narrative is about what you don’t put into it, like setting up really rigid boundaries for yourself. That way when you do reveal to the reader that thing that’s been missing all this time, it’s mind-blowing.

Let’s say that you have a song and for the first two minutes there are no bass or drums. The listener thinks they’ve figured out the song. “Oh, it’s just guitars and vocals. There’s a little bit of piano in there.” Then come along the bass and drums into the song. It’s like BAM! It’s loud as hell. Their (the listeners) whole paradigm explodes. With Instrumental, I attempted this with the formal structures of the pages. Remember when Tom blows the trumpet, and all of reality is bent?

With Canopus, I’m taking a similar approach with color. I don’t want to spoil it, but it has to do with what is left out and with a limited, more focused color palette to set up a sense of normal for readers. I’m really happy with the way the colors turned out. With that said, I can’t wait to take all the stuff I learned working on this comic and level up with whatever comes next.

GP: One thing Canopus does share in common with Instrumental is surrealism. Although Canopus is more restrained than how off-the-walls, bonkers Instrumental got, there is still some zany elements. The first that comes to my mind are the panel layouts for Helen’s flashbacks. It shows a sequence in linear format, but there are repeated, multiple images of every panel. To me this symbolizes how she processes memory. I want to know what was your thought process in designing those panels?

DC: The first inspiration behind those particular scenes is from the graphic novel Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, if you’re familiar with that.

GP: I know the book you’re talking about. I just haven’t read it yet.

DC: Oh my god. I recommend you read that as soon as possible. There’s this beautiful scene where the character gets a blister on his foot…and the story is that we get present day scenes along with flashbacks, so kind of similar to Canopus is, although I would hate to compare my book to this book because it’s the most genius book I’ve ever read. Anyway, the main character has a blister on his foot, and it opens to this whole sequence where it triggers his memory with an ex, then that triggers another memory, and soon it becomes a kaleidoscopic display of all these different memories about his ex, all surrounding this basic narrative of her breaking a Q- tip in her ear and getting scared as he tries to fish it out with a pair of tweezers.

It sounds like such a mundane scene, but it’s profound with how it associates with all these separate memories that are blinking in and out of this single narrative. So, the memory scenes of Canopus were inspired by that and also pages from Chris Ware books where, like, the way a single object will generate a memory field in a person. Like, when you pick up a favorite toy from your childhood, and all of a sudden you have this visceral recall of the most significant memories around that object. Now those memories tend to be non-linear. I didn’t quite have the courage to do so in my comic, but I still wanted to hit that feeling. I hope the way I laid out the panels is a good stand-in from the fuzzy, more grid-like layouts you see in the “present day” story proper.

GP: I get the feeling that, since these scenes are related to Helen, it’s a representation of her trauma and trying to piece back together these memories, where and when they happened and all that. I do know from reading about PTSD that it can affect memory. I know there’s the concept of certain things triggering bad memories, but also I’ve read elsewhere it can cause emotional distance from them. In a way, does Helen’s amnesia symbolize all that, especially now that all those memories are coming back to her?

DC: I think that this idea of how PTSD works in people is definitely some kind of inspiration, although I can’t say it dictated the layouts. The way someone has a PTSD trigger or an anxiety attack has a more physical response, but I don’t know. Honestly, it’s really hard for me to come down strongly in this book. Her (Helen) character is definitely inspired by the idea of someone going through therapy. It’s sci-fi as therapy though. Inspirations for that are stuff like Russian Doll, Maniac, and The OA. These Netflix shows are, from my point of view, really like therapy in a fantastical presentation. All of those are about people learning to change their mind and reconcile their traumas. It’s just so inspiring.

Toys

GP: Another detail of the surrealism I wanted to ask about are the obstacles and enemies Helen faces. They’re all these twisted manifestations of her memories. Remembering those memories seems to be part of her defeating or getting over them. It’s like the whole therapy thing you’re talking about. I just want to know how you came up with them because each are so unique and utterly terrifying.

DC: Thanks, man! I think that, even in Let’s Go To Utah, it follows a thread of thinking where let’s take this really normal-looking thing and give it a charge of weirdness, like capital-W Weirdness. In Let’s Go To Utah!, my goal was to make this ice-scraper an extremely profound thing. In Instrumental, it’s a trumpet. In one of the very first story beats for Canopus, Arthur falls into this hole or crater on this surface, and it’s full of dolls and children’s toys. That imagery was just so creepy, compelling, and weird. It’s taking the normal, mundane and giving it a profound twist by associating it with something 300 light years away from normal, with symbolism and motifs. It’s an attractive idea to me, and I just hope it pays off.

GP: One last thing I wanted to mention was the twist. I have to say, I’ve never seen a twist this crazy in a comic before! When I got to it, my reaction was “Wait, he went that far?!” I’ll say it, your twist tops even Rick Remender’s twists.

DC: Hahaha! Thanks, man.

GP: Seriously! I want to know how your twist ties back to the theme of the story.

DC: The twist is something I’m really proud of. I’m happy the way it turned out, and I hope readers really get something out of it. If I tried to say anything further though, it would give it away. I’m just going to leave it at that and let everyone see for themselves when that issue comes out.

GP: This is just such an audacious series with a fresh sci-fi story and pulls off a lot of great storytelling ideas. It all comes together and has a very important message to people going through a lot of similar issues, me included. Do you hope it engages your readers on an intellectual and emotional level as much as it entertains them? I know you as a creator, and you always go into a story with something to say. You don’t just entertain, but help, if not enlighten, engage readers with new ideas and ways at looking at things.

DC: Absolutely! That’s everything to me. So, my answer is yes. Definitely yes. I have high hopes that it will connect with people and gets into the awareness of people who need it or can empathize and identify with the story. That’s the goal.


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Meeting Your Heroes…Kinda — A Review “Dreamers of the Day”

Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day created by Beth Barnett

“Immediately after quitting her nine-to-five to pursue comics, Beth embarks on a life-changing research trip to Oxford University. In this bittersweet and beautiful book, Beth delves into the life of enigmatic war hero Lawrence of Arabia, and transforms her own.”

— From the back sleeve of Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day is half a biography and half a memoir about the author Beth Barnett as much as it is about T.E. Lawrence. This is actually quite similar to the much-beloved Maus, but while Art Spiegelman tried to better understand his complicated relationship with his father through the Holocaust, Barnett is learning about someone she looks up to. Barnett isn’t just geeking out though. The journey also allows Barnett to understand how complex Lawrence’s legacy was and have a more mature, appreciative understanding of him. She is able to turn that story into an entertaining comic through an easy-to-read story structure accompanied by beautiful, inviting art that had me feeling like I was on the adventure with her.

The story structure of Dreamers of the Day has two ongoing narratives, both narrated by Barnett. One is T.E. Lawrence’s story: where he was born, how he grew up, what influenced him to become an archaeologist, and why he joined the Arab Revolt. The other narrative is about Barnett’s journey to London, her experience getting there and some of the weird, sad, and memorable things that occur. In one scene, Barnett earnestly asks her husband if she can go to London, and he gives her the cheekiest support ever.

Dreamers of the Day

I rather love this approach because they’re very relatable moments between the history lessons about T.E. Lawrence. Not that those are bad. In fact, they’re quite intriguing and give a human portrait of the man; same with Barnett. I feel like I’m on the journey and learning with her instead of being lectured. It’s fun, exciting, and makes learning about Lawrence something more adventurous than reading from a textbook.

A huge component to making the structure effective is Barnett’s art style. There isn’t a whole lot of details in the illustrations and no coloring whatsoever. The comic is completely black and white except for the front cover. Barnett keeps her style stripped down to basics, portraying her characters (including herself) as bean-eyed cartoon characters that remind me a whole lot of Herge’s Tintin. The style of these characters honestly makes them just as expressive and alive as more realistic artists like Steve Dillon. Even though I said that the art style is simple, that doesn’t stop Barnett from drawing settings that are rich with character, marked by their distinctive cultural architect. Her use of inking for shadow in particular gives these places a feeling of life and age.

Dreamers of the Day

The most outstanding part of the art is that there are virtually no panel borders. Most scenes are compiled together in a sequential collage. If there are any borders, they tend to be organic ones like vines or tree limbs. Without lines or gutter space to box it in, the art is allowed to have leg room to fully form and capture the scope of a scene both visually and emotionally. I felt like I was allowed to be in the scene with Barnett, to fully understand why she loves Lawrence so much. It was an intimate read that gave me the opportunity to understand her love, not just to know facts for the sake of knowing.

So, the art and writing make Dreamers of the Day a functioning book. All well and good. But does it serve a greater literary purpose? Is it not just enjoyable but expand my mind and become cognizant of new cosmic paradigms? Kind of an unnecessarily tall order. Although we’ll see.

Honestly, it took me some time to think about what the theme of the book is. Originally, I would have probably said that it’s about how fun history is and that it takes an adventurous spirit to learn it. That’s definitely one, however, after reading the page below, I realized there was another, deeper theme at work:

Dreamers of the Day

For context, this image comes after her visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. During this visit, she sees many beautiful pieces of Muslim art on display. However, she knows that these items were procured under suspicious circumstances. She explains how this is a common issue in Archaeology, often justified by referring to these appropriations as acts of preservation. There is a lot of moral grayness in the field, although it remains an important one.

Barnett has a similar revelation with T. E. Lawrence. His participation in the Arab Revolt didn’t result in the best outcomes, despite his altruistic decisions. The United Kingdom, of which Lawrence served, would make choices that later resulted in conflict the Middle East faces today. Although Lawrence later denounced the U.K. government and became a pariah, his service to an imperialistic nation is still evident.

In the end, acknowledging Lawrence’s flaws doesn’t damper Barnett’s admiration. It just means she comes to a better understanding of him. The framing of the page above, I think, really illustrates that point. I get a sense of confidence from looking at the back of Barnett’s head. There are, in fact, many pages and images similar to this throughout Dreamers of the Day, allowing an intuitive sense of growth much better illustrated than if Barnett simply declared she had learned something.

One essential detail I haven’t touched on yet is how Barnett looks up to Lawrence as a queer icon. Based off of Lawrence’s personal letters gathered over time, historians theorize that Lawrence was gay. Barnett takes this theory a step further and adds that he was gay-ace. While he felt romantic affection for men, he struggled with sexual intimacy. Barnett is bisexual and identifies as non-binary while going by she/her pronouns. She demonstrates masculine fashion in real life as she does in the comic. Interestingly, she looks very much like T.E. Lawrence.

Before anyone jokes about stalker fans, Barnett isn’t projecting herself onto Lawrence. She knows that they are separate people. However, the LGBT+ community is short of historical icons due to history being straight-washed for many, many years. Finding out that there were people in their community who made huge impacts on the world, for better or worse, is always monumental.

Knowing Lawrence’s sexuality further informs Barnett’s understanding of him as a complex person. The reason he joined the Arab Revolt was his Syrian friend, Selim Ahmed. Lawrence wanted to protect Ahmed and defend his home. Between the fighting, Lawrence took every opportunity to make sure Selim was out of harm’s way. This might seem like a petty reason to fight, but the truth is that human history is inseparable from human drama. We have fought wars, formed nations, and committed acts both grand and grave for reasons straight of a soap opera.

Dreamers of the Day

At the end of the day, Lawrence had the same desires and fears as Barnett or any of us. He was an icon of history yes, but still just a person. People are flawed, including our heroes, sometimes more than others. However, that doesn’t mean we have to denounce them. Barnett demonstrates how learning about a person, not putting them on a pedestal and accepting their flaws, can create a more mature understanding of them. After all, they’re only human.

Except Hitler. He was just a bad dude.

Dreamers of the Day may not be as in-depth as other graphic novels of its kind, but it’s a delightful light read. Barnett’s approach to storytelling is intimate and fun. By the end, the reader truly understand Barnett’s love of Lawrence. This is actually book one of a planned trilogy which hopefully builds upon the strengths of the first and paints an even greater portrait of both Barnett and Lawrence, expanding the themes on display to a satisfying conclusion.

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Terrible Twos: Altar of Pine & Disorder

Sometimes you can’t help but notice that there are similarities between stories. I always find this pretty spectacular because it shows how certain themes and aesthetics can be simultaneously universal and idiosyncratic. Even when they come from separate genres this is true, and those genres themselves could share similarities as well. That is why for this review, I want to talk about not one but two webcomics: Altar of Pine by Cayde and Disorder by Erika Price. One is a historical dark fantasy tale, the other is arthouse horror. One gets its art style from watercolor expressionism and medieval woodcuts, the other is a black and white demon crossbreed between H.R. Giger and heavy metal album covers. And yet, both series are about identity, depression, anxiety, queerness, and a search for a deeper meaning to life beyond struggle. 

Altar of Pine

Created by Cayde

Altar of Pine

In a colonial New England town, there lives a poor fisherman by the name of Alexander. He is lonely, doesn’t connect with his community, and is in debt to the miserly Montgomery. Not even Alexander’s only friend Pritchett is much of a friend. Alexander prefers to get lost at sea and not have to think about life, a certain freedom within nothingness. On one of his expeditions, Alexander is capsized and washes ashore on a seemingly abandoned island. Except for the cabin with strange potions…the totems made from skulls…and the spirits within. 

Altar of Pine is based on heavy research into history and witchcraft. The latter of which series creator Cayde is a practitioner of. Yes, unlike most cases where your mom is wrong about comics, this particular book will teach you the dark arts. If that is not your jam, I suggest you go read a Chick tract. 

The witchcraft hits early when you first go into the comic’s main website and, BAM!, there’s a very polite Satan warning you that there is explicit content in the series. Thanks, Satan! 

Altar of Pine

The coloring in Altar of Pine is done with watercolors. This approach has taken some ground in indie and non-Big Two comics as an alternative to the polished look of digital coloring. For many artists watercolor can give comics a softer, more traditional look. It’s also great for creating surreal and experimental designs. The artists participating in this movement are diverse, from mainstream icon Dustin Nguyen to cult superstar Niina Salmelin. 

Altar of Pine

Cayde’s technique is more subdued than these contemporaries. The first chapter of Altar of Pine focuses heavily upon the sea. The application of blue is grainish and ghostly. It invokes deep feelings of melancholy, the same feeling written all over Alexander’s face. 

This approach, using color to reflect the character’s mental state, is used later in a scene of Alexander’s town. The color choice is a yellow to symbolize the concentration of human life that exists within the village. Traditionally, that would invoke feelings of warmth and security. Alexander, however, feels fear, pain, and isolation as Montgomery and his men ransack his home, and no one lifts a finger to defend him. After the confrontation, a three-panel page shows a three-step transition from the yellow of the village to the green of the forest and, finally, the blue of the sea. 

In each panel, the colors and the feelings they invoke become more melancholy in nature. Yet Alexander’s emotional state improves as illustrated by this image. 

Altar of Pine

Watercolor becomes increasingly experimental when Alexander arrives on the mysterious island. The application of a singular shade in previous pages is replaced with a cabin scene with multiple colors. Not only does it look like how it would in real life, but there is also a feeling of peace and balance. After applying a suspicious green cream to himself, Alexander enters a realm where everything is cloudy and spooky, an unknown territory where anything could happen. The ultimate purpose of watercolor in Altar of Pine is empathy. The reader is meant to feel the same whirlwind of emotions that Alexander is feeling. 

Color also adds to character design. No one in Altar of Pine is a perfectly chiselled superhero or baby-smooth waifu. Nothing against the supes and waifus of the world. Most are middle-aged people with skin issues, gray hairs, and always some kind of belly fat. These characters live in a rough time period and eat some dank-ass food that Gordon Ramsey would need days to spice up. They aren’t exactly going to be in Vogue is what I’m saying. 

Aside from looking realistic, the characters drawn in Altar of Pine‘s grimey fashion also better express their emotions. Whatever they feel, it always gets reflected by the watercolor scheme around them. Sometimes it is an intentional effect, other times it’s a natural occurrence that just seems to fit. It is not trying too hard to make a point of being symbolic. Everything is just so naturally in-sync to the tone of the story that it does not need any extra effort. 

Grimey melancholy might not sound like the best emotion, but I think it makes sense to the story. Alexander is in a crappy position, and his only relief right now is to be alone. This might be when his depression intensifies, but it also might be helpful in unconventional ways.

Altar of Pine

I am not a mental health professional, but I do suffer from anxiety and depression. I have for some time now. Because I’m introverted, being around people exacerbates my downward spiral. When I walk alone though, along the streets, by the side of the sea or deep in the forest, I experience relief unlike any other. My mind clears and I regain a sense of purpose. I don’t want to die, I want to live and marvel at the treasures of the world. Ironically enough, loneliness is the key to recovery.

This is just my own interpretation, but I feel Alexander suffers similar episodes of anxiety and depression. It’s symbolized from the time as he escapes town on a boat to washing up on the shore of the island. As he struggles and makes new discoveries, I can’t help but be reminded by the same feelings I go through during those dark times. While Alexander’s return to the town does not conclude with elation, his desire to tell of his journey shows that, ironically, alienation pulls him out of the depths of despair. 

That’s as far as I can analyze the story. Partly because I don’t want to give too much away but also we are not that far into it. There are only three completed chapters so far, and Alexander has only begun to discover the mysteries of the island. There isn’t much to analyze or discuss from such an insignificant chunk of story. However, it’s enough to keep me reading, and perhaps for those who enjoy a dark fantasy about healing mixed with wonderful watercolor art. 

Disorder

Created by Erika Price

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Where do I even begin talking about this comic? The simple answer is that I can’t because there is so much complexity to it, anything I say will be merely a scratch at the surface. The series’ website describes it as a “series of dark and surreal short horror comics, created as art therapy.” Boy, this must be some therapy because the stuff that goes down in Disorder would make Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Kathe Koje, Junji Ito, David Cronenberg, and honestly any other dark creative drop dead from feelings of inadequacy. 

There are no traditional plots in Disorder. It reads like a series of vivid nightmares accompanied by cryptic narrations and surreal images. Each involves an entity of some sort as it endures pain, dread, and a never-ending struggle for self-actualization. The true greatness of the series is how, in both writing and art, it never fails to be simultaneously unique and signature to Price’s ouvre, and touching upon themes that are universal and esoteric. 

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In Issue #1, the cover displays many key characteristics of the art style: Black and white, heavily detailed lineart, unique patterns, and alien bodies. The story of this particular issue involves ginormous humanoid entities constructed out of cities. Concrete, glass, wires, steel, plaster, skyscrapers, railings, and asphalt twist and bend to shape these behemoths into being. As a result, it causes them great pain, at least that’s what I’m able to deduce. Interestingly, there are onlookers who walk toward the city and become citizens, as though the grotesque terraformation hypnotizes them. The layout for each page consists of large panels, some of them splashes, to fit in as much detail as possible. The effect is a sense of the grand scale of this humanoid city.

The other four chapters have similar stories of humanoids and the pain they experience. While the style remains the same, creator Erika Price varies in themes and execution. In particular, the panel layouts get into some delightful mischief. A good number of them are standard, albeit pushing the boundaries of those standards. Some are straight out trippy, such as in issue #3.

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This issue has heavy organic aesthetics to it, many of the life forms consisting of reptilian, amphibian, and fish qualities. Panels are constructed out of shapes resembling air bubbles and cellular patterns. The entire chapter is quite chaotic much like the biosphere it represents, and yet it all makes a visual sense to the cryptic narrative being told. 

In every one of the chapters, recurring themes of pain, alienation, and subjugation are presented in fresh ways while maintaining running visual characteristics unique to Erika Price’s style. With just a few short comics, she has already proven to be an auteur in terms of figuring out a brand and ethos. This is something that even the greatest artists in history took up to decades figuring out. Hell, double so in comics where, in the past, editorial mandates and trends held back a lot of highly talented artists. Free in the wild west landscape of webcomics, Price does whatever the hell she likes and distinguishes herself in the process.

As much as I have talked about the universal themes in Disorder, there are esoteric themes at work too. Mental illness is a big one. I get a serious sense of depression and anxiety from the comic; those are illnesses I can relate to, so in a way they are still universal even if Price is presenting them esoterically.

One theme that I think is much more esoteric is bodily dysphoria, a feeling of being trapped inside a body that’s wrong. This might be particularly personal for Price given she is a trans woman. Although I am not transgender myself, so I don’t really know what that experience is like. I don’t want to step in and explain an experience I don’t have, so I will avoid going in any deeper. I will just say I wouldn’t be surprised if gender dysphoria is a theme here. If I did offend in any way, I apologize.

That said, the theme of body dysphoria can encompass more than just gender; after all, the two can relate to each other but are still different categories. Diverse people can experience body dysphoria if they feel like something is fundamentally wrong with their body. I’m going to speak from my own experience as someone who experiences this issue because of my weight. Since I am so preoccupied with it, my other issues of depression and anxiety multiply. I repeatedly feel like I’m trapped inside a gross body full of negative emotions, and it can be suffocating. Erika Price visually captures this feeling perfectly with how the humanoid entities twist and bend and break and mutant in excruciating ways. She has captured with the pure existential id of this state. 

Erika Price also captures the pure id of Horror. Now, it might seem presumptuous to attach Disorder to a genre when its storytelling methods defy all traditional notions of narrative, but visually speaking it is pure Horror. Disorder looks horrifying. It is horrifying to read. It perfectly encapsulates everything about the genre and the various forms of media and genres under the tent, from the slimy practical effects of David Cronenberg to the gothic landscapes of black metal. It can’t be denied how Disorder is Horror in its purest essence. 

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Given how much I’ve described the series, it’s still not enough. Disorder is the most abstract, complex, and challenging comic I have yet read. I’m barely able to comprehend it still given I have only read through the series once. I feel like my analysis is just scratching the surface and that smarter critics could dig deeper and find more layers to thoroughly discuss. Simultaneously, I think I’m underselling this comic by merely trying to describe it. Much like Lifemahcine’s Weaker Sides, this is a comic to read and experience more than to analyze. I hope to go back, reread the comic, and relive the experience of the first go round so that my understanding of this peculiar series increases. 

Altar of Pine and Disorder are both unique works of art, radically different in their styles and approaches to storytelling but similarly about mental illness, introspection, and a search for self. There is beauty in these comics’ darkness, one as strange and infinite as the entities of older, darker realms. If you’re looking for dark horror and fantasy stories that will challenge you to explore dangerous worlds and uncomfortable thoughts, then I can’t recommend reading both series enough.   

Art: 10 Story: 10
Recommendation: Buy, er well read ’cause these are webcomics

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Check out Erika’s Disorder

Catians: Resurrection – Review

“When the Great Cat departed this world a thousand years ago, it left behind Relics, which grant divine powers to their users. Cats have safeguarded the Relics for millennia, until a desperate cat revives the ancient magic to save his human friend—giving rise to a blood-thirsty monster with the penultimate Relic. Worried that the disappearance of humans could mean the end of treats and back rubs, the cats of the world must choose three people, so-called Guardians, to find and protect the most powerful Relic. In return, the chosen three gain command of the elements and the ability to take feline form. But unbeknownst to the cats and their appointed heroes, other forces have been watching the Relics, too…”

–From the official Catians website
Catians: Resurrection

Catians: Resurrection
Art: Luyi Bennett
Script: Cortney Cameron

Catians: Resurrection is a prologue to the epic, ambitious urban fantasy series. Cats seek human champions to fight antagonistic forces. In this chapter, alley cat Felix tries to make a champion out of Rose, a human he has grown fond of due to her continuous acts of kindness toward him and other strays. One night, a group of mobsters murder Rose’s husband and leave her for dead. Felix saves Rose’s life by granting her powers from a mystical cat tail, one of the relics of the Great Cat. Rose may take her revenge on the mobsters in exchange for taking on the role of champion. Unfortunately for them both, there may be consequences.

Reading Catians: Resurrection was an interesting experience. Judging by the cover, I thought I knew what waited for me. Reading through, I pretty much thought I knew how things were going to go down. Boy, was I wrong.

We begin with narration from Felix over a splash image of a rose, symbolizing the actual main character named Rose. Felix’s affection is so strong, he swears to protect her. If that sounds like a rather benign reason for intense devotion, do keep in mind that Felix, despite his intelligence and articulation, is still a cat. Nothing will ever win over a cat’s loyalty quite like regular servings of Kibble.

Catians: Resurrection-image 1

The design of the rose, the font of the lettering, and the sheer emotion in Felix’s narration has a mythic romanticism to it. It’s the kind of aesthetic I’ve witnessed in works by writers such as Vera Nazarian and Howard Pyle. It’s also that emotional intensity you get from various fantasy adventure mangas like Sailor Moon, Dragonball, etc.

Speaking of manga, the character designs are highly influenced by the medium. You have the large eyes, simplified structures and so on. Backgrounds are also simplified with buildings and rooms having no distinguishable qualities. They mostly serve to highlight the presence of characters and their relative distance from each other. If this sounds like a nice way of saying the art is generic, let me make it clear that’s not the case. While certain elements of the art are “on brand”, just as many go an extra mile.

Catians: Resurrection-image 2.jpg

The coloring is digital. I assume it is because of the flawless quality that’s quite common to the technology. I sometimes have a negative response to digital coloring because of its generic application in many mainstream superhero comics. In the case of Catians, it’s very soft and easy to look at instead of being an overly bright sheen. It also lends itself nicely to “emotional coloring.” I’m sure there’s a better term for it, but what I’m referring to is the way colors can be applied to invoke a certain feeling within the reader as opposed to generic realism.

Catians: Resurrection-image 3

This page is simplistic, but it really illustrates what I’m getting at. The descending transformation of the color from red to black gives a deep, uneasy feel of a situation going from bad to worse. And yet there are the golden cat paws. These accompanied with Felix’s narration create a nice counterbalance. Without showing so much, it gives the reader a feeling of hope even as hopelessness seems overwhelming. The artist, Luyi B., achieves this effect through simple means. It shows that you don’t need Van Gogh levels of skills to make coloring interesting, you just have to put in an honest effort.

There is also some seriously great lighting going on, such as this scene:

Catians: Resurrection-image 4

Another quality of the art that sticks out is the panel layouts. Sticking yet again to manga influences, certain pages include that trick where smaller, jagged panels are deployed for intense scenes. The panels zoom in on faces and other body parts, and are accompanied by speed lines to make it more dramatic. I don’t really have insight into why this is such a good artistic decision. It just looks freaking cool!

One thing that did seem odd was how the cats appeared more realistic than the humans.

Catians: Resurrection-image 5

Their hair and faces are more defined and detailed than the humans’. The only explanation for why could be their mythical nature. Perhaps having an uncanny contrast between the two serves the story on a thematic level.

Now that I’ve mentioned it, time to go into the story side of Catians: Resurrection. This is honestly both the most interesting and infuriating part for me. The plot is very straightforward, but with certain twists and turns. Rose is on a revenge quest against mobsters who killed her husband. Basic Punisher stuff. But then comes the cat angle which is more complicated than you would think.

The cats have a central god figure, The Great Cat, who wants them and humanity to live in harmony. To achieve this, The Great Cat sometimes grants certain humans relics, which must be given to them by a feline aid. When Rose gets her tail, some of the things she does with it include creating a tombstone, turning into a cat humanoid, and even making a person. Yeah, I have no idea how it works. It is not specified to how many relics there are, what exactly they do, or any limits to the power they wield. That seems to be info that will be brought up later in the series.

If all I described makes Catians sound like a mad plot, boy do you have no idea until you read it for yourself. All the crazy ideas going on in writer Cortney Cameron’s head are machine-gunned out through plot beats that waste no time with subtlety. There are plot holes like a moon crater, characters not as well-defined as they can be, and yet the sheer mania of it all crackles with delightful, enthusiastic creativity. It reminds me of the 60s-era Marvel comics such as The Incredible Hulk #1 where he goes from stalking a U.S. military base as a Frankenstein-esque monstrosity to being zipped away in a high-tech jet to the USSR and escaping via From Russia With Love meets the proverbial bull in a china shop.

Such nuttiness might be too much for certain readers, but it’s arguably what makes comics such a fun medium. Only in comics can you compact so many ideas into one go-round. It’s all a matter of making it as visually compelling as possible while maintaining a certain kind of narrative pace. If you got both down, you can go crazy. Catians: Resurrection achieves this balance perfectly.

Until the ending. Most of the story up to this point is a combination of urban fantasy, superhero origin story, and revenge thriller that goes together very well. The ending, however, is a bizarre cross between David Cronenberg and H.P. Lovecraft. It suddenly stops being Rose’s story and gears toward the mythology behind the cats and their larger conflict with yet to be named antagonistic force. At least that’s what I can remember. I might just be experiencing whiplash and need to reread the comic, but something about it just seems off.

It might be that while Catians is a crazy train narrative, it felt like there was still a track it stuck to. Now, it feels like the train has jumped off into a completely new track. It’s still an interesting one, I will admit. I’m gripped enough by the cat mythology in order to give future entries a chance. But, Rose’s arc seems to have been unceremoniously ditched. On the other hand, there is a strong implication that Rose could come back, so this may not be the case.

Only time will tell. The story is still in its infancy, and there is no telling where it will go from here. Waiting to see is both thrilling and trepidatious.

Catians: Resurrection is not soaring to new heights of comic literature, but it knows the kind of story it wants to tell and does so with immense creativity and beautiful art. The only issue is the twist ending, which is up to the reader to decide how to feel about. If whacko, action-packed stories with fascinating mythologies is your thing, go check it out. If nothing else, it has drawings of cats in it. Those are always a win no matter what!

The comic
Luyi Bennett
Cortney Cameron

Panels To Chords Ninety – Nine Righteous Men

Ben and Madi are back for a all-new episode of Panels To Chords! This time, they’re talking about K.M. Claude’s Ninety-Nine Righteous Men, the cult hit webcomic about two priests with a shameful history between them that must join forces to vanquish a demonic being of lust possessing a helpless choir boy. It’s sexy, blasphemous and darker than your morning coffee. Just what the doctor ordered!

Panels To Chords: On A Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

On this episode of Panels to Chords, Ben and Maddi take a look at the webcomic sensation On A Sunbeam, now coming in print this month from First Second. It’s a tale of space exploration, young love, and growing as a person. Ben and Maddi got quite the playlist for this book, a combination of emotional sincerity and scifi nerdiness.

NOTE FROM BEN: “Sorry for some of the weird audio on Maddi’s end. I had to edit it because some parts were a little low. I did not make the volume consistent enough, unfortunately. Hope ya’ll don’t lose your hearing! Earphone users beware!”

Here’s Maddi’s playlist:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4CmnS6MougaFY5PC9Wg7Cr?si=uKwDZWwVSpquiv1Vi1jwyg

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