Here's a review of one of Sparkplug's best-ever releases, Chris Wright's Inkweed. This was originally published at sequart.com
The last book I'm reviewing in the latest wave of releases from top-notch boutique publisher Sparkplug Comic Books is Inkweed, by Chris Wright. Publisher Dylan Williams once again provides a platform for an artist with a distinctive voice and style, collecting stories from a number of different places into one thematic whole. The gestalt of Wright's work may be as fully-formed as I've ever seen from a relatively young artist, with the stylistic choices he makes fitting in perfectly with his themes. The result is a comic that is unnerving, uncomfortable and relentlessly compelling. His work is one of contradiction: his figures are grotesque but majestic, scratchy yet imaginatively designed, and monstrous but recognizably human. Wright employs a scratchy, dense line jammed with cross-hatching and shadow. His figures are often distorted but expressive, and he never sacrifices clarity for effect. His use of gesture and body language makes his characters recognizably human even if they don't quite appear to be. The oddness of his figures is especially given context with the way he uses the eyes of his characters to guide the reader.
Wright's themes overlap, and he cleverly arranged the stories in the book such that one theme led to another. The first story, "The Unmerciful Gift", is about an artist who can no longer paint works that others can see--they simply look like blind canvases. The story is about sacrifice, obsession and the ultimate futility of that pursuit. Here, Wright's cross-hatching creates an emotional weight, a density where there is no relief for the reader. Wright observes obsession from a different point of view in "Tapestry", about an aging astronomer who desperately reaches out to his young female assistant. The desperation is not born simply out of loneliness, but out of the terror of his increasing realization of his insignificance in the face of the infinite. In the end, she leaves and he has no choice but to continue to try to chart the abyss that he studies every night. The way Wright contrasts the astronomer's bravado by day (asserting how much more scientists now understand) with his terror at night was the story's master stroke.
"Snake" and "Truth" both look at love from different points of view. The first as a form of temptation that no one can avoid, and the second as an actively pernicious force that we nonetheless are endlessly drawn to. In both tales, Wright creates a vaguely mythical, fairy-tale type background for the stories. Those two shorter stories prepare for the true gut-punch of the collection, "Urn". It's Wright's most devastating and masterful short story, with an introduction that piques interest and warns us that tragedy is ahead, but the reader could not possibly be prepared for what was to come. The story is about "love", but it's really about the many things we call love that are really something else. It's about guilt, lies, self-hatred, self-deception and the way all of these things come home to roost in the end. The most devastating part of the story is that the most despicable character is also the only fully truthful one.
Inkweed is also about creation and destruction, slipping between the stories of gods and artists. "The Sea Demon" essentially presents a set of dilemmas not unlike faced by the other artists in the book. "Rags and Turpentine" is interesting because it features one of the few characters in the book that is at the height of his creative powers, only he doesn't know it. An artist in love (or probably lust), he's conflicted by his desire for a woman who is also an artist and the possibility that he doesn't even like her work. Like many of the characters in Inkweed, the artist character gets drunk as a response to his surroundings. The loopy panel design reflects his wobbly orientation. Wright balances the philosophical, probing nature of his stories with visceral, earthy concerns that often put the lie to many of the characters' beliefs.
That tension between mind and body is at the heart of Wright's stories. In particular, Wright gets at the disconnect between the two, as his characters don't always understand their own motivations or don't figure it out until it's far too late. Wright modulates pleasure and pain here, as there are many ridiculous, laugh-out-loud moments to go with the melancholy or horrific ones. The intersection between obsession and desire is painfully evoked by Wright's art, and his unusual character design sucks the reader into this world where "he who learns must suffer", where journeys of discovery come at a terrible price.