This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.
Design is growing to become increasingly important for comics as they continue to move into the bookstore market. In addition to having great stories, comics have to come in an attractive package. My favorite designer in comics is Chris Pitzer, the publisher behind AdHouse Books. The comics he publishes and edits are, without exception, absolutely gorgeous. I hesitate to call them “art objects” because while attractive, the covers and layouts are in service to the work. What I like best about Pitzer's eye is his understanding of simplicity in design. He has the spare eye of someone like an engineer, trying to build something that brings out the most in the form and function of a work. That lack of fussiness and business allows the reader to relax into the work and gives each artist a chance to have their work read on their terms.
Nowhere is that made clearer than in the three anthologies that Pitzer edited for AdHouse. The first, Project: Telstar, was printed in a sort of metallic blue ink and had science-fiction themes. The second, Project: Superior, was about superheroes. Project: Romantic takes on the romance genre with a number of different twists. In general, much of the work that Pitzer publishes falls into the category of “new mainstream.” Narrative takes precedence over thematic concerns, and that narrative is fairly straightforward. A lot of the comics that Pitzer has published have been “indy” takes on genre subjects, meaning that the usual narrative concerns have been subverted for other goals. That was especially true in the first two “project” anthologies, both of which were quite pleasant to look at and read but didn't linger for very long in one's memory. Part of that I think was due to the limitations of the sci-fi and superhero genres. I don't think either genre is elastic enough to work when stretched too far from their original constraints, especially when the nuts and bolts of superheroes or sci-fi are ignored in favor of other concerns.
This is why Project: Romantic is such a success, because of the elasticity of the romance genre. In fact, the artists in the book take the somewhat vague notion of what a “romance” story is and many of them attach genre trappings to them. My favorite submission by far was that of Joel Priddy's. He's published far too few comics since his stunningly beautiful debut Pulpatoon Pilgrimage a few years ago, but he does contribute a series of stories called “Sweetie 'n Me”. He takes standard romance tropes like couples talking alike, jealousy over past lovers and special birthday dinners and attaches them to a couple who happen to be mad scientists. Priddy makes great use of color for these little 3-4 page vignettes, which are perfectly designed and executed. I could read a book full of these strips and not tire of them.
Another reason why this book is so successful is that Pitzer took great pains to use artists with as many different styles as possible. From Scott Morse's animation-inspired expressionism to Austin English's primitivism, from Junko Mizuno's manga stylings to the Ditko-inspired strip by Adam McGovern & Paolo Leandri , there's something in here to appeal to every taste. As a result, not every strip will be equally effective for every reader, but I found them all to at least be pleasant. One of the more clever stories is “When I Was A Slut”, by emerging talent Hope Larson. It's an intricately constructed story about a young woman hoping that one of her online contacts will truly desire her, and the unusual twists and turns that occur as a result. T Edward Bak's “Trouble” is another slice-of-life story, this time about a pair of teenage girls. One is clearly in love with the other, who is thinking of leaving town with a sleazy guy. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and the garishness of the colors is a nice match for the melodrama of the situation.
The best adventure-related story is “Sewer Girls”, by Kaz Strzepek. Strzepek's stuff reminds me a bit of Brian Ralph's in terms of its content, feel, and non-ironic treatment of its subject matter. This story is about a post-apocalyptic world where all of the woman have turned into mutants and the remaining men are slowly going insane. When one boy finds one normal girl and they go on a date, it seems like a happy ending for everyone. It wound up being a grisly ending instead, in a grimly hilarious fashion. Another entertaining story about love gone wrong is “Hello, Eddie” by Roger Petersen. It's about a young woman who becomes obsessed with the Chicago Cubs' first baseman who becomes heartbroken when he's traded to the Phillies. She winds up shooting him in his hotel room when the Phillies come to down, but not for the reason you might think. Petersen's clear-line character design is enormously appealing, and his use of color was quite clever: it was Cubs' blue when the player was in Chicago, and Phillies' red when he was traded. It didn't hurt that the bright red perfectly matched the anger of the woman, the blood on the player's chest when he's shot, etc. It's a perfect little confection of a story, precisely the sort of story that's such a pleasure to discover in an anthology.
There are four humorous stories worth mentioning. MK Reed's “Mrs Jeremy Dellorso” is a ridiculous story about a woman whose boyfriend literally turns into a bear one day. After he mauls everyone the night he meets her parents, she absurdly declares “Oh Jeremy, I can't stay mad at you.” What I love about this strip is that it takes the cliches of wedding stories and changes just one element to make it hilarious. Evan Larson's “Cupid's Day Off” is exactly what it sounds like. Except that it's not really about Cupid (he mostly gets drunk off-panel), but rather his assistant, who goes crazy with his bow and arrow. Suddenly, all sorts of crazy matchups are made: a dog & a cat, a man and a tree, another man and his sandwich, an alien & a football, and a mummy & a leprechaun are all immediately seized by lust. Best of all was Batman and a roll of toilet paper. When Cupid catches up with her and is about to fire her, she fires on him and the inevitable happens—they wind up married in the next panel, with all of the couples she helped get together in attendance. “Even Monkeys Know About Love After A Hundred Years”, by Randall Christopher, is essentially an illustrated stand-up routine about love that's a series of funny non-sequiturs. A typical line is “And when you're in love does not the sun shine brighter? Does not music sound so much sweeter? Does not Pantera start to sound like John Mayer? And John Mayer like Burt Bacharach? And if you're stupid enough to put on Burt Bacharach will you not find yourself wearing a silk robe, lying prostrate, and weeping before a gilded altar of Cupid?” Finally, Josh Cotter's comic timing was superb in four one-page strips about dating in the animal kingdom. The best is a hare and a tortoise. The hare talks about what a great time she had on their date and wondered if they could do it again sometime. After three silent panels, the tortoise finally says “I feel like maybe we're moving too fast.”
Project: Romantic doesn't push the envelope of comics and isn't in any way cutting edge. There's not much profundity to be found in these stories, and in fact many of the stories that go in that direction fall flat. The anthology is just pure entertainment, coming at the reader in a dizzying variety of styles & approaches, and edited by a designer with a great eye. Most of the entries leave the reader wanting more instead of saying “Is that it?”, which to me is the mark of a good anthology. For a book that's so much fun, there was a lot of substance here instead of mere style, which is my difficulty with anthologies like Flight. I attribute this to Pitzer, who seemed to work hard to have a lot of stories that had the strong hand of a writer rather than just a lot of visual pyrotechnics.