This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.
An interesting new trend I've noticed is alt-comics cartoonists approaching some old-fashioned genre stories with a great deal of affection. The most familiar example of this sort of storytelling is the Lewis Trondheim/Joann Sfar Dungeon series. They manage to take the hoary old sword-and-sorcery fantasy epic (reflected back and towards Dungeons and Dragons in particular) and tell stories that both celebrate and poke fun at genre conventions. Best of all, they do it with a straight face, allowing the inherent ridiculousness of fantasy tropes (and our inherent familiarity with them) to carry the humor, all while relishing the opportunity to engage in this sort of storytelling.
Alex Robinson is best known for his slice-of-life storytelling in Box Office Poison and Tricked! Of course, anyone who's read his comics will find that they're littered with genre and pop-culture references. His friend Tim Krieder, an alt-weekly cartoonist best known for his political cartoons, talked to him about fighting through cartooning ruts. When he asked Robinson what he really wanted to draw, he noted that he'd love to draw a sword-and-sorcery story that had the feel of an old D&D adventure: hack and slash fights, trudging through a dungeon, meeting weird monsters, etc. In essence, the goal was pure cartooning fun.
With Lower Regions, Robinson did just that. This book is entirely straightforward: a female fighter armed with a battle-axe walks into an underground lair with a companion on some sort of quest, fights all sorts of nasty monsters, and eventually completes her journey. The fact that the title of the book is a double-entendre shows that Robinson is approaching the subject with a bit of whimsy, yet the story itself isn't a parody. There are moments of humor, like when the companion is fried by a giant, fire-breathing cat and is brought back to life with a healing potion--and then flattened by a huge barrel. The sense of humor here is not unlike a group of gamers at a table coming up with ridiculous solutions to scenarios the game-master is throwing at them. There's a lightness in this work that's very appealing, where one can sense Robinson really throwing himself into the work and come up with a compelling, kinetic and visceral story. The storytelling problems inherent in fantasy fiction are completely different than the usual ones he faces, and one can see him relishing a very different kind of challenge, entirely on his own terms. The end result is slight and even disposable (it doesn't beg for multiple readings), but it was obvious that Robinson wasn't going for a lasting Statement--he was going for fun. It was a pleasure to see him stretch his cartooning muscles a bit, and it'll be interesting to see if this has an impact on his upcoming projects.
Jesse Reklaw's one of the most clever cartoonists working today. From his alt-weekly dream comic Slow Wave to his innovative autobio minicomics, Reklaw excels at subverting expectations. He finds humor in serious situations, and can lace a seemingly light-hearted premise (like telling the story of all the cats his family has owned) with memories of bittersweet and even traumatic events. So it's no surprise that his take on D&D-type storytelling, Bluefuzz The Hero, is somehow both a straightforward adventure with lots of cool twists and turns and a sarcastic take on same.
While Reklaw approaches the fantasy genre with the same kind of affection and intimate knowledge that Robinson does, his storytelling decisions are entirely different. Robinson doesn't use dialogue, relying entirely on his art to carry the story and especially its humor. He uses a style that's relatively realistic, at least to those familiar with fantasy art. Reklaw mixes an omniscient narrator with dialogue, and employs a loose, sketchy style to get across his action. His character designs are stripped-down and silly, but don't step into cheap parody. Reklaw has the narrator tell the story of heroic Bluefuzz as though we were already familiar with his most famous exploits, and instead opts to present a behind-the-scenes look at his story. Instead of a single flowing narrative, Reklaw chooses to chop up his story into smaller segments, each announcing a different episode of Bluefuzz's grand adventure. Bluefuzz himself has a blobby blue tone with a fuzzy head--the very opposite of a typical, muscular sword 'n sorcery hero.
There are two things in particular that I love about this mini. The first is the sardonic but matter-of-fact narration, as though it were told by a stoner. The second are intermittent, full-color splash pages that aren't part of the narrative, but rather are illustrative of a single scene--much like in a D&D Monster Manual. Bluefuzz himself is the sort of "brick" hero so prevalent in fantasy stories, a well-meaning oaf who can't be stopped. I noted earlier that Reklaw excels at subverting expectations. In each adventure, things don't turn out as the reader would expect: Bluefuzz is an oaf who only becomes a hero after being drubbed out of town, and the eventual conclusion to his adventures is a series of anticlimaxes. Even his heroics are a bit off-kilter: in a two-page spread where his most "famous" adventures take place, one of them has Bluefuzz playing an electric guitar attached to an amp.
It's a testament to Reklaw's talent that even this bit of fluffy fun is packed with great ideas, clever visuals and a lot of laughs. Though he's been around comics for awhile, it seems like he's really been taking his work to another level in the past couple of years. I hope to see him really bust out with a long-form work in the near future, because he certainly has the chops to pull it off.