Monday, February 25, 2013

Bleak Futures: Pickrodt, Romberger, Ward

Let's look at three comics that answer what happens after the end of the world.

Reptile Museum Preview, by Cody Pickrodt. In this comic with nicely-rendered, fluid figures and backgrounds, the apocalypse has come and gone, with survivors sticking closely to rigid rules as a way of keeping order. In this preview, we're introduced to an older man named Justin reminiscing about a boy named "Pants", who apparently disappeared. The comic then reintroduces this odd duck of a young man, fifteen years later, visiting Justin in his bunker. This story will hinge on just where he went, what he did, how he survived and most importantly, what he intends to do now that he's back. The story ends with Pants killing a group of thugs trying to kidnap him single-handed. What I like best about this comic is how Pickrodt uses open layouts as a way of slowly and carefully introducing the reader to these characters in a relaxed manner. Pickrodt creates interesting effects when he goes from extreme zooms, either in or out. It's a way of transitioning the reader from a wider view to the very small details of certain characters, or else showing us a detail from nature and then pulling out to show us a compound. It's a dramatic way of establishing setting while keeping the reader off-balance as they try to figure out what's happening. The open panel arrangement makes that transition between views flow more smoothly, as well as making the fight scenes more kinetic and powerful. It's obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the design of this comic, maximizing the impact of what is so far a fairly simple and familiar story.

Post York, by James Romberger & Crosby. This is another recent release from Tom Kaczynski's excellent Uncivilized Books. It's not so much a complete story as it is a snippet of a day in the life of a few people living in a New York that is almost completely underwater. There are a few different storytelling methods at work here. First, Romberger's line is pleasantly loose and sketchy, inviting the reader to fill in details as it hints at the total devastation of the city. Instead of using a standard panel grid on each page, Romberger instead keeps each panel fairly separate. On some pages, the panels cascade across, as though they were flowing water. On other pages, we get a few rows where there is direct movement across the page and others where the panels are stacked on top of each other because the action is going up or down. Romberger controls mood and tone with the size of each panel, depicting claustrophobia with tiny panels and awestruck terror in larger panels. The hows and why of how the world was devastated are less important than the struggles of the nameless main character, who putters around the city looking for useful supplies. When he enters a building and is attacked by its sole occupant (a young woman), the protagonist finds himself fighting for his life, even if it's the last thing he wanted to do. Romberger seems interested in how small actions can lead to larger events in a frequently deadly chain, perhaps a reduction of how the world got to be destroyed. After "ending" the story with the young man accidentally killing the young woman, we immediately see an "or" signalling another possible ending, one where the young man escapes, frees a trapped whale and otherwise draws the fascination of the young woman. Accompanying the comic is a flexi-disc (!) by Romberger's son Crosby, who is also less interested in the apocalypse than what life is like afterwards. At just forty pages, this little taste of a story is more than enough for me as a reader to understand exactly what Romberger was driving at without beating details into the ground. It's an interesting and even brave approach to storytelling, as it risks slightness in lieu of risking bloat. It's a decision that makes sense, because I didn't feel the need to spend more time in this world by the end, especially when Romberger showed the reader a couple of different ways how life could continue to diverge.

Ritual #2: The Reverie, by Malachi Ward. Every one of Ward's stories that I've read to date has a science-fiction element, but the genre portion of the story only serves to act as a device for Ward's exploration of human relationships. The second issue of his Revival House series is a carefully-crafted set of dated vignettes that start in the present and move slowly into the future, as a family starts to disintegrate over time, with the mother dying and the father slowly losing his grip on reality. We get snapshots of times both loving and stressful with the children (a brother and sister) and their father, and we're also given the sense that their own lives haven't exactly worked out as they had hoped. When their father disappears into a powerful, drug-induced state called The Reverie, the reasons why the kids go after him in order to retrieve him are deliberately left muddy by Ward.

Indeed, the son desperately wants him back in the "real world", but is it to be a father or someone whose presence could simply fix their lives? The daughter, drawn perpetually young and even immature-looking, has similar motives. The reunion is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, as Ward asks which is more important: things that happen in the "real" world, or the reassuring warmth of a beloved lie? In the end, one child chooses to stay and the other chooses to leave, and it's left as ambiguous as to which made the "right" decision--if there was one to be made. In terms of the visuals, Ward keeps things very simple and clear with his character design and only real injects any detail when the siblings enter the dream world. In terms of the story, even those images are ephemeral; they're distractions from the real drama of the story. It's a clever ploy on the part of Ward's that pays off because of the ambiguity of the ending, which simply ends in a dark room.

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