Monday, March 24, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #24: Waller/Worley/Vance

Omaha The Cat Dancer (NBM) is one of those forgotten alt-comics series from the 1980s, but in its time it had as many fans as Love and Rockets. The introduction to the book by writer James Vance and artist Reed Waller details the history of the book, one as complicated and personally intricate as the series' many plots. After original writer Kate Worley married Vance (leaving Waller), the series stalled as Worley was beginning a new life with Vance (including children) and it became difficult to rekindle the same creative chemistry. Toward the end of Worley's life (she died of cancer shortly before completing the book), she and Waller decided to try one more time to finish up Omaha, knowing that it was their legacy project. She died before she could complete it, but she left finishing up the book to her husband. So this final volume of Omaha, volume eight, stands as a monument to the love the two men had for Worley, knowing that they had to finish it for her. That sense of emotion and earnest sincerity permeates the book, carrying it through its rougher and soapier patches.

Furry comics were quite popular in the 80s, and Omaha became both celebrated as a fairly intelligent slice-of-life drama that didn't skimp out on sexual content and notorious as being a comic that necessitated the existence of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, thanks to a comic shop owner being arrested for selling it. The comic was conceived as one where sex is a normal part of everyone's life and should be depicted as such, though it must be said that the sex scenes are far from naturalistic. Instead, they feel more like the sex scenes in a cable-TV potboiler from the 1980s: meant to look good for the camera first rather than show how actual people (or in this case, actual anthropomorphic animals) have sex. The depiction of the characters' bodies is so close to human that I'm not sure why this was done as a furry series in the first place, other than being a popular style of the time. There's certainly a titillation factor at work here that goes above and beyond simply depicting characters having sex; indeed, it owes a closer debt to network soap operas than a more mature work.

The subplots involving conspiracy, murder, and greed all certainly fit within that soap opera context, as does the sprawling cast of characters. Robert Crumb once did a parody of this comic called "Wichita", which harped on the "previously in..." caption reading like utter nonsense to a new reader as well as the pace being so slow that one wondered if anything would ever happen. I certainly don't mind a languid pace that showcases character interactions, but the many plot and character threads tended to add rather tick together. Still, this meant that the book was a breakneck pace, relatively speaking, with characters dealing with an exploding building and various long-held mysteries. Despite the clunky sex scenes, despite Waller's line that has become less fluid over the years and despite the pile of exposition, Omaha is a comic that generates a lot of good will. There's a commitment to diversity across the board in the book's cast, and most of the characters have a degree of complexity that puts them above simple hero or villain capacity. The soap opera overtones actually helped to provide structure and gave the reader a few genuine surprises, acting as a catalyst for action in a series where characters would otherwise prefer to sit around, or sit around and have sex. Above all else, the genuine love for the characters shines through on each page, giving the assorted happy endings a sense of feeling deserved. Omaha is not a great comics series, but it occupies that middle tier that Kim Thompson once described as "good crap"; it's soap-opera genre material done with a maximum of attention on its characters inner lives in a richly detailed environment. If its excesses detract from the quality of the work, it can be forgiven because the series is all about excess, after all.

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