Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Hard-Hitting: Ullman, Keller, Chad

Old-Timey Hockey Tales, Volume Two, by Rob Ullman. The only thing wrong with this loving, polished and consistently funny love letter to Ullman's favorite sport is that it's not in full color. Ullman teased the reader a bit with a few f color pages that add some extra zip to his already sharply paced vignettes from the weird world of hockey's history. The slightly muted nature of his palette happily lends itself to that sense of watching old but surprisingly sharp footage from the past. Published by Wide Awake Press, the production values on this one are first-class all the way, from the use of color to the french flap on the front cover. Ullman's stories work both for the fan and the novice, partly because of the way they break down in a narrative sense.

First, he has an eye for finding the stories of unusual athletes, and he's lucky that hockey has a long history of employing weirdos, maniacs and generally colorful characters. Second, his naturalistic but slightly cartoony style is appealing to the eye. Going too cartoony would turn off sports fans, but going too far in the other direction would render his art lifeless. Above all else, he's able to portray the kinetic punch of hockey, a sport with rapid and often violent movement that's perfectly suited to a sequential art treatment in a way that other sports aren't. Third, his deep understanding and respect for the sport's history means that big-time fans aren't insulted by his treatment of the players. Most importantly, he's able to extract a story hook for non-sports fans. For example, in the story of "Ulcers" McCool, the fact that this goalie suffered from debilitating ulcers that required him to drink quarts of milk before the game and during intermission. Ullman also varies some of his visuals throughout the issue, going with a thin line in one story, greyscaling in another and a thicker, almost rubbery line in yet another. Some stories use a number of panels crammed in a page and others are more leisurely laid out, with two panels to a page. What's hard to believe is that this well-executed and stylish comic hasn't been picked up by a book publisher, because it would be perfect sell in places like Detroit, Montreal, Chicago, Boston, etc.

Force Majeure #1, by Keenan Marshall Keller. Keller's work is very much in the vein of Benjamin Marra, as he both satirizes and displays warm affection for the ultra-violent and sex-drenched cheeseball action movies of the 70s. Unlike Marra, whose work (while absurd) is deliberately vague in its delivery, Keller unapologetically goes all-in on crazy and over-the-top action. His tough cop anti-hero, Chuck Narley, starts the comic by kicking a child rapist/serial killer so hard into a wall that his head pops off. His bad-assery and skirting of the law fully established, Narley is rewarded with a completely superfluous sex scene before the real villains of the comic are introduced. That would be a group of nihilists called Force Majeure, who perform ridiculously brutal killings of innocent children as part of their upcoming "war". The issue ends with battle lines being drawn and little else, essentially, yet Keller packs a remarkable amount of cartoony but bloody violence and gore into just a few pages. He offsets the gore with garish coloring, day-glo lettering that blends right in with the action, and framed shots that are clear send-ups of action movie tropes. One can almost sense Keller chuckling as he drew this comic, because there's a sense of ridiculous glee on every page, as though he couldn't help himself when drawing blood spurting out or heads on pikes in a manner that somehow registers as good, clean fun.

Mezmer 2, by Jon Chad. This is the second big issue of Chad's fascinating and fragmented epic sci-fi series. Ostensibly narrated by the villain, Maxer, the reader is shown tantalizing glimpses of various conflicts between the robot Maxer and the warrior Mumfot, his arch enemy. The reader is shown some back story that adds depth and substance to the characters introduced in the first issue as well as fleshing out some character that were simply name-checked but not introduced in that issue. Chad's strategy of using a non-linear storytelling technique focuses the reader's attention on immediate details in order to create a character-based series of vignettes. Above all else, he wants the reader to luxuriate in the weirdness of Maxer and his minions, as well as the doomed and betrayed Makerrat. Using an ultra-fine line with few blacks adds to the fragility of the narrative, as though the reader was examining a document on the verge of falling apart. Adding in other bits of continuity and character-advancing business with the "great speech" interludes is a clever way of slowly building up a confusing and fascinating world built on technology and spirituality alike.

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