Thursday, October 15, 2009

Inner Lives: The Mourning Star, volume 2

Rob reviews the second volume of Kazimir Strzepek's post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic, THE MOURNING STAR (Bodega Distribution).

Kaz Strzepek's MOURNING STAR series provides a number of visceral thrills and and an opportunity for readers to explore a carefully designed world. However, there are any number of genre comics that do much the same thing that aren't nearly as compelling. Speaking to him at SPX and trying to get a sense of his influences, he revealed that Megan Kelso's ARTICHOKE TALES (first seen years ago in the legendary NON #5 and soon to be published in its complete form by Fantagraphics) was the single biggest influence on this story. In particular, he was impressed that Kelso's clear line and cute character design could be used to tell a story that was in turns grim, romantic and thrilling. While he indeed took up those cues from Kelso for his story, he also picked up another element: creating a compelling inner life for every single character, be they hero or villain.

For example, volume 2 of the series of books opens up with what turns out to be an extended reverie by a character who was seriously injured in a fight with a bizarre assassin. The character is part of the Rule (the brutal, thuggish villains of the story), yet is treated as just another kind of protagonist by Strzepek. What was remarkable about this sequence (which was a callback to a tossed-off line in the first volume) was that it not only provided thrills and key plot information, it made the reader genuinely feel for the maimed guard. The sequence also took us on a tour of the daily lives of a group of thugs: they see themselves as the bold protagonists of a new world where force is the only currency. They're still capable of tenderness (the relationship between the chief lieutenant and his pregnant wife stood out), but crossing the line of murder and pillaging forces them into a permanent state of dissociation. It pushes them to create a rigidly-defined set of us-and-them, one where the Other is an object fit only for subjugation or murder. The sequence doesn't exactly make us sympathize with the Rule characters, but certainly makes the reader understand their point of view. It's life in theHobbesian state of nature: nasty, brutish and short.

The rest of the book finds Strzepek slowly tightening the varied character threads, getting the disparate protagonists in deeper trouble while pulling them toward the same place. The way that Strzepek creates not just scenes, but densely-packed environments, invites comparison to two other key influences: Brian Ralph and Mat Brinkman. Ralph has always preferred to let his environment dominate his narratives, engulfing the one or two protagonists who have to confront it. Brinkman goes even further with the way his characters and their environment don't have much of a sense of separation between them, with only constant movement differentiating the two. We never get a sense of the inner lives or motivations of their characters beyond simple survival and/or curiosity. With Strzepek, the characters drive everything with a complex set of motivations. Throughout the story, Strzepek creates lulls that allow for exploration of those desires, often in surprising ways.

For example, the dream-eating ghost-like character that has a symbiotic relationship with one of the heroes gets separated from his friends and winds up having his own set of adventures with others of his kind. Stzepek whisks the reader along on this diversion, having long imparted to the reader that he was in no hurry to get from point a to point b plotwise. These side adventures add a richness to the overall story that fits in well with Strzepek's sense of humor. In the style of Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar's DUNGEON series, Strzepek keeps things light with his dialogue even when the world he created is a grim one. That balance is perfectly struck with the character of the nameless Snipper-sniper, a deadly mercenary assassin who's almost impossible to kill. This particular character has amnesia, so he spends much of his time bumbling around until something challenges him to a fight, which he inevitably wins with a mix of brutality and comic timing.

There are quests in THE MOURNING STAR, but not a Quest, per se. The reader slowly starts to learn a bit more about what really happened to their decimated world, a plot point that is deliberately shrouded in mystery. The quests introduced are small: finding a lost loved one, finding a new place to live, recovering one's memory, climbing a brutal social order. We get hints of an overarching plot in this issue when we meet a group of rebels seeking to assassinate the mysterious leader of the Rule, but Strzepek never lets that interfere with having the reader concentrate on a succession of moments.

Visually, Strzepek creates a set of characters with cute features: simply designed faces, pointy ears and stumpy bodies. Like Trondheim, it makes the violence they engage in simultaneously shocking and hilarious. Strzepek adds a layer of dust and grime to his characters and their world befitting its status as wreaked by war and chaos. He alternates all-black background bleeds with all-white ones, sometimes doing so as to establish time of day and sometimes doing so as to establish mood. He favors a lot of small panels with close-up shots, creating a world that feels a bit claustrophobic. He never overloads panels with unnecessary detail, instead allowing the eye to fly across the page with his breezy dialogue or frenetic (but clearly-presented) fight scenes. That's due in part to the clever simplicity of his character design and disciplined use of spotting blacks. THE MOURNING STAR may owe a debt of inspiration to a number of sources, but Strzepek has succeeded in creating something that feels like an exemplar of a new, intelligent sort of genre comic instead of a simple knock-off.

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