Monday, December 16, 2013

Banding Together: Faction, Volume 1

Faction is a full-color, crowd-funded anthology from New Zealand, designed to spotlight that country's emerging comics scene. It's reminiscent of the old Monkeysuit anthology series in that most of the cartoonists here work in other creative industries. Most of the Monkeysuit gang were animators, while many of the cartoonists in Faction happen to work for homegrown special effects studio Weta. There are also some similarities to the early SPX anthologies in which mainstream, serialized work is presented side-by-side (and seemingly at random) with alt-comics work. With such a small pool of talent, Faction has the tendency of feeling thrown together with little else to connect these stories other than a shared national origin. A number of the stories are quite intriguing, while many others are borderline unreadable.

The production values of the anthology work against the success of some of the stories. Printed on thick, glossy paper, the anthology is designed to make the fantasy-oriented stories pop out. Unfortunately, Nani Mahal's "Search for the Phoenix" Mark Holland's "The Aegean Sea: Origins" are exactly what I find least interesting about fantasy. They are slick, valuing color density over storytelling clarity in the vein of Kaz Kazubishi, but not nearly at his skill level. The fonts chosen for the long, long information dumps have that faux-fantasy script that makes them difficult to read, especially with the way the rest of the page is colored. The size of the dialogue font in Mahal's story is too big in some places, too small in others. Holland's story feels more like a storyboard and less like a comic. Neither gives the slightest bit of a satisfying chunk of story, as both are pure, overwhelming exposition. Czepta's "Zion//Eye" is similarly slick in that Flight-style, but the storytelling chops demonstrated are far more refined, with color taking a back seat to figure and story. The digital font used here is annoying, but it is at least legible. The story, involving a young herbalist in a jungle setting, is predictable but amusingly told.

The best stories here are the simplest. Karl Wills' "Connie Radar" is a funny Antarctic adventure whose central mystery is only obliquely addressed, told in a style deliberately evocative of Herge'. The thin, slightly ratty line and black & white crispness accentuates Wills' sense of humor. Matt and Sam Emery's "Do You Want To Talk About It" starts with what seems to be a simply-rendered post-apocalytpic nightmare tinged with moments of happiness. The final twist is tragic on a number of levels, as the protagonist is sad to let go of that happiness that in many ways reveals deeper problems. Ralphi's "Ricky and Lyle" is my favorite story in the book, as the titular leads (a skater dude and his anthropomorphic cat) negotiate their weird but logically consistent environment with a combination of total disinterest and sublimated desperation. The simplicity of the line is deceptive, as the elongated nature of the figures and the single-tone, sickly green create an atmosphere of malaise.

Some of the pieces used color quite smartly. Jonathan King's "Bookish" is a fantasy police procedural story that uses muted colors so as to crate an atmosphere of dread and mystery.  There are some genuinely fascinating twists to be found in this story, and King makes sure to establish its lead's humanity and vulnerabilities early in the story. Ant Sang's "June + Bug" is just two pages long, but the relationship between conjoined twins and their eventual demise is treated with delicate care, leading to a moving ending that makes the most out of its use of dark colors. Co-editor Damon Keen's "One Giant Leap", about an astronaut's dilemma, similarly uses gradients of black to tell its bleakly humorous story. A nasty sense of humor is certainly not in short supply in this comic, as Ned Wenlock's "Migraine" and Christian Pearce's "Has Beams" demonstrate. Wenlock's simplistic style has a certain Adult Swim feel to it, with the weird crystal, random violence and gleefully nihilistic attitudes of the brothers adding to that sense of chaos. Pearce's story about lasers simply takes a joke's core concept and writes it (literally) large across the page.  Of course, Roger Langridge's one-page Fred The Clown offering is typically funny, crisply-drawn and elegantly silly. There's no question that this anthology has potential, but at some point the editors need to do some hard thinking about just what kind of reading experience they're trying to create and what kind of aesthetic they're hoping to promote.

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