Monday, October 10, 2016

Alternative: Jim Campbell's At The Shore

Jim Campbell's At The Shore has been coming out in dribs and drabs over the years, but Alternative Comics has finally come out with a definitive collection. Alternative seems to be swooping in and publishing deserving, previously self-published comics with solid design and production values. Campbell is a veteran of the Meathaus comics collective, which used to regularly release interesting-looking anthologies but is mostly reduced to just a collective web presence now, as its members pursue their individual comics and animation careers. Campbell's toothy characters and cartoony art give him a different look than most of the other Meathausers, and he took that to its logical end in this funny and totally off-kilter sci-fi/zombie/teen romance story.

The success of this book lies in Campbell's ability to constantly keep the reader off guard by feeding them just enough plot or character development and then zooming off into a seemingly absurd or unrelated direction. The main character, a weird young woman named Gabi, tries to start telling a story to her friends about eating seaweed as a child when she's interrupted by the conventionally attractive Astrid. Her friends then drag her down to "the shore" for a little fun, but she's reluctant to go. Every time she tries to tell her increasingly weird and convoluted story, her friends contemptuously interrupt her. To be fair, it is weird: dredging for seaweed, her father (constantly in a diving outfit) and his professor friend finding out that a dead fish, placed back in a bowl of water, would come back to life, etc.

When the group gets the car stuck on the beach, that's when the real shenanigans begin, as a zombie in a wetsuit attacks them. Gabi manages to keep her cool and has a friend use a frisbee to stun it (one of the many eccentric details in the book is the way frisbees rebound) before she runs over its head. As the narrative proceeds, Gabi restarts her story again and again, each time providing more context. The key plot point was her father and the professor using a chemical to clean up the harbor, which worked to clean up the chemicals but had the unfortunate side effect of reanimating the dead. Throw in a ship that recently lost its entire crew, and you have instant zombie invasion. What makes the book fun is the weird characterization and plot aside Campbell throws at the reader, like the nonchalant revelation that there are Loch Ness monsters living in the ocean, the fact that Gabi's mother dressed like Gilligan all the time, the weird chemistry between the professor and one of the guys, and the professor's demented, inappropriate timing for humor and history lessons.

For all of the gratuitous weirdness and silliness that Campbell throws in, it should be noted that the book actually has a remarkably tight plot and great use of suspense. He pours humor on every tense moment, but the humor works because the tension is palpable. The way Campbell wove his characters into and out of trouble while throwing in new complications was highly skillful, something that he almost seemed to want to hide with all the silliness. This isn't an absurd comedy with extraneous zombie elements; it's a nasty, cleverly-plotted zombie story with an absurd veneer. That veneer is aided by Campbell's entirely non-naturalistic use of colors, veering from the muted to the lurid. They serve to manipulate the reader's emotional reaction rather than simply provide information, as they create a frequently queasy atmosphere interspersed with more sharply defined use of color around certain character entrances, as though a spotlight was being cast on them. It's the equivalent of mood lighting, offsetting Campbell's deliberately goofy character design with its own impact. For a goof of a zombie story, there's an awful lot of craft and thought that went into this book, which is what sets it above most genre-oriented work.

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