Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #28: The Other Side

CCS alum Melanie Gillman noted in the introduction to The Other Side, the anthology they co-edited (with Kori Michele Handwerker), that as a young queer person, they were drawn to paranormal romance fiction. That's because most other kinds of fiction were so heteronormative, they felt that paranormal romance at least opened up the possibility of something different, something outside the norm. In tribute to that idea, and in the spirit of queer fiction that doesn't inevitably wind up in tragedy, there's a pleasant warmth that suffuses the book. In general, I found that the overall quality of the anthology was especially solid for a self-published effort, and a quick inquiry into the book's Kickstarter status revealed that the editors raised enough money to give everyone a $60 page rate. Remarkable that when you pay an artist for a passion project, they have the time and energy to put their best foot forward.

The pitfall of a themed anthology is the possibility of too many similar kinds of stories. Gillman & Handwerker gave their contributors a theme tight enough so that they made sense sequentially but loose enough to let them interpret "paranormal" in any number of ways. Fyodor Pavlov's "The Black Dog" is straight-up folklore-style fantasy, only it turns the fear of the black dog as a harbinger for death on its ear and restores the faithful-dog idea, only in lycanthropic form. Like most of the stories in the book, it was a story where the use of grayscaling was entirely unobtrusive. There are also several paranormal "meet cute" stories, like Sfe' R. Monster's "En-bae & Boo", which is about the romance between a cryptozoographer and a ghost that started on the internet. There did seem to be two distinct styles of visual approaches in the anthology: dense and immersive or cute and clear.

There were haunted-object stories ("Emma-FZR 400 RRSP" by Mary Verhoeven and "Appliance" by Handwerker), which wound up doubling as sort of meet-cute stories. The latter was especially clever, because there was a genuine mystery behind it and the end was one of the few stories where things got more complex instead of all tied up neatly. There were haunted house/apartment/lighthouse stories ("Bare Bones" by Britt Sabo, "Yes No Maybe" by Kate Leth & Katie O'Neill and "Pulpit Point" by Amelia Onorato), of which Onorato's story was the best. The other two were cute but also extremely telegraphed from beginning to end; they were less stories than character impressions. Onorato's story had a genuine surprise twist and an element of discomfort to it on behalf of the poltergeist who can't leave the sea behind that made its ending far more poignant than most in the book. There were stories where characters try to get in touch with loved ones beyond the grave, like the quiet "Rabbit Stew" by CB Webb, the overly treacly "Till Death" by Gisele Jobateh and the hilarious "Ouija Call Center" by Mari Costa. The latter story is conceptually clever (a Ouija doll acting as a sort of supernatural operator) and emotionally satisfying in an unexpected way, as the ex-boyfriend the protagonist is trying to contact is a jerk and the operator tries to ameliorate that.

Another common trope was a sort of supernatural debt. F. Lee & Rainy's "Halo" was interesting for the striking image of an angelic spirit who was visible to a preacher, though the character work was a bit wobbly at times. Unsurprisingly in a story where the writer and artist split duties, it was overly talky. The writer-artist team of Laurel Varian and Ezra Rose got that balance better with "Third Circle Pizza", where a spirit was bound to a family-owned pizza parlor until a love interest intervened. The romance in this story felt real because the characters were so well-developed, and Varian even threw in a twist or two down the stretch. Unfortunately, "Fifty Years" by Sarah Winifred Searle and Hannah Krieger as well as "Shadow's Bae" by Bitmap Prager and Gillman both succumbed to that sense of being overwritten despite attractive art, especially on the part of Gillman. The points that Prager was trying to make in an otherwise cute story were hammered home in a way that was unnecessary, given Gillman's skill. The vampire plot in the first story felt played out and predictable.The wild west ghost story "Tierra Verde" had an intriguing premise but the end felt off, tonally. On the other hand, the hypnosis/telepathy theme of Aatmaja Pandya's "Airspace" felt emotionally raw and realistic, especially as a metaphor for how difficult it is for a person to express their true feelings and the existential problem of never being able to truly know what another person is feeling.

Three of the best stories in the anthology dealt with a character's relationship with a higher power. Natasha Donovan's "Dive" is beautifully drawn in an immersive style, with all sorts of whorls and intense line patterns. It's about a woman and her granddaughter walking on the shore, passing by an abandoned village. When the grandmother reveals that she used to live there, the granddaughter wants to know the story. In a clever move, the grandmother knits while she talks, literally spinning a narrative yarn in all respects. The story involves a mysterious woman showing up to help her, a game of chance against a supernatural being in an underwater village, and a tearful goodbye. The story ends in classic "return to me" style as the grandmother descends into the ocean. The dialogue is sharply written and there's actually a compelling plot and mystery in this story that's absent in a number of the other, breezier stories in the book. Kou Chen's "Beneath My Breath Above My Gaze" is a beautifully designed strip about a young man who nearly falls off a bridge on a mountain, only to be saved by the mountain's god. The god falls in love with him and the man is drawn back to the mountain for reasons he can't understand until his death as an old man. It's a subtle, restrained bit of storytelling that doesn't worry much about background information and instead focuses on emotion.

Along the same lines, and certainly the best piece in the book, is Bishakh Som's "Threnody". An old woman in India finds herself increasingly isolated and out of step with the modern world and says a prayer to the goddess Kali asking if there was a place for her in the world. She decides to retreat to a shrine to Kali, where she encounters a loquacious young woman who gives her all sorts of advice about the proper way to worship until the old woman finally snaps and yells at her. In a nifty bit of transformation, it's revealed (as one expected), that the young woman was actually Kali, who kisses her devotee and takes her to the next world. It's a sensitive, restrained and poetic story by Som, whose pacing, design and dialogue are all in perfect harmony and lead to the ending that makes the most sense, even if there's a sadness to it. Even the least successful stories in the anthology were still fun to look at, and Gillman & Handwerker did a fine job in sequencing the stories in a way that created the greatest amount of story-to-story variety.

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