Monday, June 25, 2018

The Newest From Rob Jackson

Minicomics stalwart Rob Jackson has always had a knack for genre mash-ups that respect all of the storytelling tropes of each genre will altering them in frequently amusing ways. In his latest comic, Behind Thick Glass, I Saw The Stars, he starts off with a crime caper, transitions into a fantasy story and then winds up with science-fiction. The overall message is: there's always someone bigger than you, but there are ways around that. The book is structured like a set of concentric circles, radiating out from smallest to largest. That first circle is a group of thieves who strip a car and sell off its parts. They do it so they can get passage to "Big Town". That name is quite literal, as they literally travel to a city of people two or three times their size.

After a series of misadventures involving being conned by a seemingly nice Big woman, they wind up in a Gnome (that's what they're called) sweatshop. They contact the underground who helps them escape and they are told about yet another passage to yet another city, where they are accompanied by one of the bigger folk. This is where Jackson's consistently weird character design works as a plot device, because when they get to the next city, it's revealed that the gnomes and the next size up in "Business Town" are trolls--both of whom are smaller than humans and were bioengineered as a way of helping to conserve resources. The people chosen for this shrink-ray treatment were the lower classes and business classes, of course. There are further revelations and hijinx, but Jackson establishes his themes clearly here.

A constant Jackson theme is the revelation that the emperor wears no clothes. Long-ingrained societal practices are frequently just a way to keep the lower classes in line. Our leaders are petty idiots drunk on power (even if they're gods). Exploitation of the weak or ignorant keeps the machine running. The plots of his stories tend to revolve around something being a spanner in the works, that being the protagonists. What makes his stories such a delight is the way he deflates the hero's journey. It's not dreamy or glamorous. It's dirty and grimy, and the heroes themselves are frequently disreputable people, if good-hearted. That fits with Jackson's entire aesthetic, which is celebrating the appearance of that which is, rather than imagining an idealized appearance for his heroes. In other words, his heroes are just regular schmoes who simply find themselves questioning the way things are and then acting on it. In this comic, it's the courage of the thieving gnomes that sparks the foundation of a new society, hidden deep. Pointedly, Jackson implies it's the fact that gnomes, trolls and humans are choosing to live together in this new society that will give it its strength, and that segregated societies will inevitably stagnate and wither. The final image of the comic, where the new group sets about rebuilding on top of the remains of the last human city, is a fitting way of connecting past and present without using a false narrative.

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