Artist: Dan James
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
Rarely are comic books, particularly genre comics, purely visual. The speech bubble, thought bubble, and text box: Each of these elements adds a literary dimension to comic composition. Hence, we read rather than view a graphic novel, comic strip, or piece of sequential art. The dictum “show, don’t tell” given to students in fiction-writing workshops across the country takes on an odd complexity when dealing with this fusion of media. How does an author decide what must be shown, what told, and what requires the two in concert? A blue dot leaves a blur of red as it cuts through the sky toward a volcano, and the accompanying printed words read, “Faster than a speeding bullet, the man of steel streaks toward the Sunda Strait in Indonesia.” These words suggest a way of interpreting a dynamic but partly abstract image. And of course, tweaking the relationship between words and images to increase or decrease their dissonance is what characterizes the work of the medium’s greatest practitioners.
Fans of mainstream comics have limited experience with completely wordless comics. One highly renowned example from recent memory is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s masterful New X-Men #121, in which Jean Grey and Emma Frost go on a psychedelic trip into the mind of Charles Xavier. Morrison and Quitely manage to go from action and adventure to slapstick comedy to primal family drama compellingly and cohesively with nary a word (save the final page’s witty “we ought to talk . . .”). Now, creator Dan James and the adventurous publisher Top Shelf give readers another glimpse of “omnilingual pictomunication” (or a story told with pictures and no words) in the engrossing Mosquito.
James’s tale, mutely presented in a 6” x 6” book drawn exclusively in red ink, is indeed that most venerable of genres: the vampire story. Our hero is a vampire slayer who, having received polaroids of victims bearing puncture wounds on their necks and a map leading him to the vampire’s lair, sets out on a quest to vanquish the evil. Armed with all manner of wooden-stake-launching apparatus, he leaves his two children at home and follows the map. The book climaxes with a showdown between our would-be Van Helsing and the Nosferatu.
Mosquito’s best moments are also its most abstract. As the slayer rides in a mysterious rickshaw-like coach across an empty plain, the reader is treated to two full-page white panels across which flow the simple parallel lines of the wheel tracks. The eye follows them diagonally from bottom left to top right, and, with these efficient means, James achieves a sense of time passing, of distance being crossed in an almost filmic motion. Later, the reader turns a red right-hand page, indicating darkness, to reveal the slayer’s hand pulling a lamp chain and illuminating the scene in radiating bands of white.
In other instances, especially when James represents the actions of the protagonist, what initially appears to be a crudeness of composition is actually a concision and eloquence that perfectly captures the task at hand. The ungainliness of the vampire slayer (he is essentially a box with four lines representing arms and legs) takes on an angular, asymmetrical grace in a panel in which he takes a tumble while climbing to the vampire’s cave, or when he leaps into action during his confrontation with the fiend. Although some of James’s designs at times lean toward the quaint or even cutesy, the overall effect is mesmerizing.
The problem with being mesmerized, however, is that sometimes, when the spell has worn off, the subject is unsure of what he has experienced. The simplicity of the art in Mosquito limits the complexity of the story James can tell. While he succeeds in the basics of narrative, there are several moments, particularly in the climax and dénouement, during which the reader can only speculate as to the significance of the action. This is not due to a lack of clarity in the depiction, but rather to a depth of meaning that cannot be clearly expressed by the simple means at James’s disposal. Even after a second reading, only the barest sketch of plot is clearly discernable. The result is bemusement that, while not without its charm, doesn’t completely satisfy.
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