Digital Ash 2/26/2014: A Different Type of Walking DeadA comic review article by: Jason Sacks
The Dead #2
(James Maddox / Jen Hickman)
This is the highest concept take on the afterlife that I can remember reading. Imagine life after death as a series of rooms in an enormous house. It's a house unlike any other, a place where each room is extremely different from every other – one room is the top of a mountain, another is an abandoned hospital, another a room where you can fish forever, another an endless desert. They're not rooms. They're locations for alternate realities. "My house has many mansions" as the good book says.
Into that world lands young Sam, a man who's initially confused by all that happens around him but soon becomes a legendary hero who gets involved with a quest for the most valuable items in the house: bottles of liquid (whiskey, coffee, fresh water, whatever) that can be sold in the restaurant/bar that's run by the mysterious woman Devi, who has an uneasy relationship with the strange tattooed man Alex who's kind of a spirit guide.
The world that Maddox and Hickman create is very weird and quite alienating, but that's really the point. These creators took me to a place I could never imagine, showed me characters who are unique and mysterious, and serve a heaping helping of world-building complexity. There's one hell of a lot of complicated stuff going on here, an ever-building plot machine that reminds me a bit of the promise of early Locke & Key – and we know how series that turned out.
That said, this is also the work of two creators whose ambitions outstrip their storytelling just a bit. Hickman's art is short on detail at times when that lack of detail detracts from the tale. There's a scene set in a zoo in this issue in which Hickman attempts an establishing shot but there's not a strong sense of place in the scene. She almost nails the scene but lands just short of her ambitions. I was very confused (maybe on purpose) by a scene that takes place in an empty landscape with nothing but Greek pillars. Where was that scene set, and what in the world was happening there?
But these are minor complains compared with the complex, unique experience that Maddox and Hickman present. I love comics that present worlds that I could never have imagined. I could never have imagined the world of The Dead.
Buy The Dead on Comixology.
Black Dawn #2
(John O'Connor / Jeff Clemens)
Oh, Robert Kirkman, what have you wrought? In your vision of a world after zombie apocalypse, when humanity's cruelness to humanity is just as terrifying as the evils that zombies wreak upon humans, you've inspired a world of imitators, a virtual invasion of nasty, gritty, intense postapoc zombie yarns.
Black Dawn is the tale of a family that's trying desperately to escape the near destruction of America – "In the news, much of downtown Atlanta burns out of control at this hour. Similar reports come in from Boston, Hartford, Baltimore—". But their attempts to escape have been difficult. Dad has been shot, brother is released from reform school to help dad and sister, the family can't help anyone including a woman with a tiny, deformed baby, and the Army barely agrees to take in refugees. There's a strange doctor with mysterious bandages and a military officer with interesting family affiliations and all kinds of pain and horror among ordinary people.
Yeah, this isn't the most original comic in the world, but there's an energy and enthusiasm from writer John O'Connor and artist Jeff Clemens that suggests that this book can outgrow its influences and become something more original than it seems to be. There seems to be a world of experiences behind the doctor in this tale, and these undead have different strengths and weaknesses than Kirkman's undead do. The presentation is eerie, and the team has a good sense of creating quietly powerful scenes and characters who seem internally conflicted. There's promise here if O'Connor and Clemens move on from their familiar tropes and move Black Dawn in unexpected directions.
Buy Black Dawn on Comixology.
Alter Ego #5
(Roy Thomas / Ron Harris)
One of the odd paradoxes of the digital movement is how it's democratized comics. This week's Comixology Submit releases features work by virtual unknowns, complete unknowns and… one of the industry's best-known writer/editors.
The legendary Roy Thomas wrote Alter Ego #5, which originally appeared in print in 2012. With artist Ron Harris, Thomas creates a comfortably charming take on early 1950s crime comics, one of the most interesting eras of the history of the medium. In this time-spanning yarn (full of the delicious paradoxes for which Thomas is justifiably famous), the retro-hero Alter Ego is transported back inside a virtual issue of the archetypical Crime Does Not Pay, where the creative team riffs on some classic riffs from that classic series and grounds our hero in typically exaggerated crime.
It goes without saying that this is all very professionally done. Thomas knows how to build and pace a comic as well as anyone, and Harris tells a good, clean story in the style that he's pastiching. It befits the editor of a magazine that explores comic history for him to get the details right, down to small scene-setting bits that echo the original comics. There's even a touch of wistfulness to Thomas and Harris's work as our hero Alter Ego stops to pay his respects to his former allies who were being killed, one after the next, by the criminals who had taken over the world of comic book. It's a clever analogy, well portrayed.
If you're the kind of person who would respond to something that's created mainly as a pastiche of quirky weird comics from the past, this is a comic for you. For those who don't know about the crime books of the 1950s, there's a thoughtful two-page essay about them in the back of Alter Ego #5 but I think this book will still be somewhat obscure for many readers.
Comics have become more democratized and more ubiquitous in the last few years. If you're the kind of person for whom this story would be fascinating, it's easily bought now for 99¢. If you're the kind of person who wants to read the best work by Roy Thomas, there's tons of his writing available online that I'd recommend over this book.
Buy Alter Ego on Comixology.
And then there's the up-and-coming, soon-to-be-comics-legends who are following their own very unique visions. I keep meaning to check out the work of Vasilis Lolos after many of my friends have recommended his work to me, so I was delighted to find his Maximum Overdrive available on Comixology. And my friends were right – this is an awesomely fun book. It's heavy metal thunder and a completely oddball semi-story. It's black cats and strange creatures and visionary scene-setting and mindblowing sword battles and an animal spirit in a mountain sized vagina and it's a brilliant use of negative space and mysterious discussions of space.
Lolos's comic is rather surreal and a whole crapload of fun, a tale that's both stream-of-consciousness and that implies a larger story (if Lolos feels like creating one), all drawn in a style that has a bit of Paul Pope, a bit of Craig Thompson, and more than a little bit of obscure European influences that I want to check out.
Maximum Overdrive is kinetic as hell, and maybe ultimately an empty experience, like a sugar high next to the fulfilling multi-course meal that a comic like The Dead gives readers. But it's always fun to have dessert after dinner and then maybe take in a loud concert full of Metal Gruff (with Mega Turbo). As Lolos says about the rock and roll that's part of this his wild tale, Maximum Overdrive is "tip top shit, lemme tell ya."
Buy Maximum Overdrive on Comixology.