The unifying theme for the latest batch of comics and graphic novels is the blending of two worlds that are usually thought of as separate: fiction and reality, artists and material, families and their ancestors.
Confronting the truth
Even before you peek inside, it’s clear that The Unwritten is an unusual book. The extremely cool cover, by Yuko Shimizo, shows someone reaching or falling out of a cloud of tangled words in the sky, through a blank distance and into an open book. Simple but wild, it also turns out to be a perfect reflection of the story. Volume 1 collects the first five issues of the ongoing series, a labyrinthine metafictional tale about the art and power of storytelling. The art is beautiful if not earth-shattering, but the plot takes serious risks—and is deeply rewarding. It hinges on Tom Taylor, the son of a man who wrote a Harry Potter/Books of Magic-type series of books, the star of which was named Tommy Taylor. The series ended without its final volume, on a cliffhanger, and fans are still rabid. Tom’s dad is long gone, but the younger Taylor still makes the comic-convention circuit, signing autographs and trying to maintain the boundary between his own personality and that of the fictional hero based on him. Mostly he succeeds. But when a probing question at one convention raises public suspicions about Tom’s real origins, the line between fiction and real life blurs. Add to that a creepy mansion, a mad vampire, a couple of possible femmes fatales, a hit man whose glove dissolves objects into words, a winged cat and Rudyard Kipling, and—well, we can’t wait for Volume 2.
Chabon’s Escapist comes to life
Like The Unwritten, The Escapists is about the joy of storytelling and the often insubstantial membrane that separates the fictional world from the physical one. Inspired by Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it features a collaboration of artists bringing to life Brian K. Vaughan’s story of three youngsters who buy the rights to a long-dead comic book character, the Escapist, and attempt to revive him. The blend of styles works perfectly to move the story between the real world and the comic-within-the-comic, which naturally move along parallel tracks. The dark, large-paneled, painterly pages of the new Escapist book are simply gorgeous, and the interplay between the two worlds in the book is not only entertaining but also makes some sharp observations about the origins of inspiration, life’s impact on art and vice-versa, and the difficulty of recognizing which “reality” is more important. There’s also a charming introduction by Chabon.
One town, two worlds
Positioned for young readers, but with a richness of ideas and atmosphere that adults will equally enjoy, Mercury, the latest from Hope Larson (Chiggers), spans two worlds: a farm community in Nova Scotia in 1859, and the same setting 150 years later. In the first, Josey Fraser falls for the mysterious stranger Asa Curry, who turns up on her family’s doorstep with a proposition. While stealing Josey’s heart, he persuades her father to help him dig for gold on the family’s land, a project that leads eventually to disaster. A century and a half down the road, in the same spot, teenage Tara Fraser is struggling to work her way back into public school life after her family’s house, where she was home-schooled, burns down. The two stories converge when Tara comes across a necklace with a strange power to pull her toward history and a kind of multigenerational redemption. Larson’s spare line drawings are great at evoking movement and emotion—family tensions around a dinner table, for instance—and they lend themselves nicely to her touches of the supernatural.
A peek at the creative process
Anyone interested in how comics end up looking the way they do will be fascinated by Rough Justice, a behind-the-pages study of the work of Alex Ross, the legendary artist behind the Kingdom Come epic as well as various famous character re-imaginings. Through the pencil and ink sketches that eventually become Ross’ characteristically gorgeous paintings, you can see the artist experimenting with his characters, their expressions, costumes, postures and even the lines on their faces, all in the service of the larger story. How many crinkles should the Kingdom Come Superman have beneath his eyes? How much gray in the temples will look right? There are also proposals for new looks for reinvented characters, such as one story idea in which a disabled Batgirl spends some time in the Lazarus Pit and comes out healed but much darker. For fans, witnessing the artist/writer’s creative process at its very beginning is a treat, and it doesn’t hurt that the art looks incredible even in these embryonic stages.
Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.