Bob's Comics Reviews May 2002 Arrows


If there's a common theme to this month's entries, it's that they're 'alternative' only because of the bizarre skewing of the comics industry. They're not edgy or disturbing; they're solid, straight-ahead storytelling-- if they were movies, or if this were Japan, they'd be mainstream.

Jeff Nicholson: Colonia
Like any good fantasy hero, Jack starts by getting himself lost. A teenager, he goes on a fishing expedition with his uncles Pete and Richard. Their boat sinks, leaving them adrift on the ocean, only to be rescued by a shipload of pirates in 16th century clothes. Jack at first assumes that they've gone back in time, but it soon becomes evident that something much stranger is going on.

Innocent lost in a strange world, trying to make sense of it... it's a common theme, though not so easy to do: it's easier to make a world strange than make it plausible, or to maintain the charm once the major revelations are on the table. (In comics, good examples are Bone, Finder, Schuiten & Peeters, and Frank; in s.f., Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus).

So far (after one volume's been published) it seems to be working. I like a comic that feels free to be thoroughly, originally weird-- as with the fish-man that Jack meets in the sample above. (On the other hand, Nicholson keeps the oddities in check. Too much weirdness and you get surrealism, which never gets really involving.)

Colonia is most reminiscent of Bone-- same gentle humor, same sense of timing, same idea of an idyllic but dangerous world-- but with a freshness of its own, perhaps because it's based on the New World and the time of the Spanish Main, so far under-used for fantasy. (Even Bone walks the well-trodden stone path back to the middle ages.)

It's well-written and nicely drawn... a nice addition to the small store of good all-ages comics... though, disappointingly, this means that the sirens cover their breasts. "Colonia", by the way, doesn't refer to colonies; it's the name the Americas should have gotten, if Amerigo Vespucci didn't have such good P.R.

From a comics creation viewpoint, Nicholson has some interesting remarks about the need to draw from life, rather than from memory. He feels that having to learn how to draw ships and ducks deepened his artistry; since I haven't seen his earlier stuff I can't judge, but it seems like excellent advice. All too many artists learn how to draw their characters in a few habitual backgrounds and then stagnate.)

It's also the second comic I've enjoyed from a new outfit called AiT/Planet Lar-- the other being Astronauts in Trouble, which is a sort of tall tale set in the near-future-- more stuff that isn't much like anything else in comics, which is all to the good.

Ellen Forney: I Was Seven in '75

For all the kids you see in comics, it's surprisingly rare to find real ones. They're either stand-ins for adults, or idealizations of the cartoonist's tiresome brats. But looking at children (even your own) is completely different from being a kid.

One of the best evocations of real childhood in comics is Ellen Forney's weekly strip I Was Seven in '75, now available complete as Monkey Food. It's so honest, charming, and good-natured that you may end up wishing you could be adopted by Ellen's family. (It's rather wounding to learn that her parents eventually divorced, though at least each of them found a nice woman to marry.)

As in any good childhood autobio, there's a strong sense of place and time-- it's very '70s, complete with shag rugs, disco, C.B. radio, feathered hair, and Judy Blume. Ellen's parents are suburban post-hippies, smoking grass, taking the kids to a nudist camp, attending a Unitarian church where the nature-momma Sunday school teacher feeds the kids raw potatoes. All of this is handled from a kid perspective: 7-year-old Ellen is just as interested in Grandma's crafts, things you can make with the microwave, and ways to avoid bedtime as she is in her parents' alternative lifestyle.

The execution is just about perfect; I particularly like the way Forney's brushwork ranges from cartoony to realistic, depending on the mood and the space available. The storytelling is also expert; there isn't a single unnecessary panel. And though there are a few villains (the class bully, an overzealous cop...) there's not a bit of rancor-- Ellen seems to like both her parents, and even, to some extent, her older brother Matt. (Of course, we don't get far into her teenage years.)

A few years ago Forney put out a couple of issues of Tomato-- miscellaneous short pieces, including a few erotic stories, and the story of her date with Camille Paglia. I wish comics paid the bills, so we could have much, much more of her stuff.

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