Achewood was dead. With years between updates, prospective TV deals that came to naught, and the general air of exhaustion that hovered around the most recent installments of the once-venerable webcomic, it was natural—inevitable—to assume that one of the great comics achievements of the young century had breathed its last. These things happen. Nothing lasts forever. The April 7, 2014 strip sat on the front page of Achewood.com for over a year and a half, with Ramses Smuckles trapped in the world’s most awkward fender bender seemingly for eternity. No kind of definitive ending, but an ending of a kind.
And then, Christmas Eve 2015, Chris Onstad posted an unexpected new installment of the “Fuck You Friday” series. There was the gang, back again as if the previous 20 months were nothing more than a bad dream—Ray cussing out a customer service representative, Pat placing an obnoxious bumper sticker on the back of his station wagon, and Mr. Bear quoting Marcus Aurelius. It was the best Christmas gift imaginable for a readership that had given up on waiting. The strip was still as funny, as melancholy, and as strange as it ever was. The characters remained trapped in their painfully specific quotidian hells, beset by the same post-millennial anxieties and pervasive existential dread that had always served as the strip’s hallmarks.
What is most remarkable about the resuscitated Achewood is the strength of its return. Although the comic has been reduced to a weekly schedule (with the occasional skip weeks, even), the updates are as sharp as the strip has ever been. Rather than the extended storylines of the strip’s early prime, Achewood is now structured like the weekly Sunday strips of yore, with each page representing a more-or-less complete anecdote, a complete meal in three or four tiers. Chris Ware has always been the not-so-secret inspiration behind both Achewood’s themes and structure, and his influence can still be felt both in terms of narrative density and the strip’s willingness to veer violently between comedy and tragedy, sometimes in the space of a single panel. The various cats and bears that make up Onstad’s cast remain avatars of specific aspects of the cartoonist’s own early-middle-age—Ray the effortlessly cool bachelor nonetheless undone by his secret fears of inadequacy, Roast Beef the agoraphobic basket case whose inability to get his act together is rivaled only by his self-loathing, Lyle the reckless sensualist willing to dedicate every waking moment in tribute to Lemmy Kilmister.
Achewood remains a national treasure. The level of detail and emotional depth Onstad is able to summon with such a purposefully limited comics vocabulary remains endlessly fascinating. Despite how many times Achewood has seemingly died over the years—whether due to creator burnout or other distractions—the fact that it always seems to return is nothing less than a miracle. It may disappear again tomorrow for a month or a year. Enjoy it while it lasts, but let’s hope it lasts forever. [Tim O’Neil]
Precariously balancing absurd humor and charming action sequences, Night Air (Koyama Press) continues the Double+ adventures that began in the Study Group webcomic of the same name. Readers familiar with author Ben Sears’ work will recognize the stripped-down aesthetic and the deeply human imprecision of his lines, but they will also recognize his dry, matter-of-fact jokes and the pulpy action. Tapping into the humorously bizarre and bizarrely humorous tone currently oozing out of the zeitgeist, Sears finds humor in a man cursed to read books forever, a dog standing under a streetlamp, and other straightforward sight gags (like a caricatured turd filling a character’s dialogue balloon). The plot of Night Air is relatively simple: A boy and his robot companion get into trouble looking for treasure in a haunted house. The trouble is a pair of homeowners who are trying to amass some stellar ghosts for their prospective haunted house, which leads to our heroes being stuck in a basement with a dapper skeleton named Luis.
While delightfully off-kilter in plot, Sears’ comics are more than just their narrative arrangements, and the way he textures his story is incredibly charming and endearing. There is a levity and gleeful ridiculousness that runs through the book, and Sears pitches legitimately funny jokes in a register accessible to nearly anyone. These jokes appear as sight gags, formalist games, or zany background elements, and, propelled by an ineffable zaniness, Night Air functions in the same space that something like Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump does.
With this zaniness, Sears demonstrates a point-of-view and a wit that makes Night Air eminently enjoyable. This point-of-view, however, does not simply manifest in narrative construction. His characters squint just so, and their mouths—single lines that curve and bend depending on their disposition—are rendered with a relatable simplicity. Characters who appear interesting enough to sustain their own books litter the backgrounds. Each page, each image is deceptively simple, communicating and propelling itself into the next panel with an admirable sparseness of line, color, and mise-en-scéne. And yet, in spite of that simplicity, Sears still manages a dimensionality to Night Air’s world that puts many other, denser, cartoonists to shame.
Sears builds this aesthetic bit by bit, and if you look closely at each line, there is a wavering quality. The lines aren’t actually straight, and they appear eyeballed rather than ruled out. Recalling, with their sparse minimalism, the ligne claire tradition of Franco-Belgian comics, Sears’ drawing is personable, quirky, and idiosyncratic. Similarly, Sears draws his sound effects by hand, and they become part of the background, blurring the distinction between the art and the lettering. The book, as a result, feels handcrafted in a way that overly precise, overly meticulous cartooning doesn’t. In a sense, you feel the presence of Sears as an author, and you are charmed by that relationship. Night Air warms and comforts you, and it endears you to its compulsion toward a gripping adventure narrative. [Shea Hennum]
As Caitlin Rosberg mentioned in her Joyride review two weeks ago, the comics landscape is densely populated by science-fiction titles. Daniel Warren Johnson, however, was one of the creators who jumped on that genre train just as it was starting to speed up. Johnson’s Space-Mullet debuted as a webcomic in 2012, telling a charming, thrilling story about two space truckers, Jonah and Alphius, and the people that cross their paths. The new Space-Mullet!: One Gamble At A Time (Dark Horse) prints the four chapters posted over the first two years of the still ongoing, but more sporadically updated series. And while Johnson is still finding his footing in these early pages, there’s impressive craft and ambition on display throughout.
Johnson’s greatest strengths as an artist are in action and design, and he sharpens those skills considerably over the course of the collection. The dynamic action sequences are the big selling point of Space-Mullet, and Johnson phenomenally crafts fights that move swiftly and hit hard. From smaller brawls to epic battles between large groups of combatants, the action storytelling is exceptionally clear, with panel layouts that tightly control the rhythm of each sequence. The action highlight of this collection is the smash derby match in the final chapter, a hyper-violent sporting event that moves at an exhilarating pace, and Johnson captures the full carnage of the race without sacrificing any clarity.
The smash derby sequence is an excellent showcase of Johnson’s design skills, beginning with the two-page spread revealing the sprawl of the New Mars Stadium surrounded by a number of spaceships. Johnson finds a lot of variation within a governing design for the smash derby uniforms, and the reader can glean extra information about the racers from what they wear on the track. (One small design issue in Space-Mullet is Jonah’s long, thin mustache, which is drawn with a single thick line that occasionally makes it look like he has a Muppet mouth rather than facial hair.)
The character dynamics in this first volume could use more depth, and while the central friendship between Jonah and Alphius is well defined, the other relationships in the story aren’t as fully realized. Some of these are still in their early stages so there’s plenty of time for Johnson to dig deeper, which he has in the proceeding online chapters. But the big tragic event at the end of this volume doesn’t land its full emotional punch because it severs a personal connection that isn’t fully formed yet. That said, the strength of Jonah and Alphius’ bond is enough to give the story an emotional backbone, which helps keep Space-Mullet grounded despite the fantastic sci-fi trappings. The driving force of the book’s second half is Jonah’s struggle to find healthcare for his fatally injured best friend, who is the subject of intense discrimination because he’s an alien, and having these personal issues at the forefront makes for an especially relatable sci-fi narrative. [Oliver Sava]
Crowdfunded anthologies continue to drive far more sales and fan engagement than many people in the comic industry expected. It provides creators with a chance to make a relatively small commitment by telling a shorter story in a large book, helps to launch careers, and spotlights new talent. Kel McDonald has shepherded three different volumes of Cautionary Fables And Fairy Tales from idea to publication while maintaining her own career with multiple solo projects. Perhaps best known for her webcomic Sorcery 101, McDonald also created Misfits Of Avalon, which was published by Dark Horse. With Cautionary Fables And Fairy Tales: Asia Edition (self-published), she’s recruited Kate Ashwin to her editing cause, collecting 21 different comics based on various myths and legends from all over Asia.
As with any anthology, the styles are as varied and as diverse as the creators involved. The one unifying factor is that every page is in grayscale. Though some art styles offer more texture, detail, or depth, all of the illustration is strong. Of particular note is Meredith McClaren’s “The Three Rhymesters,” which showcases McClaren’s signature style beautifully. When seen in color, her art looks like layered paper or colored glass, with few harsh lines cutting through the shapes. Caitlyn Kurilich’s “The History Of The Spectre Ship” is one of the more ambitious pieces of the set, with a storm-tossed ship and enchanting texture from pencil lead or maybe water colors. “The Great Flood” by Stu Livingston proves that not all of the comics need to be illustrated seriously, his people all round and cartoony without looking too familiar or otherwise lowering the impact of the perils and choices they face.
The entire anthology is incredible beautiful from cover to cover. The talent it puts on display is remarkable. Unfortunately, the storytelling burdens the art. Both previous volumes of Cautionary Fables And Fairy Tales also suffered from issues with page length, and Asia Edition is no different. There are several pieces that are too short, most notably Gene Luen Yang’s “From The Journal Of The Monkey King,” where others are longer than they should have been and drag badly; the book as a whole has no rhythm.
What makes it even more awkward is that the stories are devoid of any context. Unlike last year’s Moonshot, very few of the participants are telling stories from their own cultures, instead adapting or interpreting stories from another, often unidentified, group. Though Asia Edition doesn’t suffer from the awkward issue of depicting dark skin tones in grayscale to the same degree that Africa Edition did, there are still pitfalls and problems when recruiting mostly Western creators to tell the stories of cultures they do not belong to. Part of the success of Moonshot and anthologies like Beyond is that they provided marginalized creators with a venue to express themselves and their own stories. Cautionary Fables And Fairy Tales never claims to do that, but the lack of context and awareness makes it feel flat and unsteady as a whole. Individually, the stories are well worth reading, but packaged together it feels awkward. With three continents down, McDonald has several more attempts to get it right. [Caitlin Rosberg]