As the graphic novel market continues to grow, the medium is increasingly popular for established novelists who want to add a visual component to their stories. Writer Scott Westerfeld has already dabbled in comics with graphic novel spin-offs to his best-selling Uglies YA book series, but Spill Zone (First Second) is his first time creating a brand-new comic-book concept. And it’s a very good one. Westerfeld takes full advantage of the creative opportunities of the medium by building his story around a location where physics, geometry, and lighting are all warped, allowing artist Alex Puvilland and colorist Hilary Sycamore to freely experiment with visual elements.
People don’t know exactly what the Po’Town Spill was, but the catastrophic incident completely transformed the town of Poughkeepsie and affected everyone within the Spill Zone. Addison snuck off that night to drink with her friends, and she lost most of her family. Her parents worked in the hospital and died trying to save others, and while her sister, Lexa, survived, she hasn’t spoken a word since and psychically communicates with her creepy doll. Addison makes a living selling photographs of the Spill Zone through her shady art dealer, but each trip back into this psychedelic pastel nightmare could cost Addison her life.
The opening pages of Spill Zone will be very familiar for fans of YA fiction, introducing a brooding, resilient young heroine with tragedy in her past and heavy responsibility on her shoulders. With a muted palette and heavy shadows, the artwork is very dark and natural at the start, but that changes dramatically as Addison ventures into the Spill Zone. The first thing that shifts is the color, which becomes a mix of bright pastels and neons rendered with flat, angular planes that overlap in strange, unpredictable ways. Sycamore further differentiates the look of the Spill Zone by using color holds on Puvilland’s inks, which are solid black everywhere else.
The color holds flatten the artwork while also making it more vibrant, heightening the otherworldly atmosphere and allowing for more lively coloring for the action sequences that occur within the Spill Zone. This is particularly effective when Addison enters an area she refers to as “Flatsville,” in which everything has been absorbed into the ground to create a flat bird’s eye view of what used to be there. Puvilland does brilliant things with perspective in the staging of this sequence, and throughout the book this art team exhibits a mix of craft, imagination, and ingenuity that significantly enriches the narrative.
Westerfeld’s narration reveals the guilt and curiosity that compels Addison to venture into a place that always summons painful memories, and he spreads out the internal monologue so the panels are never overloaded with text. Hopefully future installments will delve deeper into Addison’s relationships with her parents and sister to give the story a stronger emotional core, but emphasizing Addison’s connection to the Spill Zone in this first book shows off the range of the art team’s talent and highlights how important the setting is to the plot. The Spill Zone is full of mysteries, and as this first volume continues, the scope of the story significantly expands to bring Addison into an international situation involving North Korea’s own, far less public Spill Zone.
In an unconventional move, First Second serialized Spill Zone online to build an audience for the book before publication, and it was a smart way of keeping Westerfeld’s fan base aware that there’s a new graphic novel on the horizon. The entire book can still be read online, but the ideal way to experience Spill Zone is in this slick hardcover with no clicking and loading interrupting the read. Puvilland and Sycamore’s artwork looks incredible in print, and the size and durability of this hardcover makes it a book that can travel easily. It’s a great beach read, and readers that want a striking sci-fi mystery should take a trip to the Spill Zone this summer.
For a book about heroes whose powers are limited only by their imaginations, the Green Lantern franchise has very little fun
The extent to which the Green Lantern franchise remains firmly entrenched in Geoff Johns’ shadow remains problematic. For a decade before Johns (and only sporadically before), no one could figure out how to make the characters sell. Johns left the series with a wide-open status quo that could have been used to take the characters in any number of directions, but nothing since has really stuck. This is a shame. There’s no reason why a book devoted to space cops with magic wishing rings shouldn’t be the most imaginative and interesting book on the stands. Hal Jordan And The Green Lantern Corps #21 is representative of the Green Lantern franchise since Johns’ departure: thoroughly competent and utterly devoid of charm.
Recent developments have seen the merger of the Green Lantern and Sinestro Corps, under central leadership based on the Corps’ new home-world Mogo. This is well in keeping with the direction of the franchise in the last decades, where a panoply of different ring colors were introduced to flesh out the Lanterns’ cosmic supporting cast. The problem with the series as written, however, is the lack of imagination on display in a book literally about heroes whose powers are limited only by their imaginations. The stories that have haunted the book since Johns’ left have unerringly focused on the status of the Corps, the internal politics of the Corps, where the Corps is headquartered, who wants to kill the Corps, etc. This issue, the final part of the “Prism of Time” storyline, sees Mogo under attack by monsters of pure will, creatures who cannot be harmed by either green or yellow ring energy. In response, the Lanterns take off their rings and defend their base old-school, with guns and fists. Meanwhile, Hal Jordan and guest star Rip Hunter track the source of the assault across the universe to a criminal named Sarko.
Said source is revealed to be Krona’s Gauntlet, a special ring prototype wielded by Hal Jordan recently during a period of self-exile from the Corps. Hal being Hal, he left the near-omnipotent super-weapon out where any old villain could find it. The problem with this story is that it is a variation on the same type of story that we have seen from the Green Lantern franchise so many times before: down and out, the Lanterns must survive an improbable attack before learning that the threat is a new enemy wielding a plot device from the series’ recent history. Writer Robert Venditti tries to throw in a twist regarding a connection between Sarko and a prominent Lantern, but it’s telegraphed so heavily that it seems like a red herring—except, no, that’s exactly what it turns out to be. Artists V Ken Marion and Dexter Vines do their best with a thankless script, drawing lots of rocks.
Every story about the Green Lanterns for years has been about the Green Lanterns just barely hanging on, trying desperately to rebuild the Corps after years of war and betrayal. At some point the series needs to pick a new status quo and go with it. Seeing the Lanterns down and out, pretending to be space marines instead of superheroes, is dispiriting: Where’s the imagination? This incarnation of Green Lantern needs a new direction, and fast.
A reprint of the early-2000s comic User is a gateway to the early days of the internet that still tells a timeless story
The best way to overcome the potential distraction of older technology in fiction is focusing stories on people and emotions, and User (Image) does just that. Originally published by Vertigo in 2001, User is set in a world that’s unrecognizable to some: computers rely on phone lines to connect to the nascent publicly accessible side of the internet, phones can’t go more than a couple dozen feet away from their bases without losing signal, and driving to an unfamiliar address means digging out a paper map. Like a lot of fiction about the early internet, the story focuses on escapism, following a young woman named Meg as she flees from her troubled daily life into an online world that she assumes is far more orderly and moral.
As Meg’s family fractures and her job slips through her hands, she retreats further into online roleplaying, an adaptation of rules and patterns used in tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons for years. In a bid to escape what she’s facing in real life, Megan doesn’t even play herself online, but rather a French paladin, a knight bound by rules of chivalry and most importantly a man. The lessons Meg learns as the knight Sir Guilliame get close to an after-school special, but User is far more about discovering your own identity than trite lessons like stranger danger. Meg’s attempts to avoid her life only proves to her how impossible that is, and she learns more about herself than she thought there was to know.
Writer Devin Grayson has spoken at length about how personal User is for her, and even a decade and a half later the affection and respect she has for online communities is evident on every page. Probably best known for her depictions of the Bat-family, Grayson’s depiction of Meg is intimate and honest without being needlessly cruel, particularly given Meg’s shifting relationship with her own gender identity and sexual orientation. The book tackles a lot of difficult topics, including sexual abuse, but Meg never feels to the reader as powerless as she feels to herself.
User would be an important and moving story all on its own, but art from John Bolton and Sean Phillips are what make it incredible. Phillips drew the pages depicting Meg’s black-and-white life in the real world, where her mother has abandoned her and her sister and her father can’t seem to be bothered by anything, even his friend raping Meg’s younger sister. Bolton brings Sir Guilliame and his cohorts to life in vivid technicolor, a sort of proto-World Of Warcraft jumping off every page. Though their art is different, what links them both is a strong, painterly style that’s rich with texture and layers. It’s not a visual that many modern comics rely on, seen in work from the likes of Frazer Irving and Mike Del Mundo, but it’s far more familiar from other Vertigo books of that era. It’s tough to find the original three-issue run, so this reprint from Image is a perfect chance to pick it up, and the team makes it worth the wait.
Fante Bukowski Two is incisive—if heavy handed—satire of pompous writers embodied by people like Jonathan Franzen
In his 2012 book, Comics Versus Art, the scholar Bart Beaty argues that “ressentiment,” Nietzsche’s term for “a tendency to attribute one’s personal failures to external forces,” is a driving dynamic in the relationship between the world of comics and other so-called legitimate fields. This ressentiment may be felt in every declamation that the latest Superman comic is real literature, and it is an attitude that is captured with all the requisite childishness in Noah Van Sciver’s latest, Fante Bukowski Two (Fantagraphics Books).
Picking up where 2015’s Fante Bukowski left off, the sequel sees the titular Fante making his way from Denver to Columbus, which matches Van Sciver’s (who also appears in the comic) own history. A sleazy degenerate, Fante tries to worm his way into Columbus’ local arts and letters scene, oozing a disgusting sense of unearned entitlement that Van Sciver makes downright palpable. This sense of entitlement drives the narrative: preventing Fante from achieving anything, making any friends, or even being tolerable, as well as serving as the source of all the book’s humor. The whole thing is an incisive, if heavy handed, satire of the pompous, stuffy writers embodied by people like Jonathan Franzen. Van Sciver homes in on these grating traits, and he effectively amplifies them—splaying out the arrested development of these so-called mature artists. Fante digs himself deeper and deeper into his hole, all along blaming everyone but himself for his troubles, and when he finds himself out of money and out of a place to live, you feel as though he’s gotten just what he’s deserved.
The efficacy of Van Sciver’s satire is limited somewhat by his monochromatic cast of characters. After all, how savagely can you roast your own reflection? But ultimately there is something charming about the nakedness of Van Sciver’s subjects and the meanness with which he applies his barbs. Van Sciver, however, ends the book by setting fire to all the good will he had accumulated up to that point.
Woven through Fante’s story is the story of his ex-girlfriend Audrey Catron. A writer herself, Catron finds immense success, and encounters Fante (who originally left her without explanation) at a stop on her nationwide book tour. The way Van Sciver resolves these threads—with Catron being inexplicably charmed by the schulbby Fante’s je nais sais quoi and Fante receiving a laudatory New York Times review—completely undermines everything about the book. These endings appear out of thin air, and they serve to reduce the glistening point of Van Sciver’s criticism to a pair of worn-out safety scissors. The smart, successful, talented woman falls for the dirty, disheveled, child-like loser who treats her poorly. It’s a tale as old as time, but not one made satisfying by the inclusion of narration about how she knows she shouldn’t love him. It’s a disappointing experience more than anything else, as its conclusion acts to massively betray an otherwise funny, well-drawn, and genuinely charming comic.