With a variety of writing and art styles, anthologies can often feel disjointed. Thankfully, Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection (Alternate History Comics) easily avoids most of the common issues with anthologies and delivers a mix of compelling stories at the same time. This isn’t the first time that Alternate History Comics has made a foray into a very specific kind of anthology; in 2014 the company published the Jewish Comix Anthology, an experience that inspired the pursuit of writers and artists to contribute to Moonshot. As editor Hope Nicholson points out in her foreword, there is no “single, homogenous native identity.” Moonshot isn’t meant to be a definitive text but rather a primer into an incredibly diverse pool of talent, and it achieves that without breaking a sweat.
At first glance it may seem that the only commonality between the stories is the ethnic background of their creators, but there are themes that feature in each, though they may linger in the background instead of jumping to the fore. Identity, legacy, and responsibility come up time and again, and every one of the stories keeps a careful eye on what kind of perception readers may have of the people who wrote and drew it. Native creators are marginalized and underrepresented in comics, as are many other groups. But Native people have the additional burden of reminding the reader of their modern existence, combating the belief that Native populations have all but died out, that Native people are a thing you see in John Wayne movies and spaghetti Westerns. This is the kind of burden that any story might break under, but Moonshot’s contributors deliver a series of legends, memories, and fictions that do an excellent job of standing up to the pressure.
As with any anthology, the art feels a little uneven by sheer dint of the fact that there are so many different artists with so many different styles involved, but the talent and effort that went into Moonshot is undeniable. The book opens and closes with a series of stunning stand-alone illustrations by Haiwei Hou, Jeffrey Veregge, Stephen Gladue, and Fred Pashe. Each is beautiful and interesting in its own right, as is the powerful cover by Gladue. “The Qallupiluk: Forgiven” stands out the most within the collection, a mythic horror prose work with illustrations rather than a regular comic, and Buffy Sainte-Marie wraps up the book with the poem that lent the anthology its title. Particularly remarkable is “Vision Quest: Echo” by David Mack. Originally part of Mack’s contribution to a Daredevil comic, the work is lush and textured in a way that’s reminiscent of Sandman. Stories like “Ocheck” and “Coyote And The Pebbles” will feel familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Native storytelling and traditional tales, but each creator brings new insights to the page. There are others, like “Tlicho Nàowo,” that put stories that have been told for centuries in a new frame, perhaps making them easier for modern readers to understand.
Works like “Ue-Pucase: Water Master” and “Strike And Bolt” showcase the diversity of thought and experience these creators bring to the medium, gracefully mixing traditional tales and indigenous futurism. It’s difficult to pick a favorite; each piece brings a different perspective and evokes different emotions. But “Ayanisach” feels like it gets right to the heart of what Moonshot is all about, mixing an intimate and personal story into one of larger hardship and responsibility, showing the truth of our history through the lens of what looks like a not-too-implausible fate. As the main character says, “knowing our past will ultimately take us to the future,” and the presence of the “Volume 1” on Moonshot’s cover is the perfect promise to bring readers along for the ride. [Caitlin Rosberg]
A collection of thematically interwoven short stories—some of which have previously appeared as independent mini-comics—Fütchi Perf (Czap Books) is the latest release from Cleveland-based cartoonist and publisher Kevin Czap. Each piece (“story” isn’t apt, because some of them are non-narrative) stands on its own, but they share central concerns about optimism and the importance of community and relationships. And, in a strange way, the stories of Fütchi Perf all share a central character: the city of Cleveland. Czap looks to the future with a singular perspective to explore how an urban space can change people and be changed by people. The book, which is lovingly printed on weighty paper stock, is a bustling, florescent anthology that defies pat intellectualizing. Its pink and purple and white and blue kaleidoscopic visuals lend it more to gut-level gushing than anything else.
Czap’s line is expressive and heavily cartooned. His lines are rounded and smooth, and his aesthetic walks a tight balance between stylized and illustrative. His figures have a little bit of bounce in their movement, but everything is relatively realistically rendered, which visually grounds the stories in a concrete environment. This balancing act allows Czap to fill his frames with urban detritus, reifications of auditory rumblings, and as many characters as he likes without bogging down the moment; the composition retains a liveliness, a dynamism that draws the eyes to the real meat of the panel. Figures move through a space inhabited by all manner of person and thing, but it’s almost difficult to lose sight of the central characters.
Two things embolden and clarify Czap’s cartooning, preventing the scenes from getting murky and muddled. Foremost is Czap’s ability to retain a clarity of line and transpose that clarity to his compositions. Every person and thing is delineated marvelously from one another, and that goes a long way to ensuring that figures don’t get lost behind each other. Secondly, Czap makes heavy use of a limited color palette—most noticeably, deep purples and sharp, fluorescent pinks—using them like rails to direct the reader’s eyes from one moment to the next. But he uses them to heighten the emotional content, too, letting them screech into a crescendo when the drama is already palpable or cushion a moment as it comes down from on high.
Czap’s cartooning—from both an aesthetic and semiotic perspective—is fully showcased in Fütchi Perf. But the actual narratives (or non-narratives as the case may be) themselves are less easily defined. They are opaque and obtuse. They’re slick, and the second you think you’ve got a hold on them, they slide through your fingers. Some of them are more abstract than others, and some of them are utopic speculative fiction somewhere between sci-fi and alternate history, and some of them are simple slice-of-life vignettes. Some of them are more intellectual, while others are deeply affecting out-pourings of emotion. But whatever their content or their patina, they all ease from one into the other, seamlessly, and they’re clearly all cut from the same cloth. Each of them brings something refreshing and enjoyable to the proceedings, each its own unique microcosm. However, these singular stories do not stand alone; they are to be read together, because while each component is good enough to stand on its own, the whole of Fütchi Perf is greater than the sum of its parts. [Shea Hennum]
American-born Australian artist and musician Grant Gronewold works under the pen name HTMLflowers. He’s young, talented, and lives with cystic fibrosis. Stylistically, Gronewold’s work is contiguous with that of a number of similar cartoonists roughly his age. Simon Hanselmann is a touchstone (it’s not by chance that the two are friends and collaborators, and Hanselmann’s Megg, Mogg & Owl characters even appear briefly here), as is Jonny Negron, whose ’80s-influenced figure-work echoes throughout. His pencil is alternatively precise and primitive. Single-panel illustrations are highly detailed, with elaborate composition and subtle color. His narrative work, however, is downright crude, sometimes little more than scribbles. Over the course of his new monograph Virtual Candle (Space Face Books), he manages to be both expressive and repulsive, sometimes at the same time.
More than Hanselmann or Negron, however, the clear reference point is C.F. (Christopher Forgues). Like C.F., half of Gronewold’s technique comes from covering up obvious skill. Gronewold’s narratives can seem disjointed, not to say completely arbitrary, with work barely above the level of stick figures and no plot to speak of. But stepping back you’ll see a sophisticated page layout reminiscent of Hanselmann’s meticulous panel grids, or the sudden appearance of a strange grotesquerie straight out of the Ben Jones bestiary. The challenge in reading comics like Gronewold’s is learning to recognize the different styles (often represented as varying levels of competency) represent different moods and metaphors. When he draws something ugly, it’s ugly for a reason—and when he draws something beautiful, it sticks out for a reason, too.
The first portion of the book is given over to strips featuring Gronewold’s characters The Twins, two indistinguishable hairy poodle men drawn as a tangle of pencil marks. The Twins gambol and frolic through deserted landscapes before crashing a posh neighborhood, putting on a dinner party for dogs, and swimming in the neighbors’ pool. The adventures are silly and harmless, with no sense of consequences even when they break into houses and smash the windows. The final third of the book consists of photographs of Gronewold’s “stick ’n’ poke” tattoos—not just his personal tattoos, but tattoos he’s given to others.
It’s the middle section of the book, however, that bears revisiting the most. The assorted comics and illustrations found here are both virtuosic and unsettling. It’s here that the themes of illness and confinement become most visible. Characters are lonely and isolated, bruised and scuffled. Little details like small cuts on the tips of fingers and bandaged wounds recur throughout. But these reminders of illness are seen alongside verdant landscapes and colorful architecture. There is a riot of life even in the midst of injury and pain. In this light, the stick ’n’ poke tattoos make a fitting capstone to the book. Here we see, on the most literal level possible, the process by which Gronewold counters the pain of his illness by mastering that pain in return, turning his body and others’ into blank pages for doodles big and small. [Tim O’Neil]
Archaia set the bar very high for its new graphic novel Long Walk To Valhalla (Archaia) by comparing it to Blankets, Fun Home, and I Kill Giants in promotional materials, but this debut work from writer Adam Smith and artist Matthew Fox needs more refinement and specificity to match the quality of those modern classics. The story of a man named Rory returning to his rural Arkansas hometown to sort through his emotional baggage regarding his meth-cooking father, mentally disabled brother, and his adolescent sweetheart, Long Walk To Valhalla doesn’t have the most original concept, and even the occasional flashes of the surreal are heavily influenced by the aforementioned I Kill Giants and Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are adaptation (which also has a very similar font for its title).
There’s nothing inherently wrong about pulling from a lot of influences to build a new work—a creative voice is largely formed by the art that inspires, after all—but ideally the sum of those inspirations will say something different than what came before. Long Walk To Valhalla has the potential to accomplish that as it incorporates bizarre, dreamlike visual elements into Rory’s personal crisis, taking advantage of the comic-book medium to do something a little more distinct than the standard “sad man returns his hometown to deal with trauma” narrative, but the underdeveloped character relationships ultimately hold the book back.
The core bond between Rory and his brother Joe gets the most attention, and Smith’s script is strongest when it focuses on how these two boys survived a challenging childhood. Joe experiences hallucinations of fantastic creatures that change form depending on his emotional state, introducing that unconventional visual element to the narrative, and Fox does strong work making those creatures’ designs reflect Joe’s mood. The relaxed pacing and atmospheric artwork of the opening pages immerse the reader in the expansive Arkansas landscape, but the story becomes less engaging as it accelerates.
Once the focus shifts from Rory and Joe’s dysfunctional childhood to Rory’s teenage romance with Katie, it becomes clear that Smith is in a rush. The first time the reader sees a strange girl named Sylvia, Katie and Rory have already been together for a while, she’s pregnant, and they’re keeping the baby. Smith provides very little context for their relationship, so it’s difficult to connect with the idea of Rory, Katie, and their newborn daughter as a tight family unit. As a result, the climax doesn’t achieve maximum emotional impact, and Rory’s life-changing revelation feels forced and hollow. For a first work, Long Walk To Valhalla shows a lot of promise for Smith and Fox, but the flimsy relationship between Rory and Katie prevents it from sticking the landing. [Oliver Sava]