Scott Snyder can sell books without anybody’s help. He’s built a reputation for storytelling that’s kept him in Batman books for years, to say nothing of the fans he’s earned with Swamp Thing and The Wake. But when the announcement came that he was working with previous partner-in-crime Jock on a new horror comic, the easy sell turned into a sure bet. There are a couple of comic book teams that work so well together it’s difficult to see where one member ends and the other begins; Snyder and Jock certainly belong to that group. There is something about this Batman: The Black Mirror team that works less like a well oiled machine and more like a hive mind, and the addition of Matt Hollingsworth’s intense colors has turned this all but guaranteed blockbuster book into something really incredible. It was tempting to wait and review the final issue of the first arc next month, but Wytches #5 (Image) has upped the stakes so high it was impossible to hold off. From the opening shot of a Pain Assessment Tool to a double page spread that, intentionally or not, plays on the fear of a villain that terrorized a generation, Jock and Hollingsworth are bringing their A-game.
Hollingsworth’s Twitter timeline is full of fascinating work-in-progress shots and his process layering color on top of Jock’s astonishing inks. He uses splatters to highlight specific parts of panels and pages, to draw the reader’s attention in a way that feels organic and nuanced at the same time. Obviously, Jock’s no slouch; his art gives a sense of great urgency as the main character Charlie searches for his daughter, fighting not only the titular wytches but his own fears and insecurities as a father. Snyder’s not letting the art do all his work for him. Charlie’s desperation is palpable; his need to save the day and his daughter feels very real. More than anything, this issue reaffirms his humanity, failures and all, as storylines that reveal the trauma he brought on his family begin to come together. Snyder’s got such a great handle on what makes Charlie tick that it would be easy to gloss over the smaller, more subtle moments that focus on his daughter in this issue. Battling her own serious anxiety and wracked with a lot of emotions for a little girl to handle, Sailor makes a confession to her father that feels so real it has to be from a dark, deep place inside Snyder that most of us hide away. The mythology is inspired, but the mental health struggles make this book what it is.
Wytches #5 is still creepy, bathed with violence and some really difficult themes. If you couldn’t handle The Babadook, if you don’t like horror, if you can’t deal with a Matt Fraction look-alike hurting people, you probably shouldn’t read this book. But if you’re still interested, make sure you stay all the way to the end and read Snyder’s letter to the readers. Then ask yourself: Who would you be willing to pledge to get everything you ever wanted? [Caitlin Rosberg]
Don’t expect much of a plot from Luke Ramsey’s Intelligent Sentient? (Drawn & Quarterly), a 64-page art book of gorgeous filigreed drawings exploring themes of creation, evolution, war, technology, and artistic identity. There’s the smallest hint of a narrative that unfolds over the course of the book, but the reader defines the details of the story by drawing connections between the rich illustrations, meaning no two interpretations are going to be exactly alike. Before diving in, it’s worth reading the book’s front matter, which provides valuable context regarding the multitude of loaded questions Ramsey unpacks through his artwork. But Ramsey isn’t providing any answers. Instead, he’s visualizing the questions in his artwork, finding new avenues to explore heady topics like mankind’s relationship with nature and the pitfalls of technological advancement.
This approach is best exemplified by an illustration that shows the outline of a person with his palms up, arms bent at the elbow, as if he’s saying, “I don’t know.” Question marks appear all over the body, forming in the segments of brain-like tissue that compose the entire image, and the drawing is the color of ground meat. The combination of the palette, pattern, and punctuation poses a question about the relationship between body and mind, but because of where the image falls in the sequence, it could also be about the evolution of man and the formation of a mind that separates him from animals.
Like any great abstract art, Ramsey’s illustrations provide enough substance to spark ideas while allowing plenty of room for individual interpretation, which can easily change between readings. This is an art book, so it doesn’t take very long to get through, but it has a lot of re-read value. The themes become clearer when the reader has a base understanding of the big picture, and there’s so much detail in the artwork that it’s easy to find new things that may have been missed the first time through. There’s something hypnotic about the fine lines, bold colors, and recurring textures of Ramsey’s illustrations, making Intelligent Sentient? an especially immersive title that pulls the viewer deep into a totally unpredictable environment.
Toward the end of the book, Ramsey starts to direct his focus inward, exploring his own artistic identity through the use of an “anti-character” inspired by the figures of Keith Haring. Ramsey isn’t shy about pointing out specific influences on his art; one of the drawings is a direct homage to works by Tove Jansson, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, and Moebius (among others), and that image is followed by a series of illustrations by artists with whom Ramsey identifies. Jon Boam, Jesse Jacobs, and Michael DeForge are a few of the visionary creators that turn up the psychedelic elements leading up the book’s conclusion, and this voyage through the work of Ramsey’s contemporaries informs his art throughout the rest of the book. [Oliver Sava]
Retrofit Comics deliver another home run via a beautiful, large format, soft-cover risograph edition of Olivier Schrauwen’s Mowgli’s Mirror (Retrofit Comics/Big Planet Comics), an absurdist-humored, skeptical take on Rudyard Kipling’s most famous character. It opens with Mowgli befriending an ape through gestures and imitation: waving, smiling, making faces, and establishing similarities, before a semi-playful tussle leads to them rolling down an embankment to the river where each proceeds to gaze at his reflection. The man finds his intrinsically pleasing: cupping his hands to “catch” it, he gazes at his visage reflected in the water in his hands; the orangutan leans over and drinks it. This exchange sets a thematic tone: the orangutan viewing the utility in cupped water, while Mowgli attempts to harness the impossible. The symbolism of mirrors and reflections is integral to Mowgli’s (and Schrauwen’s) narrative, as he searches for like-minded companionship—to see himself reflected in his immediate environment and those around him.
Mowgli and the orangutan mate, and produce a child in a birthing scene that reaches pantomime levels of ridiculousness and deliberate expression, with a single panel aside of a frog looking judgmentally on (it’s a truly gloriously askance frog—a disgustedly incredulous amphibian who could launch a thousand memes). Mowgli tries to teach the newborn how to walk: upright on two legs, but the baby keeps on falling over, finding it easier with the steadying, natural use of his long arms. Similarly, the orangutan is also no longer interested in Mowgli or his advances of sex, finally leaving him when he literally brings a wolf to their door (Schrauwen neatly bringing an idiom to visual actuality to reverse its meaning).
Mowgli’s confused blundering around the jungle in a bid to find and assert himself in an array of other animals, in a place which he doesn’t come from or belong to, can only result in futility. Not only is his concept of assimilation inherently narcissistic in the way it stems and pivots on his wants and needs; there’s a point to which he can learn, empathize, and co-exist, but the expectation—or demand—that spaces and people (particularly those of which he is not part) should adapt and bend to facilitate his will and whim is staggeringly false.
Reading the original Jungle Book as the struggle of a boy growing up caught between imperialistic and native identities, in ideological parallel to the struggle to bring civilized human law to the savage law of the jungle, Kipling presents it in a superficially Indian space, his derivation and understanding of nation as a construct operating from the assumption of Englishness as the point of colonial authority. Schrauwen’s rebuttal, then, is a highly arched eyebrow; a denouncing of imperialistic attitudes, of enforced erasure, homogenization, and apathetic hypocrisy (indicated in Mowgli’s dismissive, anti-Yorick response in the implied fate of his infant), and as sharply Rabelaisian as one has come to expect from the Belgian cartoonist. Mowgli’s choice isn’t either-or, a challenging of his base or better identity, as per Kipling, but a recognition of differentiation as autonomous individuality, and an acknowledgement of boundaries. [Zainab Akhtar]
The best thing about being a disaffected twentysomething former art student with no job prospects and an even worse love life is that you get to make mini-comics about just how hilarious everything is. Nick Sumida is a graduate of New York’s School Of Visual Arts currently working for Nickelodeon doing storyboards for its upcoming Harvey Beaks, so he’s not quite as pitiful a creature as he draws himself in the pages of Snackies (Youth In Decline). But what are comics for if not totally exaggerated bouts of crippling self-doubt?
The reason why Snackies is worth your time is that despite the hoeing of such seemingly well-trod roads, Sumida is funny. He doesn’t mess around. The gags are well choreographed and—perhaps because he works as a storyboard artist by day—his strips are perfectly paced. Many of these features began life as mini-comics but they don’t read amateurish or rough (intentional or not). They read pretty slick, actually. There’s no order indicated in the volume, and some strips appear to be older than others, if only to judge by the fact that Sumida’s line varies between thin and controlled and thicker and more expressive.
Again, none of this would work if Sumida wasn’t a funny guy. He’s pretty open about the fact that he’s really, really bad at dating, and takes the reader along for every step of his romantic misery. He self-diagnoses as a narcissist, literally falling in love with his own image in a passing mirror, writing “Missed Encounters” personals about a guy that amazingly looks just like him. “I’m so tired of these self-obsessed, vacant hipster bros,” he says, before rebuking his own face reflected in a spoon. Elsewhere, he states that, “The real secret to the dating world is no one is actually interested in grappling with someone else’s flaws, they just want something mysterious and aloof to project what they want onto!” Even though it comes in the context of a strip about meeting your date in a wizard’s robe wearing a domino mask to avoid revealing your true identity, this is genuine insight that lends the many pages of dating high jinks a real bite.
But there’s a pleasant variety to the book’s subject matter. Strips veer to the absurd with endearing results. When it comes time to reveal his true self to his boyfriend, Sumida unzips his body to reveal a pile of seven Furby dolls masquerading as a human being. He reveals that his dowry for any prospective husband includes eight pounds of water-damaged manga wrapped in a damp plastic bag. Somewhere along the way a 3-inch-tall Adele emerges shyly from behind the radiator, à la Eraserhead. There’s a great deal of invention on display here, and it would be wrong to spoil too much more. It’s not as if Sumida is the first self-absorbed single gay man with impossibly high standards and fear of intimacy, but he’s certainly one of the more imaginative. [Tim O’Neil]