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Between the Panels: Hardly Comical Comics
By Lance Victor Eaton (October 2006)

Comic books can have quite the biting edge to them - particularly since the late 1980s with Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns series, both of which reinvented how readers came to understand their characters. These characters existed in a world no longer optimistic and bright, but dark and gloomy. While the three graphic novels discussed here definitely delineate from the mainstream, they also exemplify the twist comic books have taken over the years.

ShatterFlipping through Shatter will not necessarily impress readers. The jagged edges to pictures and text give it the mechanical feel of a dot matrix printer, foreign to today's well designed and printed comics. But this should not turn readers away, because Shatter is a gem to be displayed, not a relic to disregard. Peter Gillis and Mike Saenz created this masterpiece in the early 1980s on a Macintosh with a whopping 128 KB of RAM. Considering its origins, viewing the art becomes akin to watching a cyclist come first in the Tour de France on his child's tricycle. It is an amazing feat, and that is just the art.

The story also has a dark and gritty feel to it - and came before the style was made cool by Moore and Miller. Gillis and Saenz inject a science-fiction noir ambience that the pixilated art actually reinforces. Jack Scratch is a cop-for-hire at the Daley City Police Corporation, where he picks up contracts for criminal work. But when he lands a contract he wasn't supposed to, his lackluster life takes a turn for the worse. With agents chasing him, Jack is running out of options and ideas, and things are quickly getting worse. Between chapters, the creators have placed interludes by main characters to further flesh out their background, as well as historical indicators about the world the story occupies.

If Shatter feels a bit lacking in style, then Dan Brereton's nightmarish illustrations in The Psycho will send readers into overdrive - or maybe for this graphic novel, it would be overkill. Each panel stands on its own as a piece of art and, while a range of colors is used, Brereton still induces a dark vibe throughout the book that readers can virtually taste. The brooding tone of the art perfectly envelops that of the storyline.

The PsychoThe story is set on an alternate Earth, where genetically altered superhumans won World War II. The Freelance Costumed Operatives (FCOs) became a class of their own in ensuing years as each government vied to have their own enlistment of beings. However, not all who go through the transformation actually survive and those who do are often so demented by pain that they have earned the nickname psychos in lieu of FCOs.

CIA agent Jack Riley has never been fond of psychos, to say the least. He takes pleasure in his job, which is to monitor their behavior and at times, combat them. His cunning and skill often makes him more capable than the superior powered characters he comes up against. However, when his own government betrays him and puts a price on his head, Riley's options quickly decrease. His only goal is to save Sonya, his confidant and lover through this whole mess, but she has been kidnapped. If Riley wants to save himself and get the girl, he soon realizes he must become what he hates, a psycho. He knows the risks and can feel the self-loathing brimming in him, but in order to beat the devil, he too must become a demon.

Though this tale was originally published in the early 1990s, its style and narrative could easily be produced today to astounding acclaim. With an erratic energy to the art and a world filled with Joker-esque characters, James Hudnall and Dan Brereton deliver a book that fully embraces its title. With over forty pages of conceptual art and an afterword by Hudnall, this graphic novel is worth every cent.

Catching Lucifer's LunchThat brings us to Catching Lucifer's Lunch, a short story or novella by comparison to the two previous graphic novels. But in a mere fifty-six pages, the Brothers May still invoke an alter-narrative style in the tradition of the previous two. The haunting black and white art produces simultaneously a blurring of shapes and a clarity of mood. Artist Jason May creates an ambience to his panels that is both real and surreal. The blurring art style provides an indiscernible world with characters that readers come to know, but only vaguely.

The story opens on two hooded figures dragging bodies through a grave. The next scene features a man, woman, and child chained to the wall. Jackie and Higgins, the two adults, bicker and argue over what is going one while young Danny admits to his fears. But little can be understood, before the hooded figures take Danny and Jackie, leaving Higgins with another shackled man, Jack Darnton. Jack is a Graveyard Man, one of a long line of men who've protected graveyards from cults like the Guards of the Crimson Sun, their present captors. The Guards want to use Danny and Jackie as part of their ritual sacrifice to open the gate to Hell, but Higgins will not give up easily.

The short tale proves very interesting both in its art and narrative. T. J. May, the writer, does not depend on a lot of background detail. He establishes relations early on with a few simple words between characters, and that is all he needs. In the end, you have a fairly tight and concise dark story that readers will enjoy and appreciate for its simplicity. The bonus interview with the Brothers May provides additional insights into their project.

It's not that humor is lacking in these tales, but they offer a more sardonic or ironic humor than the norm, with a bite to it. While the nomenclature of comics derived from the weekly humorous sequential art strips in newspapers, it does not take much reading to figure out that they no longer reside just in that format.
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