Despite the fact that my usual method for critical assessment seems to be grabbing whatever’s within arm’s reach, scanning a panel and calling it a night, I occasionally find myself in contact with someone who’s mistaken me for what the boys down in Marketing refer to as “a reputable influencer.” Thus, they send me something to tell you guys about, and in a tribute to my love of getting stuff for free, I try to get through an entire review without making jokes about monkeys.
Let’s see if I can manage it this time.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes: When it first hit shelves a few weeks back, Courtney Crumrin and the Fire-Thief’s Tale, was recommended to me by a reader, and I mentinoed being curious about it, but not having the chance to actually check it out. Cut to this week, and there’s a package on my doorstep from the friendly folks at Oni Press with a copy to enjoy at my leisure. Seriously, those cats are on the ball.
I’ll admit to being only passingly familiar with Ted Naifeh’s work, because let’s be honest here, the gothic romance that is Gloomcookie is probably as far away from being my thing that it possibly could be, even if there is a Christmas issue. That said, last year’s Polly and the Pirates was not only an incredibly enjoyable comic, but was easily one of my favorite books of the year.
It was Polly–and specifically its title character, a proper young lady turned Pirate Queen–that made me more curious about Naifeh’s other work, and all things considered, I probably should’ve jumped on earlier.
And not just because The Fire-Thief’s Tale is a fun story, either–and it is, which I’ll get to in a second–but because just from reading through this one, it’s pretty obvious that I’m missing out on a lot as latecomer to the story. Don’t get the wrong idea, though: Naifeh doesn’t make it hard for a neophyte to jump right in and find himself having a good time with a the story of a little girl’s vacation in a town plagued by werewolves, but he doesn’t shy away from slightly oblique references to what’s gone before, either.
But then, those same references to Courtney’s past are what offer up my absolute favorite moment in the book. For context, here’s the plot: Courtney, an aspiring young witchity type who manages to be utterly charming despite a complete lack of a nose, and her creepy, Crowleyesque Uncle Aloyisius take a trip to see a friend in small-town Eastern Europe, where the gun-happy locals are beset by a gang of gypsy werewolves–only that the ruthless townsfolk, led by the mustachioed Petru, are the ones doing the besieging.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Petru’s fiancee, Magda, is in love with Jan, a traveling fiddle-player who happens to be the werewolf that Petru’s chasing after with a shotgun every night, thus creating a love triangle that features both gunplay and lycanthropy, and is thus eighty percent more awesome than the standard model. In any case, Magda’s too timid to leave Petru and follow her heart to go with Jan, to the point where she’s willing to stand by and let her future husband track down and murder her lover and his whole family, which is when Courtney sets out to do it her own damn self if she has to.
And that’s when we get this:
That’s a great line to begin with, but having it delivered to a grown woman from a little girl right before she sets off alone to try to stop a massacre? That’s fantastic.
And the art’s no slouch either: Courtney herself is essentially a cartoon character–big eyes, little mouth, no nose, a bat-shaped barrette in her hair–but the world around her is done in a detailed style that’s reminded me more of Mignola than anything else. Admittedly, that could just be the subject matter coming through, but have a look for yourself, and keep in mind that these are sequential panels:
Hellboy-ish or not, it works, and not just because it makes for a very appealing design. The contrast just reinforces Courtney as an outsider among everyone else, and the emotion that Naifeh’s able to show with those simple lines–especially in the last few pages–is just incredible, and it’s the kind of thing that makes me want to see more. Which, lucky for me, there’s plenty of, just waiting to be read.
It’s a fun read, and really, with 56 pages for $5.99, it’s well worth picking up, either from your local shop or from Oni themselves.
There’s a scene in James Stokoe’s Won Ton Soup where the main character says:
There’s that old saying: “Everything’s been done, nothing’s original.” That’s just what people with no passion say when they’ve run out of ideas.
Fuck those people.
…and considering that the guy delivering this soliloquy is a renegade master chef/space trucker using a sentient spice that only wants to become a delicious meal while he’s cooking on an illegally modified plasma oven, I think it’s safe to say that Stokoe himself doesn’t suffer from any such limitations.
At first glance, Wonton Soup reminded me an awful lot of Corey Lewis’s Sharknife, which made a lot of sense once I got to the end and found out that Stokoe’s actually part of Lewis and Brandon Graham’s YOSH Collective. But it’s not just the similar art style that tipped me off, and for that matter, it’s not the nigh overpowering emphasis on food that you see in those guys’ work, either, even if one of them did make a book about a guy who turns into a super-hero when he eats a fortune cookie.
Instead, it’s Stokoe’s practice of just bombarding the reader with idea after idea after idea like the target of a unrelenting high-concept machine-gun. Within the first third of the book, you’ve got Space Ninjas, sentient spices, angry redneck pandas, secret alien cooking techniques, and a dozen other great throwaway gags that Stokoe uses to keep the story moving. Heck, there’s even a part where someone’s constructing a catapult designed to throw planets into each other, and that only gets mentioned in passing!
I mean really, you guys: There’s a character in this comic with an extra robot hand, and I’m almost positive that its only function is giving high fives.
Needless to say, it makes for a fun read, but while the crazy concepts are unquestionably its biggest strength, there’s a lot of places where they become the book’s biggest drawback. In fact, there are a lot of places where it seems like they’re just ornaments thrown into the book to disguise the fact that the actual plot is razor-thin:
Boy (or at least, Johnny Boyo) leaves his home and life of tedium to seek adventure, but returns unexpectedly to the arms of his lover, only to be challenged by rivals from that very same life he left behind. With the help of a mentor, he triumphs over adversity in the form of a sporting competition of some kind (Spoiler Warning!), but forsakes his winnings to return to a life of adventure away from his beloved, because he’s as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change.
See what you’ve reduced me to, Stokoe? A Skynyrd reference! I oughtta slam this freakin’ book for that.
But I won’t, because even though it features the same plot–sans endangered rec center–as virtually every single movie made in the ’80s, it actually is a lot of fun. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Boyo’s going to win the cooking competition, and there shouldn’t be. After all, Stokoe’s under no illusions here:
And it certainly is. But it’s a fun gimmick, and sometimes, that’s all that matters.
As for the book itself, it ought to be hitting shelves pretty soon, or–just like Courtney Crumrin–you can skip to the source and order one from Oni.
As mentioned above, review copies were provided by the publisher. I really did like ‘em, though.