Every now and then, a comic book publisher gets the idea that I’m someone people go to for advice on purchasing their comics, and not just a guy who talks about Destro all the time. When that happens, they send me comics to review, and because there’s nothing I like more than getting free stuff, I try to provide an honest opinion on them while doing my best to avoid making jokes about Marvex the Super-Robot or something.
Let’s see how I do this time.
To be fair, though, I think I’ve got a little room to work with, since both of tonight’s subjects involve some comedy. And, interestingly enough, they’re both stories where traditional fantasy elements have been paired with a real-world slice-of-life setting for pretty awesome results.
First up is Lars Brown’s North World, which hit the shelves last week from the good folks over at Oni Press.
As you might expect from the title, North World‘s distinguished right off the bat by its setting, which–if you’re into labels, man–could be described pretty accurately as “Modern Fantasy.” Conrad, the hero of the first volume, lives in a world with mass transit, telephone poles, burrito stands and all the other trappings of the 21st century that we all know and love, but it’s also a world where picking up your family sword and going off to the woods to fight Dire Rats is a pretty good career option. And that’s where it all starts for Conrad, a young adventurer with a knack for dealing with oversized animals who gets called back to his hometown to deal with a nasty bit of demon-summoning that also coincides with his ex-girlfriend’s wedding.
If you’re a regular ISB reader, you may already be familiar with North World from when I linked to its webcomic version back when the trade was first solicited (when I heard about it from Kevin), and honestly, if you haven’t already checked it out, do so. After all, Brown sells his own work better than I ever could with scenes like this:
And that’s within the first twelve pages.
Like all good comics, though, North World is more than just the sum of its parts, which aren’t just limited to a modernized fantasy setting and bear-punching. In fact, the beats of the plot are so familiar that they’re almost cliché: A guy who leaves home to escape bad memories and a dead-end small-town life looking for the one big score that’ll finally make it possible (which, now that I think of it, is the plot of every Bruce Springsteen song), the strained relationship with the father that thinks he abandoned the family, the ex-girlfriend who wants him to see how happy she is without him. It’s all stuff that we’ve all seen before, but Brown does a great job of making it fresh and engaging, and not just because he puts it in a different setting, and it all adds up to a pretty fun read.
But again, you can find that out for yourself by reading it online as a webcomic, and while that’s all well and good, I’m one of those people who prefers to get long-form story arcs like North World in complete chunks that I can sit down with. This is also why I love Phil Foglio’s Girl Genius but only read it in trade, and as a bonus to guys like me that goes against the trend of how webcomic collections usually work, Brown’s included a complete story that actually goes beyond what’s published online.
So take a look, read, enjoy, and then swing by your friendly local comics retailer (or use the handy Amazon link above) and check it out. It’s well worth it.
Next up on the agenda is an upcoming book from our old friends at First Second, and seriously? It’s pretty close to being the most enjoyable comic they’ve published since Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese.
Not too much of a surprise there, since Xeric winner Jessica Abel’s involved, and they tend to give those things out to people who know what they’re doing. I mean, she did do the art for the This American Life comic, which will no doubt stand as the greatest NPR tie-in to comics until Marvel finally decides to approve my pitch for Sarah Vowell Super Stories. Anyway, Abel, Gabe Soria and Warren Pleece’s Life Sucks is pretty easy to boil down to a one-sentence pitch: In essence, it’s Clerks… with vampires.
The story follows Dave, a college student who had the misfortune to wander into a convenience store while looking for a job, where he was promptly bitten by the shop’s owner, a vampire who now demands that he spend his undeath as assistant manager, shelling out lottery tickets and beef jerky to the night shift crowd forever.
It is, therefore, the closest approximation of Hell that I have ever seen.
There’s a lot of inherent comedy in the idea of a mid-20s slacker trying to balance his life as a minimum-wage Nosferatu–and there are a lot of really good sequences to that effect, especially at the beginning–but like North World, the team behind Life Sucks uses that as a backdrop for more mundane drama. Dave has a job that he hates that he can’t get out of, a crush on a girl that he can’t bring himself to do anything about, and an omnipresent nemesis who seems like he’s had everything handed to him while Dave himself gets stuck with the leftovers. I don’t know about you guys, but those are all things I can identify with–especially that last one–and for the most part, it’s all blended with the thin metaphor of the undead for some very enjoyable comics.
The problem is that the plot takes two sharp turns before it finally ends up. Halfway through, Dave and his aforementioned nemesis, Wes–a classic villain in every sense that at one point literally bites his girlfriend’s head off in a scene that’s pretty jarring given the lighthearted, off-panel nature of the violence that leads up to it–make a bet regarding the object of Dave’s affections and who can get through to her first, the conniving prettyboy or the earnest John Cusack stand-in. This is a conflict that ought to be familiar if you’ve, you know, ever seen a movie made for teenagers, and it plays out almost exactly the way you’d think, until the second sharp turn that leads to an extremely depressing ending.
It’s a shame–for me anyway–because there’s so much about the book that’s really enjoyable, and while it’s a pretty far stretch to say that the last few pages “ruin” the rest of it, it certainly seemed wholly unnecessary and thoroughly disheartening. To stretch out the Clerks metaphor to its logical conclusion, it’s a lot like the original ending where Dante gets shot and killed, and seems every bit as out of place here as it does in the film.
But then again, that could just be me and the eternal hope that you can one day break the chains of
comics retail a menial job, and there’s more than enough that I liked about this one that it was worth reading.
And since I’ve made my opinions on vampire-based comics prettty well known in the past, that might as well be a stirring endorsement.
As mentioned above, review copies were provided by the publishers. That’ll show ’em.