Tuesday, 17 June 2008

As Families Go, I've Seen Far Stranger...

A week of heavy exposure to Joe Casey's weirder adventures as a comic book writer has settled it for me -- he's definitely at his best when he just chills out and lets his characters dominate the story.

Automatic Kafka and Godland both benefit hugely from the sheer looseness of their design,with Godland being particularly notable for how little the antics of its various side characters have to do with the adventures of Adam Archer and his family. Indeed, Friedrich Nicklehead, Basil Cronus and the Tormentor have spent so much time chasing each other round in circles that it's almost a surprise when their stories collide with the main plot!

The Intimates seemed to be intended as a another character driven serial, but the bitter self-commentary of some of its later issues seems to indicate that Casey was chaffing against the perception that this wasn't what people wanted from the book. Perhaps the post Automatic Kafka Casey was feeling doubly frustrated by the fact that he'd had to cut two such stories short in close proximity?

This bout of second-guessing brings me to two of Casey's more recent works -- the short graphic novel Nixon's Pals and the first issue of Charlatan Ball.

Nixon's Pals is entertaining, but its story is maybe concise in a way that stops it from being a total success. What's good about it is the sheer oddball sleaziness of the world Casey and artist Chris Burnham have created. The super-powered parolees that populate the book have a freakish charm that's distinctly Casey -- it would have been nice if they'd been given more of a chance to wander around and talk crap and be weird, instead of being trapped in a fairly stock, noirish plot, but so it goes...

(Matthew Brady wrote a neat piece on the book here -- he's especially on point with regards to the strength of the character design, but the whole review is worth a read.)

Charlatan Ball has only just started, but as an ongoing series I'm hopeful that it'll find the time to let its characters and concepts do whatever the hell they want to do. The premise is simple and not particularly amazing in itself -- guy has crap life, slips through into another, weirder reality, which... let’s not fuck around, this could be any number of children's fantasy books or 60s sci-fi stories with that setup.

As such, a project like this succeeds or fails on the basis of its tone and details, and thankfully Charlatan Ball is superstrong on both of those points. As Sean Witzke has pointed out, Casey's obsession with the sheer visual weirdness of Kirby's works is the first thing that'll strike you here, just like it does in Godland. There's a warped, fluid quality to Andy Suriano's linework that combines with the murky psychedelia of the colour scheme in a way that suggests a cross between prime-time Kirby and the 80s work of Brendan McCarthy.

Here's the cover for issue #2, for those of you who haven't had a look at the book yet:


See what I mean about the Kirby-style madness? That post of Sean's that I linked to above has a great image from the inside of issue #1 that really highlights what I was talking about with regards to the colouring too -- go check it out!

It's worth noting that Charlatan Ball isn't Godland redux, because any attempt to sell it as such would be disingenuous at best. Indeed, in contrast to Godland artist Tom Scioli's forceful, blocky figures, Charlatan Ball presents us with a universe that looks like it could melt together into technicolour oneness at any moment. Except it's not quite so wholesome as all that, what with the match fixing, mobs debts and strips bars and all. And that's fine with me, so long as Casey and Suriano keep letting their weirder instincts run free. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you enjoy Casey's more free-spirited works then I'd say there's a good chance you'll like this one too.

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