Monday, August 21, 2017

Zoe Taylor's Joyride

Zoƫ Taylor's Joyride is a wonderfully brushy, scribbly and visceral story about a young woman at a party who makes a bold decision. Taylor does the absolute minimum to establish characters and motive, and she doesn't have to. After beginning the story with the odd image of a dressed-up woman sitting in the middle of a forest, it shifts to a lavish party, a woman getting ready for that party, and a sportscar speeding along to get to the party at the mansion. There are relationships that are left vague; there's an implication that one of the women is the daughter (or perhaps the sister) of the hostess, as the hostess even says to a friend, "That's her disguise." Nonetheless, the action at the party continues: people laughing, drinking and otherwise enjoying the moment. That is, until the first woman leaves the party and steals the sportscar that we saw in the first scene.

The hostess exclaims "She hot-wired the car!", and it's telling that no one at the party looks very surprised. What follows is an exhilarating, visceral series of full splash pages worth of speed lines and a blurred car. She eventually loses control and wraps the car around a tree in the forest. She walks away from the crashed car, which soon catches on fire and explodes. The other woman has followed her and is looking for her in the forest with someone who is presumably her boyfriend, but her flashlight-aided search fails.

That's more or less the whole story, but the level of ambiguity in the story is maddening. The story had a car crash as its climactic event, but the lack of context deliberately robbed the reader of drawing any conclusions from it other than raptly absorbing the images as images. We don't know why the first woman stole the car or her relationship to the other woman and her boyfriend. We don't know if this is the climax of a lifetime of erratic behavior or just another weekend. We don't know what will become of the woman after the car crash. Once again, Taylor forces the reader to simply experience the images and what is certain. There was a woman. She stole a car. She drove it fast, crashed it, and walked away. Any other conclusions to be drawn from the story are mere suppositions. One can make some connections regarding wealth, family and dysfunction, but that's all connotation--and mostly guesswork at that. If Taylor had felt like leaving more clues or leading the reader in a different direction, she would have. Instead, she focuses strictly on the action and takes the reader along with her, thanks to her expressive, immediate style and the cheap newsprint that soaks up those thick, black lines.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #11: Inkbrick #5

After a strong fourth issue, the fifth issue of Inkbrick was mostly forgettable. Most of the pieces weren't out-and-out bad, but some were too short to make much of an impact. Others were just not visually exciting. The highlight of the issue was a specially colored section featuring work from Jenny Zervakis, one of the earliest practitioners of comics-as-poetry. Her section, introduced by John Porcellino (who just published a big collection of Zervakis' work), stands out for its depictions of stillness and beauty, as well as a reserved but beautiful use of language. "Chuparossa" is an emotional reflection on a bird's song, its resilience and its motivations. It's a poem about intentionality, beauty and being present, with a marvelously subdued use of color. Zervakis was also an early practitioner of dream comics; here, there's a softly-colored one about her mother being a highly proficient gardener. There's also a deliberately ugly, bruise-colored strip that takes place at night and depicts a car accident, with the identity of the victim switching at the last moment. It's a dream about uncomfortable, raw emotions.

The recurring bit that held this issue together was that of a series of strips from Samplerman. He's best known for his collages of golden age comics and is especially interesting not just for juxtaposing images in unusual ways, but in experimenting by using clumps of comics as formal and decorative tools. In one story, the images form fractals. In another strip, the gutters take on character shapes, with the images of the strips turning into negative space. Other strips form loops raining down from above, or rooms full of strange objects. There's a sense of delightful experimentation and joy on each of these pages as Samplerman takes on the rich, lurid nature of the original colors and repurposes it in fascinating ways. Samplerman is able to retain enough of the original imagery to let the reader easily understand its original source material while at the same time divorcing the images from their original contexts. And there's no doubt that what he's doing is still comics; indeed, he relies heavily on the grid in order for the reader to understand the nature of the patterns he's playing with.

Other highlights in the issue include Courtney Loberg's mysterious, evocative strip about "sistering" (the use of water magic to recall specific visions) and a bizarre event seen while driving down a road. Her smudged, light sepia tones add an extra air of mystery to the proceedings, especially with her thin line weights with regard to her characters. Kurt Ankeny also uses a thin line weight effectively, albeit his method involved colored pencils. His story is about older people contemplating heights and also their inevitable ends. The way Ankeny juxtaposed the lines of the people's faces with the lines forming fields and buildings below was especially clever, as was a comparison of blades of grass to swords. Winnie T. Frick's red-and-lime "interview" with someone's double touched on all sorts of interesting ideas, including the concept of being a container for ideas for another person as well as the idea of shifting selves and identities. There's a sense of identity fracture here, with some hints that part of it is due to capitalism, and it was interesting to see this explored by way of a direct interview with her but not the "original". Publisher Alexander Rothman continues to impress, as his imagery of spring in the woods and the text regarding closeness and later othering play against each other in interesting ways.

Paul Tunis has made some interesting choices as editor, but his recent contributions have left me cold. The images are little more than decorative and don't have much impact on their own. The paint-spattering and photography of Alexey Sokolin and the textile/text experiment of Deshan Tennekoon & Thilini Perera just left me cold. They're too slick for the eye to grab onto, and that goes double for the actual plastic qualities of the text itself. Most of the rest of the issue either didn't combine text and image in interesting ways, or they were so fleeting that they simply didn't have much impact. This issue speaks to how difficult it can be to put together strong issues on a consistent basis without repeating too many of the same contributors.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Minis: Summer Pierre, Colin Lidston

Paper Pencil Life #5, by Summer Pierre. Pierre's quickly become one of my favorite autobio artists, thanks to an approach that is full of warmth, wit and intelligence. Pierre's ability to balance light and dark on a page, as well as her cartoony self-caricature with figures drawn from photo reference, make every page a pleasurable experience to read. That ability to balance form and content in such an intuitive manner is rare, even in the rare strip that's heavy on text. Pierre works in vignettes focusing on a single topic, like "Dappled Light". I've reviewed this elsewhere, but its focus on the family TV sitcom as a form of escape for young Pierre was both poignant and understated, as her cute-as-a-button child caricature roved around the world of Leave It To Beaver, eating cake and taking naps in the Cleaver household as her abusive father was left behind.

"Radio Radio" is one of the wordier pieces, yet Pierre's skill in evoking the warmth she feels in not only hearing the songs that radio stations across the nation play, but also the sense of location and community they create, makes this comic enormously satisfying. Music is a big touchstone in this issue, as another story about her finding an old mixtape and remembering the friendship and incredible depth of musical knowledge of someone from years earlier once again was evoked by Pierre's use of blacks as she depicted a night drive. Pierre's ability to zero in on small but important moments, both past and present, is in the tradition of John Porcellino and Harvey Pekar. Whereas Porcellino is most interested in the poetry of the moment and Pekar the profundity that can be found in the ordinary, Pierre seems to be fascinated with mindfulness and soaking in the joy of a moment. Whether that moment is a series of fun thing she spontaneously did with her son or if it was remembering a moment that she felt lost as a person, there's a fundamental sense of gratitude, of being glad for the joy of existing that can be felt in her work.

The second half of the comic is interesting because it addresses the election of Donald Trump. Suddenly, quotidian and timeless observations became rooted in specific events. It reminded me, to a much lesser degree, of the career of Jen Sorensen. She mostly did silly, funny cartoons until George W. Bush got elected, and then went full-on political and hasn't stopped since. I don't think Pierre will ever move in that direction, but she did clearly start to use her drawing board as a kind of escape and therapy from how upset she felt about the election's results. Interestingly, her non-political strips really got back to basics: doing a strip about taking a run and the way it made her feel in the moment, as well as a "24 hours in the life" comic that crammed 40 panels into two pages. There were more comics about her son and family (like a touching story about her uncle). The strips were more directly about comfort, like drawing a scene from Love & Rockets are having a day to herself. The issue finishes up with "I'll Never Be Cool", a hilarious list of how and why Pierre is a hopeless square, and a comic about a party she attends in New York with Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman that takes a rather astounding turn before the reader is clued in on what's happening. That was Pierre having a little chuckle at the reader's expense, a sort of cheery wink at the reader that reveals that her sense of humor is more than intact. It's a great capper for a collection that's over fifty pages but never once feels stale or repetitive. Pierre is in a great groove right now, and hopefully she will keep it going.

The Age of Elves Issue Two, by Colin Lidston. This continues the slice of life saga of four high school friends who are avid role playing gamers, set in 2000. This comic is once again interesting because of the incredible amount of detail Lidston devotes to showing off his understanding of gaming, yet despite that it's not really about gaming. It's about relationships, and how the sort of person who views gaming as a major part of their lifestyle and identity interacts with others. There's social awkwardness to be sure, but there are also more nuanced, intragroup conflicts that arise thanks to seemingly trivial differences between group members. It's the paradox of gamer culture both being welcoming of outsiders but also frequently rigid with regard to thinking. That plays out in this comic in a long road trip to a huge gaming convention, as nerdy thought questions turn into arguments, with the two more conservative members of the group teaming up against the Goth guy.

Lidston reveals that there are both cracks and connections with everyone in the group, as the sole girl (Sarah) gets into it with the others when she critiques the awful writing from a panel description. There are times that the art got a little murky, as Lidston chose to go with a fairly heavy line weight throughout the issue. It didn't help that Lidston also chose to spot a lot of blacks on already-dense pages. That said, Lidston's line also had a spontaneous quality that allowed for expressive figure drawings. There's a sense that Lidston knows everything about these characters, down to the tiniest details, and that shows up on the page in terms of their body language and small facial expressions. That's the key to this comic, as long-term friendships among teens (especially among boys) are often dependent on that kind of visual signifier if they're unwilling to actually talk about their feelings.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Minis: X.Gordon, S.Hanselmann, K.Czap, Nou

100, by Nou. This comic plays around with figure and text in a way that's meant to confront the reader. The figure, a young, nude girl whose anatomy is kept bare, looks out at the reader in various poses. We see her on the left-hand side of each two-page spread, and big blocky letters on the right side. There's a sense of trying to reach out, of knowing that the general We is out there, but at once being resisted by the reader and the girl gazing at us. Her poses are as disarming as her words are confrontational, and the way she moves from image to image invites the reader to flip the pages like a flip book to see her in action. It implies a sense of near-simultaneity in these words and movements, a sense of action that the reader can't immediately answer because it happens so quickly.

The New Cast, by Kevin Czap. This comic is a fusion of Czap's interest in creative/cooperative reality shows like Project Runway and their own utopian take on any number of topics. That metaphor allows Czap to examine the ways in which local creative scenes grow, ebb and flow over time, something that's especially pertinent to comics. Czap and Czap Books are one of the ascendant small-press publishers of the moment; in a real sense, Czap's artists are the new cast. Czap has always made the characters in his book incredibly diverse, as they all tend to be genderfluid and multiracial. Binaries don't really exist in Czap's comics. Even the new/old binary is explored in detail here, as there's a sense of joyful interaction in the new season between the casts, but one-by-one the old cast members drop off and go on to do their own thing outside of the purview of group activity. That kind of communal living and working together is difficult to maintain as one grows older, interests change and other things become more important. As an artist, there's also an awareness of one's audience, and that's reflected in the comic by some viewers staying on and others moving to different shows. Because it's a Czap comic and things tend to turn out for the best, the new cast gets it together at the end and essentially becomes the new vanguard. Visually speaking, what I found most interesting about the comic was the way that Czap was able to make scenes where the characters were in motion and scenes where they were just hanging out equally interesting, thanks to their understanding of body language and gesture. Small gestures sometimes pack as much visual wallop as intense activity.

Drone, by Simon Hanselmann. This story appears in Hanselmann's new book, One More Year. Starring Werewolf Jones and Megg from his Megahex series, this is a story about two lonely people who are desperate to having some kind of expressive, creative outlet while self-medicating themselves as hard as possible in order to numb any kind of emotional response as much as possible. Jones is an especially pathetic character throughout the series, but here there's an almost heart-breaking attempt at him trying to do something positive with his life for just a moment. Megg is a far more complicated character, and this story deals with her relationship with her mother. She's worried that her mom might be in seriously bad shape (or even dead) after getting out of rehab when she doesn't answer a call on Mother's Day. The story progresses as the duo actually makes some progress on their hilariously over-the-top music (with Jones wanting to be as offensive as possible at all times and Megg voting him down), even as they sabotage themselves when they use subox (a substance used to wean people off heroin) that causes them to vomit every few minutes. When Megg's mom eventually contacts her, the nature of that contact is heartbreaking as well, and only the promise of losing herself in something pure and joyous in the music is able to help her. There's something about the smudged, cramped version of this story in minicomics form (published by 2dcloud) that adds to the atmosphere, as Hanselmann's line is fat and even looks smeared across the page at times.

Kindling, by Xia Gordon. This mostly abstract comic done in red and blue is in many respects a creative shot across the bow by a talented young cartoonist. The sense of the comic capturing something utterly timeless and yet yoked to a specific time and specific place gives the story a sense of a benign push and pull, or rather a hermeneutic understanding of how it's both things at once, and how it can be neither thing without both aspects working together. It's both timeless and specific, this feeling it evokes of being at a beach, watching a night sky, being part of a group that's exchanging an ineffable energy among its members. There's a series of pages of looping lines in the middle of the comic which alternate between looking like a woman's hair and the wind whipping through that hair, until it resolves into a figure walking amidst a rainstorm on the beach. Gordon has incredible chops and a way of looking at the universe that reminds me a little of Aidan Koch, only there's a remarkable warmth and sense of engagement that unites her images that might otherwise seem cold, disconnected and emotionless.  The title of the comic itself brings to mind something that's going to be used to spark a life-giving fire, as though the creation of this comic itself being fuel for future works. Her work fits nicely with 2dcloud's aesthetic.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Minis: C.Browning, M.J. Alvarez, M.Pearson

Grey Fug, by Chris Browning. This is less a comic than it is a series of captioned illustrations, detailing Browning's struggle with depression. Each single-page illustration is crammed either with detail, spotted blacks or dense cross-hatching. The conceit of the comic is explaining his depression to his two beloved cats, and there's a sense in which each panel represents a different window, a different look into his mind. He even views each of his cats' personalities as analogous to his own, with an older one with a cynical kind of tough love and the other with constant, wide-eyed enthusiasm. Taking them on this tour also brought on echoes of Dante being led by Virgil through the circles of hell, as each layer of depression is more difficult than the next to process. Browning takes us through mental clutter, self-recrimination over unfinished projects, deep regrets, and self-loathing (especially with regard to body image and comfort eating).

Browning is mindful enough to recognize his positive aspects, but is also aware that things can go downhill with no warning, thanks to both anxiety and his Asperger's syndrome, which means that of his neurological wiring is off-kilter to begin with. Browning identifies a huge key in combating depression: understanding that both its biggest catalyst and fuel is not just isolation, but also the idea that there is no one out there to reach out to. The comic demonstrates just how he reaches out, and how that gives him hope each time he falls into that "grey fug". There's a powerful sense of reaching out on each of the pages as well; he's telling a secret on himself, which is often a key aspect of negotiating the isolation urge. The comic is a literal demonstration that he has nothing to hide while simultaneously providing a path for him to tread when he's looking for a way out.

Hypnospiral Comics #8, by M. Jacob Alvarez. This is a series of single-panel gag comics, with Alvarez using an extremely heavy line weight for all of his drawings. It's a little distracting at times, as his gags don't have a lot of room to breathe in some of his selections here. His three panel-strips are similarly cramped thanks to dense line weights, but there's no doubt that he has solid ideas and knows how to match his drawings with his concepts. That is, he doesn't "draw funny" so much as his gags land because he's skillfully able to nail his ideas on the page. For example, one of the best gags was that of two t-rexes. One was obviously old because of his dialogue, cane and checkered cap, and the other young because of his baseball cap. However, the real gag was that the older one was standing and the younger one was bent over, which is funny because that crouch is the newer, but more scientifically correct, understanding of how the T-Rex carried itself. There's another good gag about a hero-swap between Frodo Baggins and Conan the Barbarian, and just how badly that would have gone. Alvarez has solid comedic and cartooning chops. All he needs now is to give his drawings a little more room and perhaps cut back on his line weights just a tad.

Long Necked Bird 1, by Marc Pearson. Pearson and Michael Hawkins (below) make up Melbourne, Australia's Glom Press. They're a Risograph operation that makes lovely comics. Pearson's comic features the titular, silent bird who is an outcast with his own fellow birds but is friends with a frog. The frog comes up with a personal helicopter as an invention, so he can fly like his friend. Later, the bird sees a huge, bizarre creature that he later realizes could yield a reward. Pearson really goes to town with the Riso, using a different color on nearly every page to help express mood and time. The story itself is just the beginning of what is clearly a much longer saga, but there's an anxious sweetness to it that offers push and pull for the reader.

The Nap and Secret Song, by Michael Hawkins. Hawkins combines bigfoot cartooning with bizarre, highly sexualized shapes and psychedelia. The results look familiar but divorced from any one influence in particular, as Hawkins' voice is at once folksy and dreamy. Secret Song asks the question of what forces set us in motion? Are they chemical? Supernatural? Something else? The Nap similarly a mix of the sensuous and the existential, as a young woman coming home from work goes to sleep and ponders the implications of that state of unconsciousness, the way it makes her feel afterward ("like the debris from a glacier") and its ultimate connection to death. Hawkins sticks with a single color for this comic, but he's all over the place in Secret Song, with oranges, purples and golds that almost look embossed. He goes a bit over the top with color in that comic, to the point where it nearly obliterates his line in several places. It also distracts from the storytelling and nearly erases some of the lettering. Still, one can see the sheer enthusiasm at the possibilities that the Riso gives to tell a story, and it only makes sense to test those limits. It didn't work in this case, but there were still a number of interesting images and effects that I'd love to see repeated later.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Comics-as-Poetry #10: Inkbrick #4

The comics-as-poetry anthology Inkbrick's fourth issue was the best to date, thanks to powerhouse bookend entries from Keren Katz and Sasha Steinberg. The former's "Marks On The Attendance Sheet" is a tense, sexually charged story about a teacher and a student told from the student's perspective. Katz's use of impossible angles on an open-page layout creates the illusion of there being panels on the page, only it looks like they're caving in and/or putting the characters into these extreme, oblique angles. There's a lack of neat order on each of the pages, which is further exacerbated by Katz's intense and textural use of color, to the point where it looks like she's exploring the aesthetic of textiles. Arms and legs bend at strange angles, boot-tips droop, colors and patterns surround line and a number of other visual signifiers are at work to express the sense of feeling upside down that the narrator is experiencing. She's feeling unbalanced and dizzy in this relationship, feeling thrills and doubts and disappointment all at once. It's a brilliant short piece, probably the best in Inkbrick to date.

This issue was printed in 2015, a couple of years before Sasha Steinberg achieved international fame as Sasha Velour, the drag artist. However, this piece should be easily accessible to fans of Steinberg's drag work, given that it works with Velour's trademark bald head. The piece, "What Now?" is about Steinberg grieving his recently-deceased mother, and it makes extensive use of negative white space. Alternating between huge swaths of red, black and green, we see Sasha going from room to room (in his mother's house presumably), dizzyingly processing (one word per panel) the new reality of her absence. Later, a series of panels alternate between Steinberg spreading her ashes in the snow and melting away in the house. The last two panels are killers: another silhouette of a dress, this time with a hat, with the next panel being a photo of his mother in precisely the same position. It's a beautiful, touching exploration of what it means to exist in one moment and to disappear the next, and what those ideas mean when you leave a loved one behind you. This was the first comics-as-poetry piece I had seen from Steinberg, and it was powerful and sincere.

Another welcome presence in the issue was that of David Lasky, a pioneer of comics-as-poetry. This issue featured an experiment in juxtaposing a textual memory against unrelated images; in this case, it was several images he redrew from London's National Gallery. The best poetry, in my opinion, is that which has concrete images. That's why Lasky's later piece, which provides simple descriptions of activities "Streetlight walks, Electric fan in the hall, Shadows and breeze" is so powerful, particularly since the images take off from those concrete descriptions and becomes plays of light and shadow, focusing on small, singular images that almost look concrete out of context.

Many of the cartoonists make good use of the fact that Inkbrick is in full color. Laurel Lynn Leake's juxtaposition of color as representative of environment is abstracted in part because of the way she compares it to depression and that "thoughts can trap you". There's the implication that staying mindful is crucial even when being presented with the pure beauty of one's environment. Isuri Merenchi Hewage & Deshan Tennekoon are more direct in their piece "August In Pasikuda", as a single color, displayed on each page in different patterns but all in a grid, represent a different time of day and different activity in the same locale. The use of light, texture and an especially rich mix of colors, along with the concrete descriptions, powerfully evoke a sense of time and place in an almost visceral manner. It's interesting that they concretize color to create a sense of time and place, whereas Leake abstracts the same color patterns we see in nature to reflect inward.

Kate Schneider's "May" takes familiar, comforting images as a kind of bulwark against the stress she felt regarding an upcoming surgical procedure. It starts with lightly-drawn pictures of her cat, then the trees outside, and finally simply the night sky. It's not as sophisticated, visually or otherwise, as the other pieces in the book, but there's a sincerity to it that makes it work. Not every use of color is effective. Hayley Fiddler's "Waves" uses light blue as the sole tone in her poem about infidelity that switches from an undersea oyster to a couple getting ready. The use of color is obvious here and doesn't add anything when she switches from under the water to a bedroom, and the idea for the poem is not especially remarkable. The same is true about Paul Tunis' otherwise clever piece about pomegranates; it would have conveyed precisely the same information if it was in black and white.

A lot of the pieces involve melting, shifting and otherwise transforming into something new. William Cardini's piece takes his garish, computer-generated imagery and creates something quite beautiful with it, as his creature talks about being thrown into the river and their mud mind compressing. That's followed up with an image of the creature's mind turning into layers of sedimentary rock, each one constructed of the words they describe them: "to chalk, to coal, to marl, to shale". Louise Aleksiejew's piece, other than resembling Michael DeForge a bit, is all about a transformation from losing all her drawings and pictures into seeing a witch who gave her a magic item as a kind of replacement. There's a sense of whimsy, not fear, at work here, which fits with the melting art style. Gary Jackson & David Willet's "The Midnight Marauder Contemplates Retirement" is a naturalist image of a crimefighter having beaten up some criminals, but the action in the piece takes place in the graffiti in the background, reflecting a change of emotional states. It's a clever device that leads the reader across the page expertly.

Alexander Rothman's own "Honey Locust" speaks to the increasing complexity and beauty in his pieces, as his use of colored pencil combined with a strong sense of negative space makes for an eye-catching piece, as he combines the particular scent of the honey locust tree and imagines mastodons ages ago trying to get at its buttery scent. Michel Losier's strip is text-heavy and doesn't let its images breathe, while Aurelien Leif's piece is an excerpt from a longer work that's hard to approach because of the swirling chaos on each page. The experimental piece from Alexey Sokolin and Angel Chen was clever, using sentence mapping to create alternative versions of ideas, all leading into different, separate, images. All told, there was very little filler in this issue. Most of the cartoonists made some powerful statements and the editorial team of Rothman & Tunis kept the issue flowing with a variety of different visual approaches, being careful not to arrange pieces that were too similar to each other too close to each other in the anthology. This was really the first issue I felt like I could hand to someone and say that it was a pretty thorough survey of comics-as-poetry at this moment in time.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Malachi Ward, Part 2: From Now On

Concluding a two-week look at Malachi Ward, here's a review of his collection of sci-fi/fantasy short stories, From Now On. 

This is a surprisingly coherent collection of stories. Some of that is intentional, as a particular story is told from the point of view of three different characters. One of them is the time traveler from "Top Five", which I reviewed last week. Adding texture and context to that story are "The Oviraptor" and "Disconnect", which follow the stories of the two other time travelers. We learn, for example, that the group badly overshot their goal of going back to watch early humans and neanderthals interact, instead going back to a much earlier era where dinosaurs were still active. One of the travelers permanently exiled herself from her only remaining compatriot, and "The Oviraptor" offers a touching attempt by the other traveler to reach her when he came across a bird-like dinosaur, after she had earlier mourned that she would never see a bird again. "Disconnect" is one of the best stories in the whole book, as it follows the arc of another traveler, as she faced a lifetime of alienation and loneliness before she went on the mission. She wound up getting there about forty years before the rest of her group, and the year-by-year narrative (including being visited and living with aliens, and then fleeing when some more aliens came along to attack them) that runs panel-by-panel is an effective and clever device. She spends the whole time trying to find her compatriots, not knowing that they weren't there yet, and there's a heartbreaking ending when she sees them after they've just arrived--still young. The deeply muted colors and naturalistic style reflect that sense of loneliness, and the color does a lot of the narrative work when Ward starts cramming panels on each page.

In terms of Ward displaying sheer drawing chops, nothing beats one of his earliest stories, "Utu". It established a number of Ward's favorite techniques. There's a double genre-flip, as it starts out as a fantasy story, then it's revealed to really be a sci-fi story, and then that turns into a sad-boy comic. There's the colonial urge shown by its main character, who uses his position of being from the future in an effort to change the past, thinking he knows better than the savages of yore. There's that sense of dystopian ennui, as all the advantages of the future don't make it any easier for the time-fiddler to escape his own sense of loneliness and inability to relate to women. Ward also shows off his drawing and design chops, especially in the way he transitions from light to darkness and drops a variety of revelations on the reader. "Hero Of Science" is simultaneously a more refined and more visceral version of these concepts in a manner similar to Jesse Moynihan's Forming comics. The character design is a tad cartoonier, but the commentary is more pointed. The story is about a yet another time traveler who has "gone native" with a primitive tribe, and he stages a murderous attack on other travelers from the future who are looking for him. It's in many ways not unlike a Mr. Kurtz situation from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where it's not so much that a colonizer goes mad with power so much as it is the painful revelation that colonization is in and of itself an act of violence. What the traveler does here is just a logical extension of that premise.

Stories like "Henix", "Beasts of Kay-7" and "The Scout" all have double-twists after the initial premise seems obvious. Or rather, the consequences of the twist are unexpected. In "Henix", the High Protectorate (aka the queen) is visited by an elf that tells her that there was a prisoner in her dungeon that she needed to see. When the prisoner, half-elf and half-human, tells her that his father was a member of her court and put him in prison, she accepts his service in exchange for his service in perpetuity. The twist in the story is not the identify of his father, but rather her reaction when she finds out. This story is comparatively spare for Ward, focusing more on character than world-building.

"Beasts of Kay-7" features a scientist whose flexibility of thinking prevents him and his crew from being turned into food by a group of monstrous aliens on the planet they're exploring. Notably, the scientist is one of the few characters in the book who's pure of motive. He doesn't want to conquer or colonize; rather, he simply wants to understand the life that's on the planet for the sheer sake of learning. He's an abrasive and insensitive character at times, but his dedication to science and the mission at hand give him a purity that the other characters in the volume don't possess. Once again, Ward's skill as a draftsman is on full display, as the bizarre half animal/half plant creatures on the planet are terrifying. The punchline of the story--that the mere act of observation and recording is a kind of intervention on its own--is clever and well-designed, especially in the way it shows how easy it is to not only become dependent on technology, but to take its existence entirely for granted.

"The Scout" is about the way in which colonization leads to inevitable violence, told through incredibly clever trope of an explorer's clone being repeatedly sent to a cave that looks promising for annexing. What keeps killing the clones? The originals, one after another, coming to the conclusion that what it's doing is wrong. Here, the genre doesn't flip as much as the story's point of view does. It's a neat trick and part of Ward's career-long exploration of when people should leave well enough alone but choose not to. Ward is always careful to come up with a premise and then carry it out in an entirely logical way. It's not quite so-called "hard" science-fiction, but rather, science-fiction that comes with a set of rules that it must follow and carry the structure of the narrative within that set of rules. Character is still more important than world-building, because the latter is just the scaffolding that the ugly human emotions at the heart of each story reside. Ward's mastery of that scaffolding allows him to craft increasingly intricate stories that explore the edge of morality and ethics.