Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Graphic Lit: The big debut

There’s something about the big debut, that new comic or graphic novel from a budding cartoonist suggesting great promise, that gets people (myself included) all fired up.

Of course, not every artist manages to capitalize on all that initial goodwill, but for those who do, it’s worthwhile to go back and re-examine their initial forays.

Take Scott McCloud, for example.

Before he became renowned for books like “Understanding Comics,” McCloud was best known for his superhero series “Zot!”

The comic centered around the titular hero, a carefree teen from another, futuristic dimension, and his relationship with Jenny, a decidedly more pessimistic girl from our Earth.

The new “Complete Black and White Collection” collects the later half of Zot’s saga (McCloud apparently not being terribly satisfied with its initial full-color run) into one brick-sized book.

Reading the series, you can see McCloud constantly experimenting, taking elements of mainstream comics, the burgeoning indie scene and manga (still new and strange back then) and trying to digest them to form his own style.

The first half of the book is mostly set in Zot’s world and is full of fun, zany, dramatic adventures.

Halfway through, McCloud abandons the superhero stuff almost entirely, focusing instead on Jenny and her friends and their everyday lives.

Combining freewheeling sci-fi tropes (robot butlers, flying cars) with realistic, fully developed characters, “Zot!” helped point the way toward comics’ full potential, a trail McCloud would blaze more fully a few years later with “Understanding Comics.”

Another series that initially dealt with superheroes only to change halfway through was “Demo,” which initially attempted to tell slice-of-life stories about teens and twentysomethings coming to terms with their burgeoning supernatural powers.

Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan then abandoned that tack in favor of exploring young people at crossroads in their lives, be it the end of a relationship or wising up to the fact that it’s time to grow up and get a real job.

Wood and Cloonan made their mark with these smart, well-grounded, emotionally involving tales, and while they’ve done great work since, I’m not entirely sure they’ve done anything that’s surpassed their early work.

But while we might look fondly at “Demo” and “Zot!” with the benefit of hindsight, stellar debuts are far from a thing of the past.

Witness “Swallow Me Whole,” a new graphic novel by Nate Powell. I’m not kidding when I say this book knocked me for a loop.

“Swallow” tells the tale of two teenage stepsiblings, brother and sister, each with different mental problems (the brother displays signs of schizophrenia, while the sister has a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Powell’s tale unfolds in a relaxed fashion as the pair trudge their way through school, deal with family and try to cope with their problems.

Eventually, one sibling starts to get better while the other, tragically, does not.

Powell displays a poetic gift for visual metaphor here, articulating the kids’ illnesses with some deft imagery.

He also has an ear for realistic dialogue and situations (a cringeworthy incident at school, for example, seems particularly drawn from life).

In short, “Swallow Me Whole” is a fantastic book. Keep your eye on this Powell kid. He’s going places.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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