|Frank Espinosa, Rocketo, Vol. 1: The Journey to the Hidden Sea (Image, 2006). 304 pp. (paper) $19.99.|
by Eric Davies
When I first saw Rocketo, it was already an issue in, and I was with my son in the comic book store. Let me tell you, going into a comic book store with a nine year old can be an interesting adventure. I try to shield him from the scarier stuff and the obviously adult books, and even some of the tamer titles just because I am not sure he is ready for it all. So it was a relief to find Rocketo, a horizontally-printed beauty, drawn and imagined by Frank Espinosa. It tells the story of a farflung future: the earth has been almost destroyed and has no magnetic north. The main character is a mapper—a sort of living compass. One look inside and I knew I could share it with my son. It was a classic fantasy about an imaginary world, fully realized and absolutely (I mean absolutely) beautifully drawn.
Frank Espinosa got his start in animation, and he has been very successful—first at Disney and then at Warner Brothers. He had a lot to do with the success of the Looney Tunes franchise. And Rocketo has the look to me of a storyboard for a wonderful animated film. Espinosa uses quick brush strokes and simple-two tone coloring, so the whole thing just moves. It is graceful, impressionistic, and fun. It makes sense that someone in animation could embrace the beauty and dimensions of a storyboard. Usually, storyboard drawings are done quickly by a trained artist, and they use a lot of shorthand to indicate motion and framing. They can be very technical, but there is a lot of unintentional beauty in some of them. That is what Espinosa has captured. He has taken that quick gestural language that shows how to make a film work and turned it into his own visual language. The sideways format of Rocketo—the crazy panoramic layout—also mimics a storyboard in a way. Usually those frames are lain out horizontally, or in a line along a wall—film image is horizontal, after all. But I think Espinosa also wanted to work longways to let his landscapes really breathe. Or maybe he just wanted to be different. I could cite all the people he reminds me of (Kurtzman, Kirby, Cooke, Torres), but I think Espinosa has hit on a very unique style, perfect for the kind of storytelling involved.
Now I realize his style might not appeal to everyone (my kid certainly didn’t love the art as much as he liked Bone or the Fantastic Four), but I think it is amazing. I have just come around to using brushes in my own work, and it inspires an entirely different sensibility. With Rocketo, Espinosa’s ideas seem to be realized with such speed—such breakneck freedom—it’s as if he is thinking all this right down onto the paper. That is certainly an illusion; after all, Frank Espinosa has been working on Rocketo for years. The trade paperback just released (now under the Image label after the unfortunate demise of Speakeasy Comics) pulls together the first seven issues, and includes some of the early sketches and paintings. These drawings show the evolution of the characters over a long span of time and, as the introduction by Alex Ross suggests, there is evidently a whole bunch more Rocketo to come. What I really love is that you can see the pencil lines in some of the panels. I love that. I love the whole thing. Even if the story is more pulp than poetry, I friggin' love it.
Frank Espinosa emigrated from Cuba, which makes a lot of sense when you read Rocketo. The book is dedicated to his parents and the “new world.” The back cover of the comic explains that, growing up in New York City, he learned to understand America through comic books. But Espinosa also admitted (in a separate interview) that as a young boy he watched the old Flash Gordon serials on T.V., and they heavily influence his storytelling. Tigermen, Birdmen, evil empires. Some might say the story moves a little too fast, too much is introduced too quickly, years pass in the space of panels. But when you get to the actual adventure, the Journey to the Hidden Sea, it really starts to sing. I hope Espinosa does devote the next four years to Rocketo(he has promised to deliver a steady stream of adventures) and I for one will eat them up. My kid eventually read the entire trade. He liked it, although it does get a little violent. (I am a lousy parent.) Someday he will love it.