Terry Moore’s Echo (Abstract Studio), David Lapham’s Young Liars (Vertigo), and Jeff Smith’s RASL (Cartoon Books)
by Jared Gardner
Three of the true auteurs of comics have launched new series this past month. In many ways, of course, David Lapham (Stray Bullets), Jeff Smith (Bone), and Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise) could not be more different. But they share many things in common. For one, all three began self-published titles in the 1990s (Smith in 1991, Moore in 1994, and Lapham in 1995) at a time when successful self-publishing was almost unheard of. All three went on to produce long-running series which opened up new possibilities for comics and their creators. And even more, all three opened up the world of comics to new readers who thought themselves too cool, too old, too young, or too… well, female to read comics. There are, in truth, dozens of remarkable creators who never would have brought their talents to this medium if not for their work, and countless readers who would be doing much more respectable things with their time if they hadn’t become hooked on these three remarkable series a decade ago.
I say all this, because this new semi-regular feature in guttergeek is all about first impressions, focusing on the first issue of a series only. We will revisit them individually down the road if those impressions prove tragically wrong, as is entirely likely. But the fact remains that while I am one of those readers who would probably not be here today were it not for Smith, Moore and Lapham, if I am being honest, there is only one of these three new series by these remarkable talents that I am truly looking forward to following into issue #2.
Jeff Smith’s new project is RASL, which tells the story of a dimension-hopping, hopped-up, hobgoblin-like art thief who makes a wrong turn during a routine Picasso heist and winds up being hunted by a strange beastial creature from another dimension. There is not a lot of narration here in the first issue, not a lot of back-story, but we get the basic conceit pretty quickly. RASL escapes with his loot by hopping into alternative dimensions, a brutal process which requires him to drink himself comatose and indulge his carnal appetites for days on end. Coming back, however, requires a whole purification ceremony, entering a state of pure spirit. These two extremes of pure body and pure spirit define his life—and, I fear, define the limits of the deep thinking this book has to offer.
Ultimately, there is not much in the premise to make me very excited about the future in any of the dimensions into which our protagonist will be drifting. The whole concept feels so far-out that it is actually kind of easy, which puts all the weight on the character himself. And he is not much of a draw. In addition to his aforementioned bipolar lifestyle, he is frankly just not very attractive. It is clear that after Bone and Smith’s sparkling and imaginative run on Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, he understandably wants to try his hand at something more “edgy” and R-rated. But while Smith handles the action in this fast-moving book beautifully, his protagonist still ends up looking a bit Bone-ish: short, squat, big headed and not entirely believable as a human being. Of course, that might be the point down the road, but for now RASL—for all his grimacing, grunting, and potty-mouth—made me wonder how he might be rendered as a plush toy.
Next on tap is Lapham’s Young Liars. Unlike his two companions in first-issue rollouts this month, Lapham’s 90s work might not be as well known to some readers who know him best for his recent mainstream work (most visibly, his “City of Crime” script for Detective Comics). Stray Bullets always remained something of a cult hit, due in part to extremely complex plotting across time and space (making Pulp Fiction look like Dick & Jane) and the limited distribution and advertising resources of his El Capitan label. But for me, Stray Bullets, more than almost any book I started reading in the 90s, helped pull me back into the world of comics just when I thought I was out.
Young Liars, in many ways feels as if it is cut from the same cloth as Stray Bullets: violent, fast-paced, centered around the exploits of a ball-busting, sexy, psychochick. Of course, in Stray Bullets the psychochick, Amy Racecar, was the imaginary projection of a very real, very vulnerable girl named Virginia Applejack, and that was what made Amy’s character so moving and so attractive. In fact, in his Amy Racecar stories in Stray Bullets, Lapham seemed to be in part poking fun at the juvenile fantasies of ultraviolence and anarchy—sex, drugs and rock-n-roll—as truly liberatory or revelatory. In Young Liars, however, that mature perspective from a much younger Lapham seems to have fallen by the wayside.
Young Liars tells the story of Danny Noonan, our narrator, come to New York to trade in smalltown life for big city dreams, and his far-out, fast-paced, funky-bunch gang. At the center of the gang is Sadie Dawkins, a young heiress with a bullet in her brain destroying her future and her inhibitions. The whole thing is meant to be read with the stereo turned up playing rock that only a middle aged cartoonist would think was still hip. And the whole thing left me feeling, frankly, as one fellow middle-aged man to another, like Lapham was pandering, pleading, trying too hard and somehow missing the point of what made his earlier ultraviolence so very, very smart. But having been left dangling at the end of one of the many unfinished threads of Stray Bullets, I will be there to see where this current “wild ride” takes us. But I would trade it all in for another issue of Stray Bullets in a second.
The one first issue that truly wowed me was Terry Moore’s Echo. And this was something of a surprise for me; while I always admired Moore’s talents on Strangers, I couldn’t help but feel (wrongly, as it turned out) that there was something Love & Rockets-lite about the whole thing. I am grateful for all the new fans, and especially women readers, that Moore’s series brought to comics, and I admire the hell out of his pencil work and his ability to create absolutely believable, incredibly sexy women characters. But from day one, I was never fully absorbed by Strangers, which finished its 15 year run just a few short months ago. The soap opera aspects were never quite trashy enough for me, the comedy never quite funny enough, and the drama often felt like a bad episode of the O.C.
So imagine my surprise when I picked up Echo and found myself riveted before I even opened the book. The cover is a glorious accomplishment in itself, embossing the metallic rain that will transform and consume our protagonist (yes, another very sexy lady) in the months to come. In addition to lowered expectations I also came to Echo with less pre-launch hype: I know very little about the plans for this story but I am eager to learn more. Since ending Strangers, Moore has been (like his fellow-indies, Lapham and Smith) spending more time around the world of mainstream comics, scripting for the next storyarc of Runaways and other work for Marvel. In this case, the cape writing seems to have paid off with a really lively action/scifi story that conveys confidence from the start that its creator knows where he is going, and why. Even as the first issue suggests a more predictable comic book setup than its cohorts this month, I am more willing to believe in the future of Echo than either of its more cutting-edge colleagues.
All of this said, this is a good month for comics, if only because it is a reminder that the world of indie comics and mainstream comics is closer every day, and that creators can work for the Man and still return to their roots and their own labels (and vice versa). Ten years ago, the worlds of alternative comics and comic books seemed worlds apart. Going forward, there is promise of great cross-polination to come. And for that reason alone, I encourage everyone to grab all three of these first issues. And come back for #2 of Echo.