Matt Anderson, Eric Hutchins, Micah Farritor, et al., White Picket Fences (APE Entertainment, 2008), $6.95.
By Jared Gardner
I came around a bit late to White Picket Fences. I enjoyed the first three-issue mini-series that launched the title last year, and I was immediately taken by the visual pleasures of the book. But on the level of its story, I was somewhat underwhelmed: another portrait of life in the bad-old, conformist, paranoid 1950s and of the clever young rapscallions who transform this cold world into a magical fairyland of the imagination. The first storyline did push things considerably further than this premise, I will admit, presenting a world out of 1950s scifi where the scifi wasn’t fiction. Here, in this speculative historical fiction, the Red Menace refers equally to the Martians as the Commies, and dads talk about the good old days fighting the Green Menace (Venutians and Nazis). But in their first miniseries, too often Anderson and Hutchins got lost in the finger-wagging at the spying neighbors, witch hunts, and confirmity, and far too much time was spent with the parents who were ultimately precisely what they seemed: pleasant, bland and well-groomed. I wanted more. I wanted the creators of this book to fully let themselves go into the more perverse corners of their premise and away from the well-trod, back-patting critiques of Cold War America. And with this new graphic novel, they have done precisely that. This is a book that fully finds stories equal to the dynamic energy of the artwork that made the book pop off the page from the start, and it suggests that the future of White Picket Fences is going to be very bright (and wild) indeed.
The book contains three stories, although only two are fully realized--the second short sketch, written by Anderson and Hutchins and illustrated very stiffly by Brian Mead, being more of a love letter to the book’s protagonists, the three best-buddies, Charlie, Parker and Tommy. The first story, “The History Lesson,” demonstrates the growth of Anderson and Hutchins’ vision for the story as they develop a promising new adult character with a shadowy past: Mr. Reason, the boys’ science teacher at Robert Wise Elementary (named after the director of The Day the Earth Stood Still, clearly a foundational film for Anderson and Hutchins). Despite his name, Reason proves unfazed by the very unreasonable predicament the boys find themselves in here, in which yet another film genre comes to threaten the seemingly bland world of Greenview, USA. This time it is monsters straight out of the 30s Universal classics: vampire, werewolf, Frankenstein…the works, complete with a mad scientist who turns out to be an old adversary of Reason from adventures past.
But Anderson, who scripted this story, goes beyond the pleasures of this world where monsters prove as real as the little red and green men of the first mini-series. Our evil scientist, Dr. Niemann, is dedicated to bringing back the monsters of the past because in this world of modern Reason, Fear has been conquered by complacency and confidence that everything will always be O.K., with what are for Niemann tragic results. As he describes it, not long ago, monsters roamed the night streets, and the people of Greenview lived in healthy fear of the unknown. These were monsters of our nightmares, irrational creatures beyond explanation who allowed us daily to confront the darkness in ourselves. But today (that is, in the alternate 1950s of Greenview, USA), as Dr. Niemann complains, the monsters can all be explained too easily as the result of atomic radiation. Thus the giant lizard crushing city hall is ultimately just a lizard, and therefore never truly an object of Horror.
Of course, Reason triumphs and the dark forces of our unconscious past are repressed once again. But in the second long story in the book, “Beetle-Mania,” we open with precisely the giant animals Dr. Niemann so disdained, huge beetles working their way inexorably toward Greenview, in a story that brings the world of Godzilla and the Toho monsters of the 50s and 60s fully to life. For readers familiar with the first mini-series there is a winking playfulness in the opening to this story, which appears initially to harken back to the imaginative opening of the first. And here, as Dr. Niemann gloomily predicted, reason and cooler heads prevail. If a giant lizard is just a lizard, then the reverse equally applies, as young Charlie realizes at the crucial moment (with tragic consequences for a certain innocent pet lizard).
Without giving away too much of the fun, part of what I want to describe here is how well the collaborative team of White Picket Fences is working together in developing this world. Although Anderson and Hutchins work their stories separately here, the sense of their lively collaboration remains intact. It is as if, working on their world-making more independently, they have both allowed themselves to go a bit further in exploring its fullest potential. But like the best collaborations, their vision has grown together. The book concludes with the promise of a new mini-series later this year, and I know it will be at the top of my list this time around.
I cannot conclude without commenting in a bit more detail on Micah Farritor’s exquisite pencil work and coloring. Farritor is a wonder, bringing a fresh and surprising look to a 50s story that could have so easily been predictable. Instead of the bland air-brushed quality one might expect, Farritor brings an idiosyncratic style that is simultaneously improvisotory and highly polished. The former comes through in the pencil lines, which are allowed to dance unedited on the page, lending everything a personal and emotional tone that is not at all what one might expect from such a story. The profound sense of polish and precision in Farritor’s work comes through in his compositions, both on the level of the panel and the page. In terms of design and rhythm this is one of the most enjoyable books I have looked at in a while (and this includes the original mini-series as well), comparable in this regard to Pedrosa’s Three Shadows. And as if Farritor’s achievement here weren’t impressive enough, in “Beetle-Mania,” a new co-artist, Tim Lattie, takes over the pencils and the book doesn’t miss a beat. Lattie maintains many aspects of Farritor’s style, but he brings a more flashy, big budget approach to the layouts which work well for this Calling all Monsters storyline. And Farritor lends his earthy palette to the coloring on both long stories (again, not at all what one would expect from a 1950s comic, and just what the story needs).
As I hope I’ve made clear, I’m now ready to sign up for the WPF fanclub. Send on my secret decoder ring and tell me where the secret meeting will be held. This is the most fun you’ll have with comics anytime soon, I promise.