Sunday, June 13, 2010

Review: Exploded View

Let's talk about science fiction comics.

No, we're not going to talk about Starslip. And much as I love to talk about Jump Leads, no, we're not going to talk about that either. We're not talking about Marooned (we've already done that) or Moon Town (though perhaps we should).

No, today we're going to talk about Cloudscape Comics' latest comic anthology, Exploded View.

Cloudscape is a collective of Vancouver area artists, and Expanded View is a sci-fi-themed anthology of short comic stories. Their fourth collection to date, it includes contributions from notable webcartoonists Angela "Jam" Melick of Wasted Talent and Kevin Forbes of Simulated Comic Product. A host of other artists contributed as well, ranging from actors to animators to elementary school teachers.

In some ways the collected stories vary greatly; in others they're highly similar. Exploded View showcases a wide variety of art styles, for starters: all of the artists take a different approach to the challenge of working in grayscale. You'll see high-contrast black-and-white; finely graduated shading; precise and tightly-rendered drawings; loose, freeform, quick-and-dirty sketches; and varying degrees of freehand vs. computer-assisted artwork. Generally speaking, it's decent artwork, and a few stories (John Christmas' "Aquanaut Zero," Megan Furesz's "Ctrl Z," and Melick's "Mechanics") really knock it out of the park. "Aquanaut Zero," a tale of undersea exploration, captures the claustrophobia of the ocean's depths with its absolutely oppressive use of negative space. It harrowed me in the best way.

The book's art isn't without its missteps. In Jeffrey Ellis' "Breakdowns," a girl's violent outburst has unforeseen consequences, and in a key moment, she's struck with guilt and grief as she realizes what she's done. Unfortunately, the thematically ambitious plot has written a check that the artwork can't cash, and in that pivotal frame, the cartoonish style makes the moment feel stiff and awkward. Still, "Breakdowns" has good artwork overall, and there are only a few moments in the collection where I thought to myself, "This is not good cartooning." On the whole, the anthology shows craftsmanship and attention to detail.

The collection is thematically strong as well. Science fiction is a genre of many faces, and you'll find many of them represented here: cyberspace and virtual reality, cybernetics, space travel, rapidly-changing technology, and robots. Lots and lots of robots (and I loves me some robots).
These elements are all used to good thematic effect, exploring interpersonal pathos, heights of emotion, complex moral decisions, and technology's effect on what it means to be human. Make no mistake, there's comedy here too: "Ctrl Z" is laugh-out-loud funny, as its snarky down-on-its-luck robot protagonist makes an unlikely ally and strikes back at its equally-robotic oppressors. I was disappointed that the book's one treatment of religion, Colin Upton's "It Came From the Heavens," is not only ham-handed, but implausible--its portrait of Christianity would really only make sense if mankind began to colonize space during the Crusades.

Another way in which these stories are similar: just about each tale brings a twist of some sort, a surprise reveal or a subversion of expectations. Of course, a twist in itself is no story without strong characters and a well-crafted plot, and on the whole these stories flesh out their twists. Paul Soeiro's "Faulty Wiring" takes man vs. machine and turns it on its head, questioning our innate inclinations to sympathize with its human main character. Melick's entirely alien cast in "Mechanics" are still eminently recognizable as people, and the reader can relate to (perhaps even identify with) her protagonist's motivations.

At the end of the day, though, the question is: is it worth your twenty bucks? Make no mistake, it's a good collection with a few truly outstanding stories, but your answer to that question depends on who you are. Not just any sci-fi fan is going to get something out of this anthology. Think of a geologist taking core samples: drilling out a narrow cross-section of the earth, but probing deep to obtain a sample rich with information. You won't be spending too much time with any of these characters, but the best stories here dig into what it means to be human and come up with something solid. It also helps if you like a broad range of art styles and an appreciation for black-and-white art. Basically: if you enjoy tightly-crafted comic stories, sci-fi with substance, and robots--lots and lots of robots--don't hesitate to grab a copy. It's good stuff.

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