Second Thoughts – Review

If there is one tragic convention of the typical urban drama it is that of interlocking characters unaware of their proximity and the impact they have on each other’s lives. Magnolia, Short Cuts, Crash, all epic stories that sprawl from a point of contact. Niklas Asker’s Second Thoughts is almost one of those stories, that fact that it shies away from the obvious at the most delicate of moments elevates it above melodrama with just enough frustration and ennui to ring true.

Set in London, the story follows two characters, each struggling with their own sense of identity. Jessica, a determined, self-absorbed writer, is determined to get her novel finished, even if it means destroying her relationship. Meanwhile photographer John is suffering from a serious case of city sickness, made more acute by the absence of his impossibly gifted and beautiful girlfriend. By chance they share a moment in Stansted Airport going in opposite directions: he’s leaving London for New York for love; she’s waiting on ‘a friend’ coming in the opposite direction for the same reason. As it turns out they share more than frustration and both return home empty-handed and alone. Confronted with the inevitability of a life of claustrophobia in London do Jessica and John, never to meet again, stick with their respective lives of quiet desperation or twist and move on to somewhere (anywhere) better. As fate would have it the decisions they make occur in much closer proximity than they know.

Asker’s story is deliberately paced, the organisation of panels on each page lending an almost procudeural rhytmn to the early exchanges between characters. The use of a double page spread with mirrored layouts for Jessica and John’s meeting, establishing both as pivotal characters without implying the dominance of either in the overall narrative is a particularly striking example. Later, repeating panels are employed to illustrate the characters’ shifting power relations (to explain any further is to head into spoiler territory) demonstrating Asker’s feel for the emotional without overplaying his hand. London itself is depicted as a city reproduced not much by the artist as interpreted in the minds of his characters. Barring some establishing shots or the city at night, the Capital is more talked about than given enough page space to become imposing or inspiring. As for the characters themselves, Asker’s crisp designs are simple and clean enough to create enough empathy for the reader to appreciate, if not quite fall in love with. Hardly the most sympathetic of protagonists, Jessica and John are deeply unhappy by their repsective situations and act as such. John is a shoegazer who can’t believe his luck when he gets a shot at the kind of beauty he has only viewed from behind his lens but feels emasculated by his inability to break out of his comfort zone. In contrast Jessica sees her other half as a convenient crutch, her work making her physically and emotionally unavailable. Neither would be much fun at parties.

Asker’s conclusion is a mixed bag that culminates in a beautiful full page splash that, while visually and emotionally perfect, creates just enough doubt to question the relatively clean ending. Still, Second Thoughts is a graceful study of love in a time of uncertainty, when economic lines are being redrawn and everything is coming under question. You can’t not read this in one sitting.

€tbc; b/w, 80 pages, US, W/A Niklas Asker, Top Shelf Comics www.topshelfcomix.com

    Road Crew: For Sale #1 – Review

    Jim Soundman is a man in flux. A slightly lecherous, frequently drunk everyrocker, he has little direction in life and gets his kicks trading off the fame of his absent rock star father. You get the impression it’s not a bad life Jim has constructed for himself only it turns out he hasn’t constructed it himself at all; he’s a comicbook character subject to the whims of his creator, someone he is about to get very up close and personal with. Thus begins Road Crew, the tale of a writer trying to make sense of his own life through the prism of a character completely unemcumbered by responsibilty.

    Writing oneself into a work is a risky strategy for any creative. When it comes off well (Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, Martin Amis in Money) it’s a puckish move that adds a layer of finesse to the plot and makes for a more engaging, even intimate, read. When overplayed (Charlie Kauffman in Adaptation, Martin Amis in Money) its a confidence trick to hoodwink the reader into thinking they’re reading something not at all as smart as they think it is. The line is a fine one indeed. By laying out his stall almost from the first panel Kelly lets the reader know exactly what the rules are. This is his story, his thought experiment, and Jim is his proxy (or ‘sigil’). Where the story goes neither creator nor character have any clue. Thus the stage is set for a virtuoso piece of narrative noodling with the occasional powerchord of fate thrown in for good measure.

    The action proper in For Sale #1 takes place at a gallery where an exhibition of groupie polaroids sees Jim meet Morrigan, a girl who knows the value of a casual encounter but also lets on she’s a part of Tommie’s grand plan – not that Jim bothers to notice. For a first issue, Road Crew sets itself up in a position of strength, establishing a world where consistency may go out the door in favour of experimentation and a few forays into metafiction. Kelly’s art mixes it up nicely, giving Jim enough of a goofy look to remind to everyone who ever wore a black t-shirt and learned to mosh to anything other than emo what it’s like to be young(ish) and dumb. Morrigan is the kind of finely drawn character everyone wants a piece of: a perky girl next door with a dash of sluttiness.

    If there can be a criticism of the book it’s the balance between the prologue and the story proper. A 50/50 prologue/action split doesn’t give the main narrative enough time for the main narrative to take hold. A punchier setup could have got the ground rules out of the way in record time to give Jim more of a chance to endear himself to the reader. Pacing aside, there is enough in this first issue to carry the casual reader to the second to the next at least. Kelly’s tale of magick and loss has the potential to become an anthemic paen to the power of philosophy and rawk. Best read with a beer at your side and the entire Led Zeppelin back catalogue to hand. On vinyl.

    $3.99; colour, 24 pages, US. W/A Tommie Kelly www.roadcrewcomic.com

      Matter #11: Compendium – Review

      The quiet man of Irish comix, Phil Barrett is perhaps one of the country’s most consistent creators, releasing at least one book a year and managing a regularly-updated blog. This, the 11th issue of his anthology title Matter is an enjoyable hodge podge of styles from the slice-of-life dramas of Mike Leigh to the mythic devilment of Flann O’Brien, all rendered in a six-panel structure that undersells Barrett’s knack for tackling big issues in small spaces. Of the eight stories in this edition Barret manages manages to find tragedy in the comic and the comic in the tragic, only once lurching into full-blown melodrama.

      The opening piece, Smashment, is a fable about the fine balance between empowerment and loneliness when a young man famous for his superhuman strength finds himself an outcast when he takes a shine to a local lass. From there we get a whistlestop tour through cross cultural misunderstandings, psychic powers and what to do if you mistake a leprechaun for a…never mind. The most intriguing of the stories, Ash Wednesday is a deceptively complex morality tale involving a burglar and a priest that hints at far darker undercurrents than a simple tale of material larceny. That Barrett can manage to balance text and subtext in only 12 panels is achievement enough to warrant each story get a second, or even a third, once-over to make sure nothing else has been missed. Barrett has been known to experiment with levels of detail in his artwork in previous Matter collection but here he opts to keep it simple and let the stories take centre stage.

      This writer’s new personal favourite? The single image on the back cover of a woman all dressed up and going nowhere outside a wig shop. What comes across as filler on a first pass yields hidden depths through incidental details like the downturn of the lips, the anxious posture of a girl feeling the cold. In this sense it is classic Barrett: modest, unassuming and utterly compelling.

      b/w, 16 pages, A5, W/A Philip Barrett www.blackshapes.com