Friday, March 04, 2005

Elk's Run #1 - Advance comic review

This is from a thread I originally posted on Millarworld, which is currently dead. It's a great book and deserves to have some positive word on the net, so I figured I'd re-post it here:

Here I am holding a copy of Elk’s Run #1, a preview copy I snagged care of my friendly neighborhood Isotope. It’s from a publisher called Hoarse And Buggy, who’ve recently launched (I think) with the Western Tales of Terror anthology series, which I’ve been enjoying. Elk’s Run #1 the first part of an eight-issue story that promises to approach every issue from the perspective of a different major character.

The story – which, judging from some of the preview material available, is only just getting started here – focuses on an insular little community in Elk’s Ridge, Virginia, which is the site of a coal mining disaster some years hence. We’re given hints that the town has since transformed itself into some kind of commune, with a shared workload and an apparently closed border. Some local teenagers are feeling a bit restless and meet up at the only road out of town (which happens to run through a tunnel) late one night. Are they planning an escape? It doesn’t seem so. The implication as I read it was a bit more mischievous and innocent (y’know, teenager shit). Before they can get to it, though, tragedy strikes. The response of the adults in charge closes the issue with a decisive action that is disturbing in its savagery and gruesomeness, but also strangely attractive, smacking of a zeal for justice and a rock-solid, consistent moral code.

That ambiguity makes the promise of the solicits – the perspective shift from issue to issue that I mentioned earlier – especially intriguing. Writer Joshua Fialkov has taken some issues that often lend themselves to strident, polarized opinionating and lent them not just complexity but subtlety; we aren’t so much given 2+ sides of the argument as we are given a story, a collection of events and characters, that doesn’t take sides one way or the other – it just relates what’s happening and who it’s happening to. It’s an approach I appreciate in any storytelling form, but when it addresses issues like patriotism, abuse of power, and American militias, I have to give some serious credit.

Credit is also due for the strong balancing act here between character and plot. We’re not told a lot about any of the characters yet, but they’re suggested with a sort of quiet brevity that I found refreshing; there’s a family dinner table scene near the beginning of the issue with what could easily be a cliché teenager-is-mad-at-overbearing-mean-father exchange, and Fialkov deftly avoids that quagmire with simple, unsentimental dialogue. Nobody gives a speech; a few sentences are shared, just enough to give the reader an idea where the characters are coming from, and then the scene ends. It’s very measured, careful character work, not unlike some of the best issues of Demo (my favorite was #8, “Mixtape”, and that’s the one I’m thinking of here), but with an eerie edge that makes me think of The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," and the more frightening parts of the Stand By Me movie. Meanwhile, the plotting moves at a lightning pace that still carries that element of calm and understatement. A number of compelling mysteries are raised, and the foreshadowing of the calamity yet to come is chilling and effective without being overblown. It strikes me that the style of the story, the way it’s being told, is a good reflection of the substance of the story itself – a sort of subterranean bubbling, a tension not quite breaching the surface but keeping everyone’s blood high and hot while they wait. It’s not just a clever example of craft, but a way to help the reader to empathize with the characters by sharing their sensations.

A lot of credit for the mood I’m talking about must go to the artwork, which is especially impressive when the script calls for it; the balance of quiet scenes that don’t draw attention to themselves against the disastrous E-ticket moments is balanced just as well by the art as it is by the script, which suggests to me a really clear, shared vision on the part of the collaborators. The accident that strikes the teenagers at night is an especially well-done bit of sequential storytelling, with a perspective device that builds a LOT of tension and fear VERY fast. The closing sequence I talked about earlier – the parents’ retribution – is also effective, but less explicit. Artist Noel Tuazon has a sketchy, simplistic style for the most part, and his paneling alternates between more unusual, creative layouts and relatively conventional grids, reminding me a bit of Javier Pulido’s work on Human Target.

Finally, I have to talk about the coloring. I’ve never read a comic with colors by Scott A. Keating (no relation, I must assume, to Joe Keatinge, color flatter emeritus) but I hope I read many more. The colors are rich and full, and do a wonderful job setting whatever mood is called for. Especially noticeable is the distinction between times of day; while a lot of this issue takes place at night, there are scenes at sunset and a dreary morning, and the linework is complemented perfectly by the tones Mr. Keating sets to the page.

On top of all that, the production values here are really good. The cover is a nice card stock, and the paper is a thick, semi-gloss stock that shows off the colors especially well. All this for $3.00 is a solid deal, especially from a new, independent publisher. Oh, and we also get a funny, weird little werewolf back-up story, completely unrelated to the main story, with art by Nate Bellegarde, who does the Invincipals backups in Robert Kirkman’s Invincible.

This one gets a high recommendation from me; the quality of the content and the format is impressive, especially for a creative team and publisher that, to be honest, I’d never heard of before (unless they’re also the folks publishing Western Tales of Terror, which is pretty damn new itself). By all indications, though, they’re coming out of the gate with a great first series, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it.

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