Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Review: Malsaine #1

Tonight I’m taking a look at Malsaine #1, written by Manny Blacksher with art by Barry Hughes, and published by Imprint Comics.

The superficial stuff that occurred to me immediately: it’s a fine value for the dollar. The cover price is $2.95 for 32 pages without ads. The story itself is a bit shorter than that, depending on what you consider “the story” – there’s a lengthy text-only introduction that reveals itself to be the opening lines of the story, which is an interesting tweak. And at the end, there are a few pages of mock-up old-timey advertisements, and a one-page faux newspaper story. It’s printed on a nice, thick paper with a glossy coating, just slightly smaller than the standard 7” x 10” format, and reads in the “landscape” format as opposed to “portrait,” and thank God, it’s stapled accordingly (can’t tell you how irritating it is when this isn’t the case and I have to read a comic like I’m looking at a Playboy centerfold).

As for the actual content – it’s unusual. I’ve not read anything quite like this recently, though I have a feeling it’ll strike a familiar chord in many readers. On the surface, this is about a kid named James going to a new school in a town called Malsaine in the southern United States. He challenges his English teacher in a class discussion of Huckleberry Finn, meets a pretentious jazz aficionado named Lucius and gets invited to a concert. As the issue closes, he thinks about going to the concert. Along the way, publisher Dave Hendrick tells me, “The book's about all those things we went through as adolescents, finding your identity, falling in love/lust, isolation and rebellion, there's also a hefty amount of magic realism, ghosts, jazz and foul mouthed ravens to keep everyone happy.”

Strange, no? I’m not used to comics stories being told in such an ambling, relaxed pace. I think it works, though, and largely because this style belongs in this setting; Malsaine itself seems a relaxed Southern town, content to move in its own time and hiding massive secrets that only the erosion of time will reveal. The story reflects that personality, and it’s a consistency I always enjoy. The old-timey American gothic feel is also voiced in the scene between James and Lucius as they discuss music; we expect James to respond to the namedropping of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis with contemporary examples (say, Queens Of The Stone Age) but instead he names Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis; whether this is meant to characterize James as an old-fashioned sort or establish the world of the story as vaguely timeless is unclear, but either way it brings a funny air of respectability to the tale, as well as a clear division between the world of the story and the world of the reader. Again, odd, but comforting.

The artwork, like the writing, is unusual but feels familiar. It’s a very blocky, impressionistic style, and the colors are rich and alternatingly psychedelic and mundane. I’m not sure what impression this is supposed to make, honestly; for the moment, it serves mostly to reinforce that sense of relaxed anxiety the book is promising. The style doesn’t convey action or sequencing very well, but we’re not given any content that requires it; instead, it reinforces the tension between movement and rest. The consistency between these two creators is remarkable, especially given their geographic distance from each other (writer Blacksher being an American southern gentleman and Hughes being a Dubliner).

The opening pages, as I mentioned earlier, are a written introduction that turns out to be narration. Whether this intro is meant to be an omnipotent “writer’s voice” or the internal monologue of our Hero isn’t clearly spelled out, but it functions much the same either way: this book clearly aims to be a story about stories, literary analysis made literature. It’s not at all like Neil Gaiman’s similar effort in the Sandman epic, but fans of that series may enjoy what is on the table here. The narrative builds suspense that is then left in the background for the remainder of the issue; discussion of the classic fairy tale tropes, the location of the forest as a testing ground where characters are clearly determined to be good or evil, lends some suspense to James’ distant window-gazing into the woods near his home.

Other themes are introduced here, but aren’t much developed yet. James’ monologue about the travels of Huck Finn and Jim the slave makes an interesting point about Mark Twain’s take on society, but it’s not clear how – or if – this is supposed to apply to this story. Similarly, the scenes between James and Lucius don’t seem to really have a purpose; am I being too goal-oriented? Too impatient? Perhaps. Could very well be; I am, after all, a Yankee. It may be that the creators are trying for now only to set the mood and introduce the players, and in that regard they do fine work here. And while I found the mock-up "Society Page" at the end pretty dull, I really dug the closing line: "Only the Future will tell, and I for one can hardly wait to hear it speak."

I don’t believe this is readily available in the United States, but the publisher seems happy to send individual copies across the pond. If you’re curious, shoot an e-mail to
malsaine@imprintcomics.com, and tell them I sent you.

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