Synopsis: Monsters are gonna murder a dude until a mysterious young woman murders them instead. All’s fair in the Bleary Desert, dudes.
01. If you haven’t heard of Dalton Rose before, you have not being paying attention and you should be very ashamed. The man is the artist of Sacrifice, which the record will show I enjoy very much, and this is the first comic of his I’ve read where he’s in complete creative control of the book. It’s always endlessly fascinating to see someone you think of primarily as an artist do the writing as well on a book, to see not just how they write dialogue but also how they change their layouts and design. And brother, what are you gonna do when Daltonmania runs wild over you?
What I’m saying is that Phabula #1 is pretty great.
02. It’s interesting: from a pure layout point of view, nothing in this comic is as experimentally inventive as, say, the two-page seizure double spread in Sacrifice #4, which isn’t necessarily what I would expect from an artist’s shift to “…slash writer.” This isn’t to say there’s less imagination or craft, however; in Phabula #1, Rose infuses every page with a level of creativity and newness that will forever be welcomed in my house.
This is a guy who came to my attention drawing time-travel seizures filled with prophetic demons, and yet he still somehow managed to surprise me with his character designs in this comic, from the scary dog/cat people the hero fights to the ethereal, luminescent snakes that flow out of their godking’s chest.
03. Now, just why are there ethereal, luminescent snakes flowing out of the evil godking’s chest? Your guess is as good as mine, frankly, and I’ve had longer to read this comic than most. A lot of genre fiction, be it action or sci-fi or fantasy, has an unfortunate tendency to over-rely on exposition. Rose takes the opposite direction with Phabula. There are no names. No conspicuous speeches. Words like “spell” and “curse” get tossed around, and the villains’ actions carry the weight of ingrained ritual and an explicit mention of thousands of years, but this is a comic that shows more than it tells. It relies on things like art and humour and blood to capture the reader’s attention, and given the relatively short length of individual MonkeyBrain digital issues, it’s a smart choice on Rose‘s part. With only 15 pages to work with, there’s no time to waste talking about the history and setting of the Bleary Desert and the world of Phabula. This issue’s job is to hook the reader; future issues can flesh out the whys and wherefores. For now, the restraint the creator shows is admirable. It’s a quest narrative that plays it close to the vest to good effect.
04. Of course, Rose knows exactly the sandbox he’s playing in, too. There are some great moments during the showdown between the hero and villain that play at the edges of metafiction:
“I’m no spell-hungry apprentice or glory-seeking princess. But I’m afraid a bit of questing can’t be helped.”
“Trite drivel. I have seen it all before.”
“Perhaps I’ll surprise you.”
This is a comic that knows the genre it inhabits, and it knows the formula. When the diminutive hero challenges the villain that maybe she’ll surprise him, she’s not just talking to him. She’s talking to the reader, and letting them know that something is different. It comes off as a reassurance from Rose that trust in him will not be misplaced, that Phabula is something that asks for a bit of trust and that it will be rewarded. It also has the added benefit of giving the comic a wry, playful air, and given that this is literally two pages before some pretty bold violence, it tempers the tone of the series into something quite layered.
05. But dudes, let’s talk about this art.
Because maaaan, if this ain’t pretty. And ridiculously smart, too. The lettering of the location and the sound effect are eye-catching and bold. The colour blends muted tones and some bright, vivid colour that directs the reader towards the issue’s plot and action. This is a beautifully-designed page that also has what appears to be a smoking jackal, and that’s not anything I plan on getting tired of.
Rose‘s art is deceptively simple. It has those thin, graceful outlines of a Frank Quitely or Nick Pitarra, but with a more simplified design that is almost reminiscent of woodcutting or children’s book. Behind the elegant art, however, is the juxtaposition between the “simple” art and the graphic violence. Additionally, behind the outlines are nuanced, evocative colours that give the story a sense of age as well as excitement and, in the latter third, spookiness. The glow of the sky and fire is captivating, just another example of something Rose does exactly right.
06. It’s incredibly rewarding to see an artist take such a bold, confident step with a solo series, one that knows how to play coy with the reader and entice them back for more. Plus, it is NINETY-NINE CENTS and that is a pretty amazing price for the value you get. If you can’t justify a dollar to spend on a story chapter this good, I don’t know what to do with you.
07. So yeah… uh… buy the thing on Comixology.