This week started off a little slow on the pop culture front; I watched and read a few things that were “kind of” good but nothing that really set me on fire. By the end of the week, though, I had read a couple self-published comic books that made me sit up and take notice.
* * * * *
Deadhorse Book One – Dead Birds
I found Deadhorse Book One – Dead Birds to be a comic that took a little time to warm up. It’s a quirky mystery comic involving a widowed recluse, a teenage kleptomaniac, a deserted Alaskan settlement, a mysterious key, an evil industrialist with a dark secret, an exuberant science fiction fan, and a masked bounty hunter who calls himself Sasquatch. And that’s not even half of it.
(In retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t that the book needed some time to warm up; perhaps it was me.)
Created by writer Eric Grissom and artist Phil Sloan, with colour art by David Halvorson, this first volume of Deadhorse tells the story of William Pike, a recluse who is drawn to the Alaskan town of Deadhorse by a key he received in a letter from his dead father. On the journey his path crosses with Elise, a teenage runaway, and Edgar, a wannabe science fiction writer, and the three of them are thrown into an adventure where they are beset by the billionaire who hired Pike’s father to design the town in the first place. Their journey takes some pretty bizarre twists and turns as the journey progresses — did I mention the Sasquatch? — and the creative team has put together a comic book so strong that it not only holds up to the weight of the crazy ideas, it thrives on them.
The mix of humour and creepiness reminds me of Chew, or as a pull quote on the comic’s website says, the television series Twin Peaks, two stories that I am rather a big fan of. As in those previous works, every reveal in Deadhorse raises even further questions, and the more I read the more I want to know how everything is connected. Perhaps not everything is meaningful in terms of plot in Deadhorse but I still get into the story more with every clue that’s dropped.
The book has a distinctive and strong look. Sloan’s caricature-style take on the characters is an odd choice at first but he’s got the chops for action and storytelling to pull it off. These aren’t simply well-drawn figures with great facial expressions; when the action picks up they move fluidly and smoothly, and yes, there are action scenes and they’re bombastic. The sound effects are part of the visual presentation, a vital component of the art, which is something I appreciate. Halvorson’s colours add a lot of depth to the pages as well, both in terms of intensity of colour and the choice of palette. It’s a really cool-looking book that displays the plot to best effect.
Each of the issues (or chapters, if it’s read as a collection) has a single page of backmatter that expands the story, whether it’s a letter, a magazine article, or a news webpage. The backmatter isn’t overly dense so I didn’t have the urge to skip it, which is good because the backmatter doesn’t just flesh out stuff that came before, it foreshadows concepts and ideas for future issues, drawing my attention to things I initially thought were there just for flavour. For instance, when the pop star showed up just after he was mentioned in the magazine article I immediately wanted to know, “WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?”
Each chapter I finished in the volume raised more questions, and that’s ultimately a good thing. In the hands of lesser creators it might indicate that they have no idea where they’re going, but the fact that certain throwaway images and ideas in the first few issues become more important later, shows that they have a plan for this. Or at least, they have part of a plan, and they’re seeding in those ideas. I want to see how all those things come together: how do pop musicians Handsome and The Doctor, who only “speak” in an interview in the last page of issue three but whose music is omnipresent, figure into the conspiracy of the magic box? That’s the kind of hook that keeps me coming back for more.
Deadhorse Book One – Dead Birds can be purchased online in digital or print versions, and there are two issues of Deadhorse Book Two – The Ballad of the Two-Headed Dog available as well. I would strongly, strongly encourage anyone who likes a quirky mystery to give it a shot.
* * * * *
Though Deadhorse was definitely the highlight of my pop culture week, there were a couple of other gems that stuck in my mind. If anyone thought I was a nerd before, just wait until I drop a little Old-Time Radio science on you.
Old-Time Radio: I don’t know anyone besides me who listens to old-time radio shows, but if anyone out there is looking for a good gateway into the world of OTR, one of my standby recommendations is the detective show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, the adventures of “America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator.” The 1955 revamp in particular is a great example of how great the medium can be; each story is split up into five 15-minute episodes that were originally aired every weekday night. The format gives the stories room to breathe a little, allows for more twists and turns or character development, without feeling overly long. Bob Bailey plays Johnny as a cynical but decent man, good with a quip or a one-liner and smart as a whip. Basically, he’s a guy who’s in the mold of a hard-boiled investigator but came out slightly undercooked. I like how most of the scripts are written, with Johnny reviewing his expenses and going through the story in flashbacks, which allows the writers and performer opportunity for a pithy monologue on occasion, and the expense account format helps move the story along and transition between scenes smoothly. Most of the time the crimes Johnny investigates rise above the typical Dragnet police procedural, either because the scripts are more clever or the plots make more sense, and sometimes both. Some of my favourites that I’ve been listening to recently are “The Matter of the Medium, Well Done” and “The Alvin Summers Matter,” and there are a lot of episodes available to stream or download online.
Comics: Bear, Bird and Stag Were Arguing In The Forest (And Other Stories) is a 40-page mini-comic by Madeleine Flores that I thought was simply delightful. It collects four different comics stories, each of which highlights a different aspect of Flores’ comics style. Sometimes the art left me indifferent but a couple of the stories were absolute standouts. The first one, that gives the collection its title, is about three talking animals arguing who should be the king of the forest. It’s a fun and silly folk story that looks and reads like it was made by the art love-child of Pendleton Ward and Kate Beaton. If the rest of the stories read the same way I probably wouldn’t have cared much about the book but Flores shows a different style in “Weave,” a fairy story of a woman and her child alone in the woods. Here the story is slower and more contemplative, and Flores uses a sketchier art style to fit the mood; I found myself wanting more of the story but enjoying what there was to be had. The final story, “Wander,” is a short little story about dreams with words so sweet and light they could have been in a children’s book, and the art uses deep blacks for shadow and lots of grey space to emphasize the vast mysteriousness of the dream world. This mini-comic is a strong effort from an artist with a lot of promise, and I’ll be keeping my eye out for more work from Madeleine Flores in the future.
* * * * *
That’s about it for me this week, I’m afraid; National Novel Writing Month is calling me and I am woefully behind in my word count. Until next week, dip your toes into a fun little mystery and I’ll see you in seven days.