Graphic Novels From the Slush Pile: Cross Country, Dolltopia, Jam in the Band, Looking Up, Legacy, Experts

All of the following review copies of independent graphic novels were provided by the creators, and my thanks to them for doing so. Most came out last year — this is my attempt at catching up on the books I’m woefully behind on (and doing better in the future).

Cross Country

Cross Country cover

by M.K. Reed
Self-Published, $10 US
mkreed.com

Ben’s summer job involves a long car trip with his boss, Greg, a spoiled “favored son” who has his position because of his family but doesn’t see it as a reason to give up his fratboy ways. Ben, as a result, hates Greg (as does the reader, quickly, although at least he’s a three-dimensional villain). Ben is also still hung up on Julia, his tattooed artist muse, who dumped him in college.

Reed’s naive, primitive style is immediately noted as a distinguishing feature, but it’s the kind of thing that belies the ability behind it. It takes skill to craft expression out of so few lines and such blocky characters. They’re clearly presented, with an economy of detail but giving us what we need to know, and quickly understandable.

Since I’m older, I don’t have the sympathy for uncertain young men like Ben that I used to, but I would like him a lot less than I do in other, less capable hands. Reed’s strength is her characters, writing realistic dialogue that has purpose beyond filling space. I know Ben will suffer a bit and then grow out of it and make more reasonable choices as he grows up. And really, the events of this book aren’t all that significant, in the grand scheme of things. In later years, he’ll briefly amuse friends by telling them about his crazy summer road trip when he was young.

Rob Clough saw a lot more depth of themes in the book than I did — I don’t think setting scenes in chain stores counts as “an indictment of lowest-common-denominator corporate culture”, but obviously, opinions differ. Also, he reveals most of the book’s plot, so watch out for spoilers. You can buy the book, see samples of Reed’s artwork, or read the first chapter at Reed’s website.

Dolltopia

Dolltopia cover
Dolltopia
Buy this book

by Abby Denson
Green Candy Press, $15 US
abbycomix.com

Abby Denson continues exploring the themes of fitting in and coming out she tackled in Tough Love: High School Confidential, only with more symbolism.

Kitty is a ballerina doll who wants to take charge of her own life instead of being manipulated by others. She and a renegade soldier doll set out for Dolltopia, where they can be themselves. They learn to appreciate their independence, their unwillingness to fit in, and their unique fashion sense. Dolls who aren’t happy with a prepackaged life of consumerism join them, engage in body modification, fight humans and their pets, and struggle to understand why other dolls don’t want to join them.

Denson’s art style is similar to Tough Love, flat paper dolls, as though a high school girl is doodling in her notebook. I appreciate different approaches, but this one is a bit too simplistic for me. Most panels are head or mid-body shots, with little flow between panels. It’s as though she’s drawing pictures of dolls instead of comic storytelling. Page layout is as basic as can be. It’s hard to notice different expressions — which does make plastic dolls an excellent choice for subject matter. The black-and-white-and-neon pink, as shown on the cover, is eye-catching and also well-suited to the material.

Denson’s works are simple fables to encourage tolerance, best suited for a young teen audience. The characters frequently tell each other what’s happening, things the reader already knows, and explicitly state the messages of the piece. The points are obvious to the older: dolls as symbols for conformity, with those who’ve broken away preaching to each other that “Freedom of choice can be scary” and “we are lucky to be different. We’re better!” The young outsider may appreciate the reinforcement that they’re not alone in how they feel; the older person, especially with a lifestyle alternative to the mainstream similar to the dolls, may find this an enjoyably camp trifle. Note that there isn’t a satisfying ending; instead, the story stops at a hopeful but inconclusive point. The dolls set out to solve another crisis facing them, but we aren’t shown the eventual results.

Publishers Weekly posted preview pages.

Jam in the Band

Jam in the Band cover

by Robin Enrico
Self-Published, $10 US
robinenrico.com

This small, square book tells the story of a rock band formed to get out of town. The look is distinctive, with attractive, small figures, firm blacks, and busy backgrounds. Unfortunately, I found the characters underdefined, and I sometimes had a hard time telling what was going on without confirming dialogue. The portrait of the dead-end town is strong, and my favorite part was a section with various one-pagers of kids trapped there. One Enrico gets to following the band on the road, the focus falls apart.

You can buy this book and its sequel at the artist’s website or read the whole thing online with additional commentary, which may give you more idea of the artist’s intentions.

Looking Up

Looking Up cover
Looking Up
Buy this book

by Ursula Murray Husted
Apocalyptic Tangerine Press, $20 US
apocalyptictangerine.com

The author describes the book as “a love story between a man, a woman, and a bottomless pit”. It’s the story of a couple in a small West Virginia mining town who find an unusual hole in the country yard of their home. She’s a waitress, and he’s out of work due to a back injury.

It’s very much a slice-of-life book, but of a life that isn’t often captured in comics. Husted has worked hard to capture daily life in this kind of town, one where family is significant and the choice not to do what’s always been done is incredibly difficult. There isn’t much plot and less resolution, but the personalities are affecting and the scenery lovely, a character in itself.

That leads into the standout feature of the book, three foldouts that allow for four-page, full-panel drawings of nature. They’re disarmingly plain, in terms of the art, but their inclusion affects the pacing, stopping the reader with significant moments of emotion.

I first saw Husted’s impressive work with her previous book, Making Rain. This book is in the same style, a quiet portrait of a key moment in everyday life. In addition to the comic, the book contains some research notes on the location and additional suggested reading. You can read the book online before you buy it. You might try this after reading Underground and wanting something with a similar setting but less action, more reflection.

The Legacy

The Legacy cover
The Legacy
Buy this book

by Andrew McGinn and David Neitzke
Dragon Fish Comics, $10.95 US
molechpress.com

I liked the concept of this book, but the execution was disappointing. Chas has inherited his father’s long-running strip about a cute kid. He’s too spineless to say no or ask for changes, so he decides that he has to make the comic so outrageous that it gets cancelled.

The large format — magazine-sized but with spine — does the sparse artwork no favors. It would work better in a strip than large pages, since it’s mostly caricature talking heads, many of which are the same except for hair and glasses. Internal clues suggest that this was originally intended to be a serialized comic, and when that didn’t work out, it was wrapped up abruptly. For instance, the pacing of story elements in the final chapter three is much different from the first two.

For something that tackles a real-world problem — the greying of the comic page, as legacy strips keep running forever — the actual comic is completely unbelievable, from Chas’ strategy to the responses and including the way the newspaper strip business works. (Which is weird, since writer McGinn clearly knows the field. I suspect he was doing whatever necessary to make the story work.) Chas has the problem of wanting to make graphic novels but his life is boring and no one likes his art; unfortunately, this book has a similar problem, desire not making for great execution.

The strip parodies inside the story work better than the story itself, at least until we see Chas’ work. At that point, it goes completely over the top, losing all subtlety in setting up strips that would never make it to print. Only then does Chas stop to think. And we’re told that someone responsible let the strips through because she appreciated the humor, but the ones we’re shown aren’t funny, just offensive.

As a call for a more exciting newspaper comic page, I’m behind the message, but I don’t think this book is going to make the case to most people. It’s just too exaggerated. There’s a short sample online.

The Experts

Experts cover

by Kenn Minter and Clarence Pruitt
Near Mint Press, $14.99 US
Experts blog

Normally, I turn down reviews of indy superhero comics, because they usually just aren’t good enough for me to cover them. I expect a certain professional level of art, given the big-company products they’re competing with, and something original about them. Based on the sample pages, this book passed that first test.

Unfortunately, the writing is flat and unenthusiastic. The heroes tell each other what they’re seeing, and everyone sounds the same (except for the older hero who speaks in comic book accent, “Vat do you know of zis?”). There’s the dumb blonde patriotic Hail Mary, the green-skinned, acerbic, barely dressed Ninja Witch, and the villainous Silver Muse, who makes men obey her and women nauseous.

Because this isn’t for kids, the heroes use rougher language than in the usual superhero comic, although some of it is “@#$”-style. (Apparently, “bitch” and “Jesus” as an expletive are ok.) The book also contains a repulsive incest-based origin story for Doctor Delta, a mystic who made a deal with the devil. Based on that alone, I recommend skipping this book. Additionally, the Ninja Witch story is unfinished, so buyer beware. I don’t know if there are any plans for future books to resolve things. A preview is available online. You can buy it from ComiXpress.


3 Responses to “Graphic Novels From the Slush Pile: Cross Country, Dolltopia, Jam in the Band, Looking Up, Legacy, Experts”

  1. Everyone’s a Critic | A roundup of comic book reviews and thinkpieces | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    [...] comics: Johanna Draper Carlson reviews a handful of self-published comics at Comics Worth [...]

  2. Save Apathea: The Americus Webcomic » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Second will be releasing Americus, a graphic novel written by MK Reed (Cross Country) and drawn by Jonathan Hill, in Fall of [...]

  3. Three Comic Kickstarters Worth Buying: Galaxion, Stray in the Woods, Lions of Valletta » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] of Malta. (I’ve previously praised Husted’s prior two graphic novels, Making Rain and Looking Up.) Visually, the book contains some amazing allusions to art history, and the story’s about [...]




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