By: Too many to list, or even to review—check out the issue.
The Story: One serving of comic book stories, please—extra pulp.
The Review: Much as I’ve appreciated what GrayHaven’s trying to do with its anthologies, I’ve always found them a little misguided in execution. With each contributor only getting three or four pages to himself, the most he can deliver is not a fully-formed story, but something closer to a sketch or a thought-piece. In a comic, three to four pages are enough for a few good jokes and maybe an interesting visual/idea, but you it’s hard to get a proper beginning, middle, and end.
This is why the vast majority of Gathering features tend to feel frustratingly insubstantial; the writers attempt to do too much with their three or four pages of exposure and sell themselves short as a result. The ones who find the most measure of success use their limited time efficiently, setting up and delivering a good punchline, but largely avoiding any greater depth than that. They simply don’t have the space to spare for that kind of thing.
At best, Gathering writers can establish an interesting premise, like Jenny Langin’s “Broad Squad,” essentially Charlie’s Angels in Damon Runyan drag. Langin embraces the pulp theme’s inherent campiness, delivering lines with such winking gusto that you kind of enjoy how cheesy they are: “Grit City’s triad of feminine fury, secret angels of the alleyways…” Some writers even manage to tell a fairly complete story by sheer economy of scripting. In “Lost But Not Forgotten,” Ray Goldfield incorporates exposition directly into the action via the old trick of having characters spout facts while in battle. It’s not ideal, but in the melodrama of a pulp piece, it works better than it would otherwise, and at least it properly introduces Magen, his M.O. of returning stolen property, and the special significance of this particular piece of stolen property.
But for every one of these more successful pieces, you have one (and, often, more than one) that doesn’t work out so well. Chris Fain’s “The Pariah” starts out promisingly as pure satire (the bum gumshoe recalls, “I tell her I’ll get [her jewels] back for her. She smiles…then dies. What a waste.” “Ak!” croaks his client), but ends on a deeply anticlimactic note that steals the punch from the punchline. A similar problem pops up in “Mallory Macabre,” by Scott Ziolko. It has all the makings of a fun romp (the villain screams triumphantly, “With this nosey kid’s sacrifice I will finally fulfill my destiny and become an almighty elephant deity!”), but gets cut short the moment Mallory puts her uber-smartphone (“Sidekick”) to work as a deus ex machina. Anticlimax also infects Nicholas Chervenak’s tale of a hero who fails to stop a villain (described as “one of the least interesting” in the city) from bankrupting the town “for the rest of its pointless existence”—possibly the least inspiring story of all.
Other stories simply don’t make much sense. Kyle Owens’ “Action Boy,” for example—is the titular hero an invalid using vigilantism to distract himself from his illness, or an experimental avenger in the tradition of Captain America? It’s ambiguous whether the “formula” is medicinal or transformative. As for “The Spacewoman,” by Jason Hissong, the plot is clear enough, but you still don’t understand what you’re supposed to get out of it. A woman who devours a living, miniature spiral-arm galaxy? What do you do with that, exactly? And Ronald Montgomery’s “Pulp in the Ruins” is simply a mish-mash of such wildly disconnected ideas (a homeless man, his vision of his dead brother, and a ghostly female avenger) that it’s difficult to get a coherent story or theme out of it.
I must say, however, that the artistic efforts on this go-round are far stronger across the board than in Ghost Stories. I particularly approve of the artists that go for a lighter, cartoonier style that’s easy on the eye despite the lack of color (see Anita Tung in “The Broad Squad,” Josh Nicols on “Mallory Macabre,” and Donal Delay on “The Spacewoman”). That said, a couple artists go for more serious comic book storytelling and manage to deliver fairly respectable results. Unlike most GrayHaven artists who attempt realism, Chris Dixon has a fairly consistent grasp on perspective and proportion, so his old-school figures in the untitled Chervenak feature look convincing, if a bit stiff. And JDWilliams’ Picasso-inspired art works a lot better in the jazz-age Louisiana of “The Blue Mask” than it did with a fraught urban legend. You still have a couple instances of amateurish work, however. Jeremy Carson barely manages to eke out coherent outlines of figures in “Action Boy,” and only most of the time. I’m afraid that as long as GrayHaven continues to find work like Carson’s acceptable, they will always struggle for credibility in the greater comic book world.
Conclusion: A much stronger effort on the art side with a few features that seem to know what they’re doing makes for a much more successful anthology.
– Minhquan Nguyen
Some Musings: – I do like the reference in “Mallory Macabre” to Babar the Elephant. Where can I find those books now?