The Cosmic Treadmill
The Oni One
Oni Press has quickly become one of my favorite comics publishers. Almost everything they publish is worth a look, and considering the diversity of the line, that's really saying something. The Oni line shies away from traditional super-heroics (though they have a few non-traditional takes in the line -- more on that later), but just about everything else is fair game. Perhaps that's why the line is so creatively successful -- rather than pushing creators into a popular genre, Oni works with creators who own their own creations and have a clear vision of the stories they want to tell. Almost without exception, it makes for compelling work, no matter the genre.
Punk Rock Love Stories
Billed as a "punk rock love story," Pounded is the story of one Heavy Parker, lead singer of "Heavy Parker and the Park Side Loungers" and the self-proclaimed "punk rock king" of Vancouver. Heavy is the kind of guy we've all known (especially those of us who have been active in the punk scene) -- he's charismatic, but also arrogant and kind of a jerk (not to mention a bit of a poseur); yet somehow, he's likeable enough that you want to hang out with him anyway. His worldview is about to get a serious challenge, though, after he breaks the heart of his girlfriend, Missy, when she leaves for college.
I'm a big fan of Steve Rolston's clean, elegant, deceptively simple art, and Pounded is an ideal showcase for his style. Where some might have found his style too cartoony for the espionage thriller Queen & Country, here it works exceptionally well, playing to the emotional strengths of the story.
And a strong story it is. Brian Wood has the difficult challenge of making Heavy simultaneously unlikable and likeable, and succeeds quite brilliantly. The fact that Heavy's type is immediately identifiable owes to Wood's well-realized characterization.
The title, Pounded, is open to a lot more interpretation than one might think. Characters (especially Heavy and Missy) are "pounded" not just physically, but emotionally and mentally, and in a short three issues, it's what they discover about themselves in being "pounded" that makes the story so compelling.
If you can't round up the original issues, Pounded will be released in a trade collection in October, and is well worth your money. It's also the first comic to release its own soundtrack album.
So Wonderfully, Wonderfully, Wonderfully, Wonderfully Pretty…
Blue Monday doesn't yet have its own soundtrack album, but it darn well should. Music is an integral part of Chynna Clugston-Major's creation, from the title of the series (from a classic New Order song, for the musically illiterate) to the lives and identities of her teenaged characters, to the musical cues she provides throughout her stories, giving the reader a "mental soundtrack" of the songs that might be playing in the background, as if the book were a movie.
Her latest one shot, Lovecats, is no exception. Taking its title from a Cure classic, Lovecats finds Bleu and her friends preparing for the big Valentine's Day dance. Though the big drama of the book comes from the "will they or won't they hook up" relationship of punker Clover and rude boy Victor, every character gets a little spot to shine. The characters are more than just stereotypes -- the "punk," the "mod," the "rudie" -- they're fully-realized people, and it's very easy to get sucked into their world.
Clugston-Major's heavily manga-influenced art works well with the book's generally light tone, and while the characters suffer through their share of teen angst, you get the feeling that, like the best of John Hughes' '80s teen comedies, everything will work out as it should for them in the end. And while I'd be remiss if I didn't take Clugston-Major to task for the "TMBG Still Suck" poster she sneaks onto a wall in Erin's room (grrr…), the musical references are otherwise always spot-on and always serve the story well.
Blue Monday gets my highest recommendation. Lovecats should still be available as a one-shot, and a new Halloween-themed one-shot, Dead Man's Party, will be out in October. Additionally, two collections of previous stories, "The Kids Are Alright" and "Absolute Beginners," are available.
Clugston-Major also contributes "flashback" art to a different kind of punk rock love story. Hopeless Savages is the story of a punk rock family, that of punk rock superstars Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage and their offspring, Rat, Arsenal, Twitch, and Skank Zero Hopeless-Savage. When mum and dad are kidnapped, Arsenal, Twitch, and Zero must locate and deprogram their estranged elder brother, whose way of dropping out and rebelling against the family was to join the straight world and become the head of a huge multi-national overpriced coffee chain.
Just as Clugston-Major does in Blue Monday, writer/creator Jen Van Meter makes these characters come alive as far more than the obvious "punk" or "rock star offspring" stereotypes they could have been. It's obvious Van Meter has a lot of love for her characters, and that love shows in the obvious love the characters have for each other. Even Zero's resentment toward Rat for "abandoning" the family belies her love for him -- had she not cared so deeply about him, she wouldn't have been so hurt.
As mentioned, Clugston-Major handles the "flashback" art, and her manga-influenced style is well suited to the "catch-up" stuff that fills in the background details of the family's lives and what got them to where they are in the present. The "present day" art is by Christine Norrie, whose clean, animated, cartoony style is a perfect match for the book's lighthearted tone.
Hopeless-Savages has drama, action, romance, fun, adventure, intrigue, and a whole lot of heart. The initial limited series has been collected in a trade paperback, along with some fun short strips. Additionally, a second limited series, Hopeless Savages: Ground Zero, is now underway, with the focus on the youngest member of the clan. While Bryan O'Malley's somewhat muddier art isn't quite as well suited as Norrie's (who chips in "flashback" art in issue #2), the story is every bit as much fun as the first.
Things That Go Bump in the Night
On the darker side of things comes Ted Naifeh. Naifeh's art first came to my attention on the charming "goth" comic Gloomcookie, which was a mix of dark fantasy and goth romance/subculture (and which sadly lost much of its charm for me after he left the title).
At first glance, Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things might seem to be more of the same, but that's selling this book far too short. Naifeh dispenses with the goth stuff and focuses on a somewhat lighter and definitely more innocent (but still dark) fantasy tone for the story of antisocial junior high school student Courtney Crumrin. Freshly transplanted to an extremely upper-class suburb to live in the spooky mansion of her mysterious great-uncle Aloysius, Courtney quickly discovers that her uncle -- and the world -- is not all it seems to be. All manner of goblins and creatures haunt the area, and her uncle just might be a wizard.
Despite her aloof, loner nature, Courtney is an eminently likeable character, and is very easy to identify with. It's hard to believe that Courtney Crumrin represents Naifeh's first writing work, as Courtney is such a well-realized character, and the stories are first-rate. While it's a completely different kind of story than Harry Potter, comparisons are inevitable, and I would imagine that anyone that enjoys the tales of the boy sorcerer would quickly fall in love with Courtney. And Naifeh's expressive art is as charming as ever.
Should you be unable to track down the individual issues, the limited series will be collected in a trade paperback in December. Oni also just announced that a second Courtney Crumrin series will debut in December. I can hardly wait!
Peel Slowly and See
Another of Oni's darker titles is Skinwalker. But make no mistake -- while Courtney Crumrin is a whimsical and light-hearted dark fantasy, Skinwalker is deadly serious.
Skinwalker can best be described as a supernatural crime story. Set against the backdrop of Navajo culture, the story finds FBI Behavioral Sciences expert Greg Haworth forced into an uneasy alliance with Navajo Tribal Police officer Ann Adaki, as the two investigate the disappearance of Haworth's former partner, Brian Forsythe, now with the Bureau's Indian Country Unit (considered "the lowest posting in the entire Bureau"). It quickly becomes apparent that Forsythe's disappearance is connected to the Navajo concept of a "skinwalker" -- basically, a Navajo "witch" that (among other ritualistic behaviors) is known to wear the skins of dead animals to gain the power of the animal. Someone is taking the ritual to a new level by wearing the skins of humans, and the ritual apparently works. The skinwalker could literally be anyone, and the mystery is far deeper than just "whodunit."
Writers Nunzio DeFilippas and Christina Weir originally planned Skinwalker as a screenplay, and it shows -- the book has a wonderfully cinematic flair, and it's easy to see that the story could be a great movie. The obvious comparison on premise alone is to The X-Files, but the story is so multi-leveled that simply referring to that show is doing it a disservice. While telling a fascinating and creepy crime story, DeFilippas and Weir find time to weave in conspiracies, the tensions between the Bureau and the Navajo, intra-tribe relations, and enough personal detail about Haworth and Adaki to make them feel like real, three-dimensional characters. The realistically drawn art from penciller Brian Hurtt and finisher Arthur Dela Cruz serves to reinforce the spooky, tense mood, and really brings the characters to life.
At this writing, Skinwalker is three issues in, and has one issue left to wrap everything up. I'm on the edge of my seat, and can hardly wait to see how it will turn out!
She's The Sheriff
In a much lighter vein comes another female lawbringer from the Southwest, Paul Dini's Sheriff Ida Red, star of Mutant, Texas. Ida's the sassy, red-headed, firecracker sheriff of the small Texas town of Mutant -- a town forever changed when, forty years ago, a radioactive comet slammed into a malfunctioning satellite and then fell to earth, crashing into a nuclear power plant near what was once known as the town of Mystic. As a result, the town is populated by mutated talking animals, plant-folk (like the prickly cactus cowboy, Clint Saguaro), and Ida, who looks like a "normal" human, but in fact has mutant superpowers of her own. Mutant, Texas tells the story of the town and how Ida became its Sheriff.
Obviously, this is a book that doesn't take itself too seriously. While there are moments of real drama and emotion, at its heart, Mutant, Texas is a whimsical and fun roller coaster ride of a tall tale. Artist J. Bone supplies the appropriately cartoony art, giving the book a real animated feel while keeping the action moving. While Ida may be a mutant, don't expect any X-Men-style angst or overblown superhero battles; just sit back and have a good time.
As of this writing, the four-issue mini-series is half published (though I've not yet been able to pick up the second issue). Fans who first met Ida in Dini's Jingle Belle stories will not be disappointed in this fantastic romp.
Now In Color!
Oni's regular titles are published in black & white, but once a year, the company explodes into gorgeous full color with their Oni Press Color Special. This jam-packed book is a great way to sample many of Oni's different types of stories in one package. The 2002 issue contains a number of short stories that act as preludes to series that the company will release over the next year, and has something for everyone, including work from many of the writers and artists listed above.
Among the highlights of this year's special are a Courtney Crumrin prequel from Naifeh; Big Snobby Git, a hilarious parody of certain British comics deities from writer Gail Simone and artist J. Bone; The Operation, from one of the aforementioned Brits, writer Warren Ellis, and the art team of Phil Hester and Ande Parks; the whimsical and fun Kung-Fu Space Girls from writer-artist Norrie; and the surreal, off-the-wall Buddha Master & Angst Man from writers Christian Gosset and Bradley Kayl and artist Aaron Horvath.
At $5.95, the Color Special might seem a bit pricey, but it's worth every penny. Virtually every story is something new, different, and exciting -- much like every new series from Oni.
But Wait, There's More!
Even at 2000+ words, I'm barely scratching the surface of all Oni has to offer. I didn't even get into the superhero high school drama of Sidekicks (from writer J. Torres and artist Takeshi Miyazawa), the hilariously-airheaded antics of Killer Princesses (from Simone and artist Lea Hernandez), or the giant robot adventures of Jason & the Argobots (from Torres and artist Mike Norton), to name just three more of the company's most worthy efforts. Simply put, the little Oni demon-head icon is about as sure a symbol of quality as you can find in comics these days. Take some time to explore their excellent Web site at www.onipress.com for FREE COMICS and more info. You're sure to find something you'll like.
A note on scheduling…
I've been very frustrated with my inability to keep this column on any sort of regular schedule (insert joke about your favorite famously late comics professional here). I'm hoping to change that. Effective immediately, I'm planning to put the Treadmill on a solid biweekly schedule. With luck, I might ramp up to an even more aggressive schedule, but right now, biweekly seems like the most realistic option.
I'm always interested in hearing readers' comments and ideas for future columns, so if there's some subject you'd like to see me cover or some title you'd like to see me review, please drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below!
By day, Julio Diaz is a mild-mannered Web designer for a great (but small) metropolitan newspaper. By night, he fights a never-ending battle for pop culture as the Editor-In-Chief of Ink 19. A lifelong comics fan, he spends way too much time at the Tony Isabella Message Board, and not enough time with his beautiful wife and daughter.