26 May, 2013
Regular readers may have formed the impression that the only comics I read are the European titles published by Cinebook. While I hold them in high regard I dip into all kinds of books, from the Marvel/DC superheroes through to A5 indies picked up at conventions. One publisher keeps cropping up on the edge of my radar, but I rarely see them on the shelves. They are an American company called Archaia, and they have built a reputation for elevating the medium in the breadth of their story-telling and the sheer physical quality of their books. Titles of theirs such as Mouse Guard, Return Of The Dapper Men and Gunnerkrigg Court are spoken of in reverential tones by people in the know, yet they get precious little shelf space over here in the UK.
It doesn’t seem right, so I thought I’d do a bit of digging and bring as many of their Archaia-logical treasures to light for you as possible. Now, there are no comic shops to speak of where I live, so to kick thing off I went digital. I managed to pick up four trades at a decent price, and I’ll be posting up a review of each of them over the next few months. I guess we’ll see where we go from there. First up is Rust, a sepia-soaked steampunk tale, set in an alternate American mid-west.
48 years ago a great war shook the world. Technology won the day, but it wasn’t the atomic bomb. Trench-coated automatons stalked the battlefields while rocket-men rained death from above. The opening battle is a tight little number, setting out Lepp’s shingle in style, putting the terror of the mechanical men front and centre while hinting at the over-arching mystery. It’s peace that reigns now, though. Roman Taylor is a simple man, struggling to work the farm like his father, and his father before him. Between that and raising a family on his own, he needs all the help he can get. That’s why he’s so grateful to have Jet Jones around.
He’s a mite peculiar, what with the jet-pack and all, and you might even say he’s magnet for trouble (especially when you remember how he first came to the farm) but he’s a hard worker and he seems to know his way around an engine. All in all it’s a darn shame he’ll be moving on soon. In the meantime Roman’s trying to reconstruct an old robot soldier to use as a farm-hand. It’s a tricky job and Jet thinks it’s a really bad idea, but what’s a man to do? Needs must when the Devil drives.
The book uses Roman’s letter to his dad as both a framing and narrative device, layering in plot points and building a sense of the characters in a naturalistic fashion. He accepts his dull life with rare maturity, but there’s no denying the flame of excitement that kindles in him the day the ‘visitor’ appears in his field. He gets a genuine thrill from the technology on display and the endless possibilities it represents. Jet Jones embodies the central mystery in this first volume: a scrawny young man with a jet-pack who claims to have fought in the war and never takes his goggles off. The day he drops into Roman’s life sets the course for the rest of the book (and presumably the series) as more and more remnants from the war begin to haunt the present.
I can’t describe the physicality of the book for you, as I read it on Comixology – an excellent app for mobile devices. The guided-view system that they use is a real boon for digital comics though, allowing the creator to focus you sequentially on specific areas of the page in order to get the most out of the story. Details and reactions are picked out, often getting several beats from a single image. Lepp’s artwork is confident in a minimalist fashion, building his world from simple line-work, sepia shade colour blocks and white spaces. He sets the scene with relatively empty panels to help give a sense of the wide open prairies but he really knows how to fill them when the action pieces kick in.
And what action! Jet’s entrance (chronologically speaking) is a battle of man versus machine that knocks seven bells out of most cinematic set-pieces because it maintains attention on the participants rather than the big scale picture. Up close and personal, he uses blur to stunning effect, and the way he simulates the intense light of the jet-pack flame is amazing, bleeding white round edges of his drawings. While it’s harder to get a sense of the battle’s scale, we are plunged deeper into the chaos and terror of the action and, when they come, the splash panels have far greater impact.
The second half of the story is a much cozier affair. We get to see family life on the farm, meet the neighbours and even get a tantalising glimpse of romance. In some ways it’s an odd change of pace, and a little disappointing after the explosive beginning, but I found myself warming up to it in a different way. It allows you time to care for the characters while slowly building up the deeper mystery of Jet’s past. Royden Lepp has a juggler’s approach to story-telling, showing us a bunch of disparate elements before tossing them together in delightful and unexpected ways. There’s a gawkish charm to his characters which perfectly suit the Smallville-style setting and the book is filled with the glow of pulp nostalgia.
It’s a gorgeous comic, filled with hazy sunshine, watercolour dust clouds and fantastic clunky machinary, harkening back to the simpler days of science fiction. Comparisons to The Rocketeer are inevitable, but this is a very different kind of a story. Although it embraces the excitement of retro-futuristic technology in a pastoral setting it deals far more with guilt and the consequences of our actions, returning to plague us again and again. Roman and Jet are not Technicolor heroes out to save the day, though they each display qualities that could fit that mould. They are troubled people tossed about by circumstance, leaves on the wind who are struggling to find some measure of control in a world full of implacable forces.
I absolutely loved Rust. It was exuberant fun, emotionally engaging and unlike anything I’ve read before. It stirred my imagination, challenged my preconceptions and rocketed off through the corn-fields with my heart. If you haven’t encountered Lepp’s work before, I’d encourage you to seek it out immediately. And pick up volume 2 while you’re at it! (You won’t want to be left hanging)