The bloody end.

*New column up today! I mix forbidden secrets of the Gnostic Gospels with references to Luke Cage, while inanimate objects recite fairy stories for our enchantment. There may be commentary on comics in there as well, but that’s up for debate. Enjoy (and note that for some reason the main link takes you to last week’s column, so be sure to use the link above EDIT - 2/5/05 11:12pm: Ok, the link up on the sidebar should take you to the latest column now).

Blood Orange #4

The final edition of this decidedly mixed Fantagraphics anthology is now out, and it’s one of the stronger issues in the current format. Next quarter, the book becomes "Bete Noire" and expands in both page count (from 56 to 88 pages) and breadth of coverage (plenty of Euro brut and alt manga stuff). But for now we’re left with this b&w collection of names I generally recognize from various North American minis and anthologies, though not all of the creators are Americans.

And it’s a good thing I do recognize the names. More and more with each passing issue, the design aesthetic of “Blood Orange” appears to boil down to ‘resist utility’. So this issue we’ve got nothing more than a list of contributors, presented in reverse alphabetical order, with no page numbers given to direct the curious reader to a story by an artist they might have heard about (not that it would help; there‘s no page numbers anywhere in the book), and no information presented anywhere to suggest what any of the artists have done either in here or anywhere else (the route that “Kramer‘s Ergot” takes). Not all of the stories inside are signed, either, so the neophyte reader will simply have to be left in the dark; in this way it’s a halfway point between the typical anthology and “Paper Rodeo”, which doesn’t even provide a list of contributors, although there’s not that much of difference in confusion for the new reader. Perhaps such theoretical ‘new readers’ are simply out of the equation at this juncture, though, and Fantagraphics figures that anyone left paying $6 for the book at this point will more or less know what’s going on, or be willing to find their way around. A bit like a clubhouse it is.

Speaking of initial confusion, I first had no idea what to make of Rebecca Dart’s untitled opening piece, a 16-page succession of full-page views of exactly the same spot in an alien environment, with architecture remaining largely constant and only tiny monster figures and their accompanying gadgets running around from page to page. But Dart has proven herself to be a canny stylist (like in the excellent “RabbitHead” from Alternative), and I soon realized that reading the story as simply a page-to-page view was incorrect (and indeed impossible). You basically start with one of the little beasties on page one, and follow them from page to page, as they make their way through the fixed scenery, interacting with other creatures, which you’re then compelled to either follow backwards in sequence to discover their own origin or ignore while following your first choice of protagonist. Almost everyone interacts with everyone else in the story at some point (in pantomime; there’s no dialogue), and it took me a good seven to ten readings to track everyone’s movements and interactions. There is a point to it all, as everyone’s tiny contributions to life mask the oncoming presence of an awful cataclysm, which stops the whole population dead in their tracks. Like “RabbitHead”, it’s excellent minimalist world-building, reminiscent in effect to Mat Brinkman’s work in “Teratoid Heights”, but with greater formal ingenuity, and a decidedly smaller canvass. Fine stuff.

Interestingly, my second favorite piece was the last one, and also the most traditional by far: an always welcome 8-page adventure for Brian Ralph’s “Reggie-12”, that naughty little Astro Boy-type robot hero. This installment reveals Reggie’s secret origin, as he flies off to battle the dreaded Kirby-style Space God Jemiah, but only after procrastinating with video games and cracking stupid jokes. It’s the very essence of unassuming entertainment, with Ralph’s lovely style (something of a more rounded James Kochalka look) matching the cute humor perfectly. Also funny but not nearly as cute is Ben Jones’ one pager “Dr. Chocolate President”, which provides all of the non-sequitur delite that a Ben Jones one pager usually does.

Tobias Tak provides the book’s other long story (based on an idea by Patty Deeders), a 16-page story titled “Gardenia”, which begins as a chain-reaction romp through an elaborate fantasy world lovingly cross-hatched in the style of early 20th century children’s books/strips, and unfortunately switches scenes a little under halfway to an interminable film noir detective pastiche. The vintage celebrity caricatures are pretty good, but the action simply dawdles along until the punch line, and I understand that the shift in tone might be intended as part of the overall effect, but this latter portion of the story is badly overextended, despite my general amusement at this rubbing together of two distinctly eccentric genres. I guess I was also amused by USS Catastrophe stalwart Ted May’s “Manleau: Cyborg of the Future, In… Supply Chain Management”, which features a bionic man trying to score drugs while encountering minicomics artists and hippie cavemen. It’s about halfway successful as well, but on a more overarching level rather than through any particularly deficient portion of the story.

Rounding things out with some more outré material, Lark Pien (also this issue’s cover artist) has the 3-page “Timshel” (or ‘thou mayest’, referring to the human capacity for choice), involving a little boy who expends lovely wishes to help others, and is then granted a choice between a wish from two similar kids, one representing infinity, and one representing blackness. It’s a tough choice, but a terribly cute spiritual quandary (if little more than that). And Nicolas Mahler serves up the usual symbolic slice of something or other (today’s theme: Mortality!) that never fails to leave me cold.

And that’s that, which is a pretty decent sum for this title. It might actually be the best issue of “Blood Orange” yet released. It’s been an unexceptional ride so far, so it’s good to see some steam building up as editor Chris Polkki prepares for expansion. Here’s hoping it’s a beneficial one.