That Dream of Better Things


This original b&w graphic novel is from AiT/Planet Lar. It should be in stores tomorrow. It’s $12.95 for 104 pages.

And for the first 14 or so of those pages, I was immersed in a certain sensation, one no doubt familiar to many seasoned back-issue bin divers. There’s this sprawling semi-future city, bedecked with corporate slogans. Seemingly every blocky contour of an ominous security helicopter has been dutifully filled in, each page’s visuals cluttered with dirty skyscrapers and lurid human grotesqueries. You can’t at all call it a polished approach, but there’s a filthy immediacy to the images of heavily-armed storm troopers and pervasive advertisements for tasty peanut butter and chocolate uppers and opiates. A band of rebels takes down a delivery truck, and a firefight results in spilled guts and exploding heads. It’s like some strange, lost b&w boom project, its creative team’s heads stuffed with cyberpunk notions and bloody ambition - damn the polish! You can almost see the airbrushed color cover. There’s a scent to these things, the decaying pulp innards of it all, even when it’s new like this.

Continuity then turns into something else, basically a teen angst rendition of The Lathe of Heaven, with punk touches and a less ambitious inquiring doctor. And maybe that’s a more sophisticated route for the book to take, with its peeks into personal emotion and its themes of the subjectivity of personal reality, but I don’t think the choice pays off much. This is a frustrating book, made by people with fairly good instincts and not quite the aptitude to successfully send the thing where they seem to want it to go. I can grasp the ideas, sense the emotion behind it all, but the execution simply isn’t there, and the experience is thus unsatisfying.

The book comes from PopImage columnist Jason McNamara and artist Tony Talbert; the two had previously worked together on the self-published superhero miniseries Less Than Hero (not to be confused with the David Yurkovich collection Less Than Heroes from Top Shelf), and recently received a March 2006 Xeric Grant for their upcoming First Moon. There’s also been some interesting publicity surrounding the project, which was released in its entirety online by the publisher a ways back - this got the book a goodly amount of attention, though those who’re not inclined to put up with the bulky PDF format will probably be checking it out first on the stands of their local shop. Time will tell how this latest Larry Young strategy will pay off in terms of sales, though the publicity surrounding the event did keep the book’s title in my personal mind’s eye in the weeks leading to its release.

The story concerns young Alicia, whose dreams unfortunately affect the current of reality in the manner of a particularly cruel genie twisting wishes into curses. A school outcast and one of the only two punks in town, she dreams of romantic and erotic reverie with a privileged school hottie, but she only winds up (actually) pregnant from her unprotected (dream) activities. Later she dreams of pills that will take away her problems, and she wakes up in a pharmaceutical corporate wasteland. She nods off after witnessing police brutality, and poof - gun-toting thugs with badges rule the streets. The story is largely structured as a series of extended flashbacks, though, as Alicia relates her tale of woe to a possibly sinister Jungian psychoanalyst whose house she’s broken into. I haven’t read Ursula K. Le Guin’s somewhat similarly-premised prose book (I’ve only seen the 1980 television movie), and I don’t know if McNamara has read it either, but there does seem to be a few amusing plays on the general themes and character relationships going on between the two works, though I may just be reaching.

The problem is, the book itself is reaching toward a certain resonance that it can't quite manage. Panel-by-panel conversations are often awkwardly mounted, characters prone to spitting out their feelings in declarations of purpose, even while remaining positioned as nervous or immature. Individual situations, while surely heartfelt, are greatly prone to cliché, from the mean rich kids at school who laugh at Our Heroine's poetry and sneer at her low social position, to the wise leader of the band of impoverished street folk whom Alicia falls in with belting out lines like "The worst they can do is kill you. Once you get past that there's nothing to fear" and "If you can live for and appreciate the moments, then the big picture will end up painting itself." Needless to say, The Man soon comes cracking down, and then it's time for a little revolution on the streets.

I did like the revolution bits, let me remind you, but they're only used as fodder for Alicia's personal story, which comes off as merely clumsy and struck from well-worn materials in its totality. That everything is built from a teenager's dreams is maybe the canniest of the book's moves - how many of us wouldn't cook up a world of loving outsiders and wicked adults if our minds were let loose? But that doesn't make the story any more interesting in its presentation of a teenager's mindset, as the fragments of said consciousness are things we've all seen before, and for the most part presented better. Even Talbert's art seems to flounder in the more quiet sequences of personal agony and less fantastic street living - only in the wrinkles of a sickly future can his haggard lines really connect. Everything else seems a little tired, and there's a lot of 'everything else' here.

Still, I'll be on the lookout for First Moon, as this team does have potential. The very ending of this book is pretty effective, wrapping up writer McNamara's theme of life being constructed of personal impressions quite neatly, and with not a lack of cleverness. But you will have to sit for climactic exclamations like "You didn't make me. I'm my own person!" and a follow-up "Of course. A unique snowflake... in a uniform, doing what he's told." Eventually, I hope, that road will get less bumpy, or perhaps remain bumpy in not so basic a pattern. I wait.