One time when I was running Cross Country in high school a kid forgot to wash the Icy Hot off his hands before taking a leak, and boy what an uproar.

Cold Heat #1-2 (of 12)

Now is probably a decent time to talk about this stuff, since issue #1 just showed up in Direct Market stores serviced by Diamond this week.

Cold Heat is a 12-issue miniseries from PictureBox, written by Ben Jones (of Paper Rad fame) and drawn by Frank Santoro (of several newspaper-format comics, like 1995’s excellent Storeyville) with letters by Aaron Cometbus (of several punk rock outfits and the seminal zine Cometbus). These first two issues have actually been out for a little while, though Diamond initially refused to carry the series on the grounds of its format not being popular with retailers and collectors. I presume Diamond meant ‘format’ in terms of interior aesthetic presentation, since Cold Heat is packaged as your typical 24-page pamphlet-format comic, 20 pages of color story per issue for $5 a pop. Diamond later reversed their decision, but the book has still proven to be highly divisive, reactions running from Derik Badman’s declaration that series is among the best of the year, to retailer Brian Hibbs’ withering assessment of the project as “one of the worst, least professional, and most overpriced comics I’ve ever seen, and Diamond was absolutely right to originally reject it.”

I think Cold Heat is quite a well-done comic, albeit one pursuing a vision that the majority of comics readers are just not going to be interested in. The plot, however, is actually extremely straightforward, following a teen girl named Castle who’s in an awful lot of trouble. The corporation she’s been interning at has just been bought out, and she’s out of a job. The CEO she’s been sleeping with can’t help her with anything anymore, though he’s still an asshole. The lead singer of her favorite band, Chocolate Gun, has just committed suicide. Her and her father are dirt-poor, and now it turns out that the free antidepressants they’ve been given might have some particularly nasty side effects, like causing wild hallucinations, or prompting violent activity that the user can’t remember, or possibly even literally turning people into monsters. Certainly something ugly went down at a party Castle attended, since a prominent Senator’s asshole son wound up dead. Perhaps only the loving bonds of family and the skills she picked up at Ninja Classes can help Castle now, though there seems to be a wider conspiracy at work.

See? Very easy to grasp, really rather typical. There’s even the expected digs at warlike government and corporate malfeasance, and all the adolescent angst one might find in a teen mutant book. The trick is, Cold Heat almost never actually seems like a teen mutant book, so deep is its immersion in its creators’ particular visions. Frankly, I suspect that the book might get a bit more attention if it wasn’t so direct in its at-heart appreciation for fantasy/adventure tricks ’n tropes, but Cold Heat is wholly uninterested in playing obfuscation games; its creators apparently love crazy genre comics stuff, and by god they’re going to make a crazy genre comic entirely in their own vision, which doesn’t at all comport to the prevailing perception of what crazy genre comics ought to look like.

As a result, they beg for comparisons to the front of Previews and the realm of shounen manga, while projecting their work wholly through a style that is generally segregated to the realm of ‘art’ comics. But there is no irony to this series, no commentary on popular genre comics, no icy detachment or allegorical study, no sniggering from behind the drawing board; this isn’t a new thing among members of what I’ll clumsily dub the ‘Fort Thunder generation,’ who have consistently proven themselves to be remarkably catholic in their hunger for comics styles, but now Jones and Santoro and PictureBox are going the extra mile of actually putting out a miniseries in a format that, regardless of what Diamond once thought, actually resembles other books containing plots of the same type.

And it might yet be their earnestness that leads them into trouble. Cold Heat, through the aesthetic outlook of its creative team, looks and feels like virtually nothing else packaged in that particular way. I can certainly imagine the ninja moves and scary monsters and beheadings turning away some factions of dedicated ‘art’ comics connoisseurs, just as I expect many curious browsers interested in ninjas and demons might become puzzled by the project’s peculiar approach.

But I think it’s a worthy chance to take, and it’s a highly coherent, pleasing work for its vision and particular approach. Santoro has an extremely individual drawing style, fluctuating in tightness and detail to suit the mood of whatever sequence its illustrating. Calm, waking-world pages are drawn very simply, almost in the way one might expect from a vintage b&w boom comic, albeit filled with solid pinks and blues. A few pages later we’re at a noisy party, and the lines become more scribbly, crowds of people filled in as faceless circles, and the colors are suddenly delicate and dusted over the art, to make for a smokier, hazy atmosphere. Sequences of violence are harsh and slashing, usually filled in with what seem to be colored pencils or markers. Characters’ heads literally melt when they’re woozy, and faces stretch and contort to match their emotions (a drug overdose sequence in issue #2 is outstanding in this regard). Really, it’s the emotions of the characters that constantly shape Santoro’s visual approach of the moment, shaping the whole page into an impression of how the target character feels at whatever moment. It’s a signature device of his, present since Storeyville, and it rules over all the series. Derik has some art samples at the link above, as well as here.

Santoro’s grip on the work is so tight that writer Jones seems a bit overpowered (though some of the figure drawings look a little bit like his, or maybe that’s just Santoro evoking his co-creator), though he still manages some of the funny, flowing, punctuation-light bits of talk that are his specialty (“My son was no loser, some drug thug slipped him some bad dope and I have to stand here like an asshole with his ass on a pole acting like I’m some victim, I got news, the party is over for all the kids”), and the contours of the plot may yet fit into his ongoing concern with individual spirituality in a largely debased, confused world.

If ever there was a comic that’s not for everyone, it’s this. But I get the niggling feeling that it may be for more people than I think. There’s something lovely about the unassuming honesty of a comic pamphlet of this sort, a book that seems to want to have it both ways, but only because the industry and its rhetoric has declared that there’s mutually exclusive ‘ways’ to have it. Cold Heat is a curious hybrid, if mainly curious for how ready it is to think as wide as possible, beyond boundaries. Hell, maybe you’ll agree with that and still hate it, but I think it’s fun and funny and good-looking, and I am a pretty big fan of Jones and Santoro. And Timothy Hodler’s bonus prose stories are aces. Give it a peek, won’t you?