"They changed when shocked with plain electricity."

Powr Mastrs Vol. 1 (of 6, or maybe 10, or something else, I don't know)

I got this at SPX last weekend; Diamond doesn't have it yet, but you can order it online from publisher PictureBox. It's 120 (not 144) b&w pages, $18.00. The cover is traffic cone orange, with all its art and letters in blue foil. If it's in a store, anywhere, and you are in that store also, you won't miss it.

Powr Mastrs is the first bookshelf-ready project from writer/artist Chris Forgues, who's credited as merely "C.F." You might know him from the minicomics series Low Tide, or his work in The Ganzfeld and Kramers Ergot. He also performs music under the moniker Kites. In his SPX presentation, an interview conducted by editor/publisher Dan Nadel, he went into his predilection for alternate names, as well as his working methods. It isn't just me who doesn't know how long this series is going to be - Forgues himself expressed a distaste for planning works out too much, preferring to let things develop on their own.

That's not an uncommon attitude for comics. I once saw an interview with ultra-mainstream manga hit machine Naoki Urasawa (he of Monster and Pluto), in which he expressed similar sentiments; if I'm recalling correctly, he knows when to hit the 'major' plot points, and keeps a general idea of how long a work ought to be, but otherwise leaves a lot of room for in-project development and improvisation. Granted, he's got a publishing infrastructure around him poised to facilitate such impulses, but that's not to say that Forgues & PictureBox aren't dishing up what some insist the US comics scene could use: an extended, bookstore and Direct Market-ready graphic novel-format serial, chock-full of vivid imagination and proper storytelling values.

Ah, what's that? "Fort Thunder," you say? Yeah, Forgues knew and admired some of those folks. In 1998, he co-founded a free comics publication titled Paper Radio with Ben Jones (later of Paper Rad, and another artist who tends to get filed in with the same bunch), and their work inspired -- and sometimes appeared in -- the Thunderous free concoction Paper Rodeo. But wait, aren't those people, in the words of Leigh Walton, who's speaking in the hypothetical, "oblique pomo aesthetes seemingly disinterested in story"?

The trick with talking about the artists of Fort Thunder (keeping in mind that Fort Thunder itself hasn't actually existed as a place since 2001), or the artists that took inspiration from Fort Thunder, is just that - they're all individual artists. I do know what 'Fort Thunder' is supposed to mean, just as I know what 'The Comics Journal' is supposed to mean, even though I know that, say, Bob Levin and Ng Suat Tong and R.C. Harvey don't read a damn bit alike.

The same goes for, say, Brian Chippendale and Matt Brinkman and Brian Ralph. Sure, Chippendale's Maggots isn't a paragon of straightforward storytelling clarity, but Brinkman's Teratoid Heights is an almost documentary-like vision of monsters going about their business. And Ralph's in Nickelodeon Magazine, doing Avatar: The Last Airbender tie-in comics while working on his zombie apocalypse series Daybreak. As he mentioned several months ago:

"I think people overdo the art collective aspect [of Fort Thunder]. It grew really organically, and that was part of the beauty of it. We never had a house meeting to decide how we were going to attack the world. You had all these people who couldn't sit through a house meeting. But you had a lot of people with a burning desire to do stuff."

Forgues' work here radiates with a similar desire, and the results are appealing pages of surreal fantasy, drafted in a unique line (samples are visible at the ordering link up top) that pairs up doodly character expressions, stark outlines and sparse location interiors with lush natural settings and detailed, somewhat Kalutaesque costumes, all with a minimum of shading. I hope I'm getting this right, but I do believe everything is penciled, then run through a copy machine to rudely pop the blacks. The result looks a bit like the most beguiling b&w boom comic you could ever hope to exhume from a longbox, crossed with an eerily imprecise Winsor McCay strip from god knows when or where.

The plot has scope to burn, set in the fantatical New China of the far future. The 'main' story follows the travails of young Subra Ptareo, an expat from the vaguely theocratic living space of White Block, who's on a mission through the adjoining enchanted wood to purge impurities from his system. Everyone he meets outside somehow manages to restrain their giggles toward what seem to be mere allergies. Among them are Naphtha, an immortal child who attends "beard parties" for the thrill of pretending he's aged, and Windlass Wendy, a playful witch who's prepping for the lawless, likely magical bacchanal of Transmutation Night.

Elsewhere, submarine operators with funny mustaches trade meat for licorice with the denizens of an inexplicable polar region just outside the forest. The awesomely-named Ajax Lacewing pines after another, scantly-clad witch, over the warnings of her equally scantly-clad brother (the naked bits are equal opportunity). Lady Minirex and her maybe sinister cohorts arrange for her own impregnation by the Jellyfish Emperor, which means a full-blown tentacle sex interlude. Consensual tentacle sex, now - this is a classy book!

And all of it may or may not be tied to Mosfet Warlock, a nosferatu-looking magician/scientist (or is his science so advanced it seems magical?) who wears a human skin "mobile suit" and once unlocked the secret of chrysanthemum gas that can transform dead flesh into metal seeds that sprout into robot Mechlin Men; in the process, he puked up a smoky shadow self called Tarkey, who now only wants escape. But Mosfet as uncaring a god as he is curious.

It's all very introductory, filled with scene-setting and new characters seemingly every chapter. We're not even told what the title of the series means yet. Really, some readers might see the book's main weakness as similar to that of many 'bigger' genre comics - a slow rollout. But it's compelling, both for Forgues' reckless ambition and his one-of-a-kind visual style. It's the latter that might get him tagged as a formalist (not that I'd mind), since he's approaching fantasy adventure subject matter through a visual mode that draws out a maximum of childlike surface glee, but I see this aspect of the work as running parallel to Forgues' straightforward storytelling instincts.

In a way, the book is comparable to old friend Jones' and Frank Santoro's PictureBox project Cold Heat, another dive into genre material with a uniquely situated art style. Forgues is more visually conservative than Santoro, and not quite as adept; some early sequences (which date back to 2004) are confusingly staged, although the artist gets his bearings soon enough. I should also mention that his lettering is often excellent, expanding and shaking with characters' emotions, and, yes, sometimes lapsing into nonsense when characters are feeling extreme, much like a different comic's characters might spit out scratches and planetoids when screaming curses or something.

But it's hard not to look toward other 'Fort Thunder' and related works. Interestingly, while Chippendale's and Brinkman's longer comics tend to focus on large communities festering with life, Forgues looks at a wanderer prompted to enter a new world of small klatches and weird magic. Aw, but that's not of much use. What about Jim Drain, or Leif Goldberg, who haven't had longform comics released by publishers? And isn't that ignoring the visual design and 'fine' art aspects of the Fort anyway? The culture?

Take this from me now: Powr Mastrs is an intriguing, accessible bit of world-building, affecting in both concept and execution, with the two also affecting one another. I look forward to dipping into its world again.