Earth splitting, sky burning...

*The last thunderclap outside did a pretty nice job of shaking my building. Let’s see how far I can get before the power goes out (time warp: it didn't).

*True Confessions Dept: Avatar artist extraordinaire Jacen Burrows discusses his personal history with comics:

At one point, my mother was dating a guy who had a collection of underground comics. I believe I was 5 or 6 at the time but I clearly recall chilling in his living room, reading copies of FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROS and CRUMB comics while the adults played out by the pool. I have clear recollections of 4 or 5 topless women sunbathing around that pool while I flipped through FRITZ THE CAT. I think my mother may have been a swinger back in those late 70's, sunny San Diego, single mom days. Good for her.”

Lots more where that came from, including an appreciation of Frank Miller’s Ronin (probably my favorite of Miller’s work as a writer/artist) and an ever-welcome mention of the old Eclipse/Viz manga pamphlets from way back when.

Colonia: On Into the Great Lands

This one will be out tomorrow at all your favorite comics stores. It’s $12.95, 152 pages, b&w, from AiT/Planet-Lar.

It’s a title I kept hearing about on a few sites every time a new issue was released, but I never quite got around to checking out. I’d enjoyed what I’d seen of writer/artist Jeff Nicholson’s work before - his Through the Habitrails was one of the most welcome recurring features in Steve Bissette’s infamous Taboo horror anthology (even for someone like me, collecting old issues out of order - the pleasure of encountering a good, unfamiliar recurring feature is much the same as seeing it new), and I greatly enjoyed the collected edition. Nicholson had also been active with his long-running, self-published Ultra Klutz, and would later create the comedic Father & Son at Kitchen Sink and do some work on The Dreaming at Vertigo (and be sure you check out Nicholson's Small Press Tirade, a priceless look at the '80s photocopy comics scene).

Colonia, begun in 1998, was initially published in pamphlet format by Nicholson’s own Colonia Press, with AiT/Planet-Lar eventually arriving to handle the collected editions, of which this is the second, compiling all remaining uncollected issues (#6 - #11). You’ll note the past tense I used in regards to the title’s pamphlet incarnation - in his forward to this volume, Nicholson notes that the next we’ll see of Colonia will be in original graphic novel format. Thus, as the author notes, this will be the last material to surface for several years.

But for now, we have the two extant collections. I’ve not read the first of these tomes, but the plot is pretty easy to pick up, as Colonia is a good-natured, low-key fantasy adventure, one that’s had some time to build up its world, but not enough to develop an intimidating wall of backstory for the neophyte reader to scale. The setup is easy to grasp: bright young Jack and his two uncles are out fishing, and inexplicably drift into a strange world that’s reminiscent of a barely-colonized America, with charismatic pirates like the roguish Cinnabar stalking the seas and hungry for gold. As this particular book picks up, the trio is stuck with Cinnabar and a host of other characters, pirates and otherwise, on a journey inland to find either treasure or a way home, depending on who you’re asking. Many sights are seen, like cute pagan girls and crafty ship-sellers, and revelations unfurl regarding Jack and company's passage to this odd world. But there’s more than just alternate history at play - there’s a talking duck that lays golden eggs, a man made entirely of fish, bizarre shape-shifting beasties, dwarves who bowl and brew the best booze around, and a vaguely sinister mermaid who is surrounded by scary beings with fins for hands and the mouthless, slit-eyed visages of Nicholson’s Through the Habitrails cast, the designs now more literally applied to the inhuman.

The rest of the character designs here are simple and bright, sometimes awkwardly so when positioned against Nicholson’s crisply-rendered environments, or beside the detailed, expressive animals and beasties that cohabitate the book’s world. There’s an excellent scene a ways through where Jack happens upon a strange being’s discarded human disguise - at first it seems like a cloak, or a towel, but then it’s revealed as a crumpled pair of legs, the bottom half of a ‘man-suit,’ so to speak, and the slinky detail put into such costume is impressive; it adds an air of gentle, creeping perversity to the proceedings, without polluting the all-ages atmosphere. The book could have used more of such kick; largely, the story maintains a type of half-whimsical questing aura where there’s a lot made of the characters finding their way through various travails, though there isn’t all that much in the way immediacy or danger, and plenty of jokes are available to mute the intermittent presence of such in any case. Even an unexpected side-trip to an unfriendly Indian city-state seems less threatening or suspenseful than interesting in terms of developing the book’s world, regardless of the supposed peril Our Heroes happen to be encountering. The resultant feeling is one of slight detachment, as if all of these events are being viewed from a certain distance.

But still, it’s a fast and easy read, and not one without its charms; Nicholson’s interests in historical play do pay off when the crew encounters a Blackbeard-patterned pirate character, a much feared and respected scourge of the seas who’s actually never killed anyone, and whose passion is driven mainly by a need to quell his profoundly ill mind. In other words, he’s a lot like the actual Blackbeard, with a knowing contemporary mist of historical/fictional legend surrounding him - one can say he’s our understanding of the historical figure, layers of myth peeled away as Jack and friends draw closer. It’s sequences like this that kept me most interested, and I was glad for their presence. I also enjoyed the reference to Ron Rege Jr.’s Skibber Bee-Bye, though that’s not quite as important.

There’s also a fair amount of bonus material here, including a very simple, very helpful, yet rarely-seen feature tucked away in the back - a short guide to the author’s prior works, complete with handy synopses and cover images. A seven-page sketchbook section is also included, as well as six pages of (prose) book reviews - many of the titles covered seem to have been used as reference material in the creation of this series, so it’s a bit like a heavily-annotated bibliography at times. It all works nicely as a look behind the making of this series, regardless.

The most telling extra feature, however, remains the aforementioned author’s forward, in which Nicholson lays out the troubles inherent to self-publishing a comic book series in the current day with much candor, production fluctuating from bi-monthly production to annual issues depending on his employment situation or personal state of mind (producing regular issues while working a day job was only possible after “I lost my mind again,” according to Nicholson). He estimates that the next Colonia release will be “five or six years away, but without the clutter of issuing the comics, maybe [Volume 3] will come much sooner.” I’ll hope for the latter outcome; Nicholson is too interesting a talent for a half-decade’s wait to be comfortable.