Two books for two quarters less than usual.

*You know what's tasty? Those Reverse Pocky things Jason is selling. I mean, they're thin hollow chocolate biscuit straws filled with chocolate cream (plain ol' Pocky being biscuit straws dipped in chocolate), so there's no way the damn things are healthy for me, but I gobbled them down like they were life-replenishing fruit and I was the little guy in the hat and skirt from the NES classic Adventure Island. Maybe the Pocky people can next come out with Redundant Pocky, which will just be melted chocolate inside rods of firm chocolate. Unless they put one biscuit inside of another somehow. Maybe they could pack them both into every box, half each? God damn, I should be on the Board of Pocky!

*52 Dept: You know, at first I thought that this week's cover was just a really clumsy juxtaposition of Montoya's search and John Henry's agony (even the basic outlines of the male figure's clothing matches what John Henry is wearing this issue, though the tool belt's missing). But nope, it looks like that's just not the correct threat to Montoya and her Lara Croft outfit, as a totally different villain shows up on the inside. I was also hoping Our Heroine would push a few of those crates around to aid in her quest, but no go - she does flip a switch to activate a trap door, at least.

One of the most potentially interesting constraints this project is working under is that it has to proceed in something resembling 'real' time - one week in our world means one week in the DCU. Thus, we can rest assured that John Henry's visions will not drag on for issue after issue, and that action scenes like this week's with Montoya and the Question will probably have to wrap up before the close of any given issue. Granted, I'm already waiting for someone to pull the big 'last page of one issue takes place at 11:59 PM, first page of next issue is one minute later' trick in order to goose the suspense, but at least the writers are forced to have Ralph Dibny meet the superhero revivial people in a different location, instead of just carrying their conversation on in one locale over a spread of issues, which is actually sort of what it still feels like. At least there's the illusion of movement.

So this issue there's a fight, and Booster is kind of an ass, and John Henry sticks his head in the toilet, and Ralph takes a mystic swim (not in a toilet), and a bunch of rescue workers try to puzzle out where some of the missing metahumans have gone by scanning Zeta frequencies and stuff - that last bit is actually kind of interesting, and I think the book could use a bit more of that 'touring the mystery of the new DCU' kind of feel, as the various plots kind of rumble forward. Also: Donna Troy stands around and cries.

Uptight #1

A new quarterly ongoing pamphlet-format series from Fantagraphics, from writer/artist Jordan Crane. It's $2.50 for this debut issue, an appealingly low price given current market standards. Not much in the way of presentational quality has been sacrificed, either - it’s standard size for a pamphlet, and the b&w art is reproduced well on sturdy paper. There’s no back (or inside-back) cover, though, the book’s story content running right over onto the rear, effectively bumping this 20-page production up to 22 pages of substantive material. Which isn’t to say that the evocative two-color front cover isn’t nice, but you understand what I mean, right?

Effective production is nothing to be surprised with, given the creator at the helm - Crane is quite busy these days working successfully as a designer for assorted books, from the lavishly gold-kissed and fuzzy (not in reference to image quality - I mean the texture of the book is physically fuzzy) housing for Renée French’s The Ticking at Top Shelf, to the smart paperback utility of Fantagraphics’ own MOME (the third and most recent issue co-designed with Adam Grano). He first rose to comics prominence in the mid-‘90s as the editor/publisher/designer of the respected anthology NON, the 2001 fifth and thus-far newest installment of which was limited to 2000 handmade copies, three separate books nestled away in an elaborate box, the whole thing 472 pages and about two inches thick when put together. He’s contributed to other anthologies too, like the also-luxurious Kramers Ergot 5 where he whipped up a very simple but predictably gorgeous color western tale. His most recent full-length solo book is The Clouds Above, a Fantagraphics-published all-ages tome.

But it’s oddly difficult to find information on Uptight. It’s not listed on Crane’s homepage. It’s absent from Fantagraphics’ catalog page for the artist. Actually, the best I could find on the Fantagraphics website is this November 2005 blog post by Eric Reynolds - the format of the book has slightly changed since then, the projected two original stories bumped down to one, accompanied by the serialization of Crane’s new extended work Keeping Two, which has apparently already seen 76 of its pages released in the form of a pair of minicomics, according to Crane’s site at the above link. There’s 13 pages in here, though I do not know if they’ve been revised from their minicomic publication, or if indeed they are among the pages that were published separately.

From what can be gleaned in this publication, Keeping Two is a formally interesting exercise in memory and regret - and if Crane’s homepage descriptions of his minicomics are still accurate as to upcoming content, we can expect a sustained series of flashbacks and imaginings, bouncing from character to character, the ‘present’ readily identifiable by both its comparable mundanity (it’s just a guy doing the dishes and eating snacks, waiting for his significant other to return home from the video store) and the fact that the panels applied to it are the only ones with borders. Each page is a strict six-panel grid, but the 'past' portions of the book greatly outnumber anything else, so each little vision seems planted in a sea of white, unless the blackness of night drifts woozily outward, forming an uncertain boundary. Only the present boxes in Crane's lead character here, his thoughts free to drift from recent conversations to childhood memories to (I presume) his visions of what other characters are doing. A very simple but disarmingly potent setup.

The story itself (for what it is) also centers on the workings of the mind, as our nameless protagonist (very few of these characters are given names) pulls together the moments that instilled in him the superstition that death travels in threes, something suddenly close to him now that his mother's dog and his brother-in-law(?)'s younger sibling have died. The dead's presence is conveyed via dotted outline, handing over the shoulders of the living. It remains unknown whether any of what we see outside of those few borders can be trusted, or if Crane's visual flourishes are as much a product of his lead character's mind as the creator's pen. Is he paranoid, or up for a tragic future?

There's a lot of car crashes in this book - two depicted, another suggested, and a fourth on the inside front cover. Is it a means of loosely joining the book's various parts together via recurring motif, or will reality eventually smash into Crane's characters? That's maybe what happens in Below the Shade of Night, this issue's stand-alone story, though if the reader pays attention, there's maybe a bit more going on. Given one's initial reading, it might seem that the story is a direct 9-page evisceration of a self-absorbed, surly youth, a boy who causes fights in his home, wrecks his friend's things without a thought, and only manages to connect with his younger brother through shared material interests. Eventually, his thoughtlessness causes an awful thing to happen, and a symbolic crowd of people shows up, maybe to help him, maybe to judge him.

And yet, Crane very well might have constructed a clever little Rorschach Test of a story. If you look closely at the most important panels of this story, you'll suddenly notice that Crane has omitted vital information, gaps that are not filled in by the main character's running narration. Is what we think is happening merely a reflection of our own biases, having seen what we've seen of this character? He's a liar, yes, but did what seems to have happened really occur? Should we be so quick to judge? Are we the crowd? And what kind of crowd are we?

These are the questions Crane raises, though his simple character designs, which now more than ever remind me of Sammy Harkham's in their sweet griminess. He's got a fine gift for capturing the beat of casual conversation; I love that none of his word balloons end with periods after their final sentences, as if every last word out of every character's mouth is drifting into something else, only to be cut off. A good, small detail in this book full of uncertainty, all of it the product of very certain skill.