A Flock of Dreams

The Last Sane Cowboy & Other Stories

This is a recent book from AiT/Planet-Lar, 112 b&w pages for $12.95. Newly released this month.

It’s fairly difficult to categorize work like the stuff that’s collected here, a suite of seven short comics stories from writer/artist Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, 2005 winner of the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics for the initial incarnation of the title tale. All of the stories take place on something called the Unfolded Earth, a world where the reality we all know and love has turned out to be something of a paunchy person stuffed into a too-tight pair of pants, and has now undone its belt and spilled over. Realism has suddenly gotten a lot looser, and its not going back. That’s fine for Goodbrey’s cast of protagonists, a mostly straightforward, adaptive bunch, endlessly prepared to get by over whatever personal troubles pop up ahead, whether through acceptance or struggle.

I should emphasize personal. In a short set of annotations included in the back of this book, Goodbrey splits his stories up into two categories: (1) People Have a Chat and (2) Stuff Actually Happens. Five out of seven of the tales here fall into the former category, in which characters either talk amongst themselves or address the reader directly. Indeed, three of those stories are grouped into a sort of suite, all of them simple arrays of wide panels with a single character’s head looking off the page, ‘documentary’ style, I guess, with the character narrating their tale of having a sense of smell that predicts the near future (which means, only the smells of the future), or listening to unfamiliar music that sort-of reminds them of tunes from their lost home, or being raised by mimes and appreciating the magical qualities of words all the better for having not learned about them until the age of six.

But even the slightly more elaborate stories, like that of the fellow who bleeds scorpions (yet can’t bear to hurt those stinging little beasts that are nonetheless part of him) or the guy with an Earth for a head (same deal, really), are essentially confessions of coping. Obviously you’ve already grasped a pervasive element of surrealism to these stories, but their fundamental strengths are those of character studies, imbued with a delicate sense of caring for the fragility of the human experience, as if everyone’s perception of reality has become warped to the point where the circumstances surrounding a life can be fussed over as delicately as one’s own skin. Everybody is accepting of their queer lot, and everyone is somewhere along the process of making peace with the sprawl of world madness.

For the most part, Goodbrey’s visual style serves the material efficiently. I don’t believe there’s any traditional ‘drawing’ involved in this work - the characters are designed in Poser, and Photoshopped into high-contrast b&w, then set against either drained gray photographic backgrounds or abstract patterns. For the most part, this achieves an appropriately semi-inert sense of realism askew, perfect for plaintive, movement-limited confessions and limited speaking interactions with other characters. Things get a bit more dicey as we move into the two Stuff Actually Happens stories, as Poser-fueled works rarely handle action well at all. To his credit, Goodbrey has a talent for selecting precisely the right moments to boil his action down to, essentially editing around the limitations of his tools, while having the sense to keep any dramatic action flourishes to a minimum (even the ‘active’ stories look mainly like what’s seen here, an excerpt from the title tale once you scroll down). But he’s not perfect, and sometimes a sequence of a character falling looks painfully like a posed character pasted atop a yawning background.

Still, even the ‘active’ stories are about travels down the path of dealing with the path itself, if that makes any sense this early in the morning, although those particular protagonists are less accepting of their position, if not their world. The title story sees a woman in a cowboy hat march into the town of Insanity, on a mission to rescue her brother from the last sane place around. But is anyone really sane anymore? The other one concerns a weapon-wielding action hero, determined to regain possession of his beloved house, which has been taken away by powers beyond his understanding and replaced with a not-identical-enough duplicate. He’s perhaps the only character in here that maybe never gets a grip on the Unfolded Earth, one too caught up in memories to care to understand the sensitivities of hyper-reality, and his ultimate victory is paradoxically the most tragic thing in here.

I’m not sure how well The Last Sane Cowboy & Other Stories will play to a wide readership. There’s little that really ‘happens’ in many of these stories, much of the world-building is intentionally jumbled and obscure, and Goodbrey’s visual style frankly doesn’t evidence an extensive command of the comics form - more often he just lines the characters up and gets the world balloons out of everything’s way, although he's skilled enough to match his purposes. But this is nevertheless intermittently striking, and genuinely affecting work, a good little batch of human moments captured in as unpretentious a manner as one can expect from a world of talking dolphins and faces on horses’ asses. The work of a creator worth keeping an eye on.