"I felt the everlasting light of our dreams"

Cold Heat #5/6 (of 10)

That's right, Cold Heat is a comic book again, and I'm pretty glad.

You might remember the first time I reviewed parts of this series, back in 2006. Even then, with only two of twelve planned issues on the stands, the series had prompted some controversy; Diamond had initially refused to carry it at all, on decidedly vague grounds, and reactions to the content were decidedly mixed.

Things didn't get easier afterwards, with only two additional issues released before publisher PictureBox opted to wait until the entire work was finished, with plans to release everything at once as a single book. Meanwhile, a series of minicomic 'specials' from various artists launched for convention and online sale, eventually attaining the Hellboy-like quality of passing out the main series in issue count. A website was eventually launched, and the four extant issues are now available free online.

The collected edition is still forthcoming, but writer Ben Jones (of Paper Rad) and artist Frank Santoro (editor at large of Comics Comics, which I also contribute to) are still plugging away, and I have to wonder if the rapidly worsening state of the pamphlet-format alternative comic in North America didn't just egg them on to try and finish their series as a comic book comic, albeit shorn of two issues.

As such, here's an honest-to-god new issue of Cold Heat. Or, actually, a 48-page two-in-one bumper book, available online only and strictly limited to 100 copies. It's $20.00, which is where the average Marvel comic should be in 2011. The production values are roughly the same as the first four issues, except now the interior stock is glossy; there's no text pieces, or anything at all besides the story (which stretches onto the inside covers) and a few pages of intended cover art.

And, like I mentioned above, I'm glad this stuff is back in pamphlets, even though I know the limited, pricy nature of the effort underscores the difficulty of working with the format in 2009; truly, this stuff's for the die-hards, while the bookshelf is the de facto 'mainstream' target, which is pretty damned ironic for a project that continues to occupy a purple twilight middle between some Tokyo noise outfit's personal dōjinshi from the non-porn corner of Comiket and the greatest floppy you ever exhumed from the '80s boom bins under the gaming table at your local Direct Market retailer.

In other words, Cold Heat continues to be as unpretentious and straightforward as a crazy fantasy comic about a hallucinating teenage ninja girl teaming up with her presumed-dead rock idol dream crush and his space alien masters to battle a demonic corporate-political drug cult can possibly be, while remaining 101% devoted to an aesthetic vision that values delicate modulations of emotional subjectivity over notions of firm representation.

It's tempting to try and divine some 'statement' on genre comics from that kind of approach, but I see the series as far closer to the near-homemade types listed above, the 'amatuer' manga and the b&w kids with reckless access to a wide world; it's fantasy comics with ideals, and the rigor to follow its visual concepts straight on through, to match visual form with story content top to bottom, front to back.

Blue and purple/pink are the center of Santoro's colors - cold and heat. Castle, teenage ninja girl heroine, is constantly tossed around by such emotional contrasts, her very face gaining and shedding detail with each fresh sensation, her eyes expanding and contracting like lungs. Manga readers know the eyes are the windows to the soul, and if there's any really noticeable shift in the artist's style since issue #4 it's his increasing use of Japanese comics iconography, from fat rivers of tears to characters' occasional retreat into a nearly superdeformed big-eyed style. It's no mechanical chibi-means-punchline application, though; Castle's head is almost always in some sort of flux, to the point where even minute variations suggest some deeply personal cough of emotion.

Slashing lines are a big motif, sometimes filling characters when they're angry (although they're apt to transform to outright doodles when moving fast), but eventually taking on a grander significance. It soon becomes obvious that ordered visual patterns, generally represented by diagonal lines radiating from a diamond-shaped source, represent the presence of literal alien power in the human world, which is otherwise constantly shifting under Santoro's approach. Characters might be scribbled in with colored pencils for a chase, then drawn clear-lined in relaxation and washed over with solid hues, then left to wander against sooty background renderings, all the better for omnious serenity, with Santoro occasionally dropping in labels for objects or characters that might otherwise get lost.

So, it's striking when a fixed pattern arrives, and appreciably uncanny, because Castle's world is always conflicted and changing, all hormones and terror and rapture. The second half of the issue (so: issue #6) feeds off of this interplay between malleable humanity and divine diamond power as the plot erupts into what might be called a Frank Santoro rendition of a shōnen manga-style chapter-length fight scene, a splash-heavy epic with a drooling U.S. senator in spiked underpants waving an uzi around while a crystal starship descends from the heavens and characters are bathed in mysterious blood and a head gets crushed and faces turn so quickly they have to be drawn several times in the same space.

But total chaos is averted through the artist's use of rigid diamond forms as a backdrop for the human action, the presence of the unearthly in human space, and the ultimate resolution of the conflict, or as resolved as it can get with four chapters to go. By issue's end, the attentive reader will notice that Castle is beginning to manipulate the crystal power (hmm, maybe it's as Moebius as manga?), refracting it off of her body and eventually beaming it out into a more chaotic, human form, to possibly miraculous or disastrous ends. This turmoil is purely visual, its own saga of war pulsing through the personal vendettas and quests that Castle encounters, absolutely fucking luxuriating in glowing spectacle while deepening the heated conflict going down.

As before, writer Jones is somewhat easy to lose track of under the sheer visual wash of Santoro's art; the fact that he wasn't involved in the series' extensive line of specials probably doesn't help.

Still, it's worthwhile to point out how easily Jones' plotting mixes in with Santoro's art, how his conversational, punctuation-light dialogue seems the perfect output for Santoro's ever-changing human characters and how the overheated contortions of the story are entirely accomodating of blue-pink emotional roil. Hell, one of Castle's major motivations is the simple desire for her favorite band not to stop making music, and what's a better launching point for a hot-cold teenage riot than that?

Of course, one of the crucial themes of Jones' own art (particularly with Paper Rad) is the assembly of childhood miscellany into spiritual revelation, and more than a little of that begins to shine through here, as noise music and part-time jobs and mistake sex all take on a world-shaking import, like they often do in the teenage adventure comics. Except, the particulars here remain distinctly personal, through the comic's very determination to take some leave of visual reality. Don't call it naïve; this thing just looked a little deeper into the stuff of crazy pop comics, and came out with something evocative of adventure straight from the eyes of Direct Market heroes, rather than just their bodies, as we usually see.

Too bad we won't be seeing it in the Direct Market itself, home to some personal conflict of its own these days, not until it's grown a spine and an ISBN, like all the wild comics do when they grow up.