Saturday, September 25, 2010

THREE, edited by Robert Kirby


THREE #1 by Robert Kirby
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Existentialist realism, that is, the examination of the self in relationship to the environment we create for ourselves is entirely the realm of the self-confessional comic story.  I think since the nineteen nineties when the self-confessional comic book boom really hit its stride, the genre has matured.  I love this type of comic book because it often breaks traditions and challenges readers expectations.  We have come a long way from the talking-head confessionals of the nineties and yet in any story that deals with human emotions, especially isolation, the talking head, where the author and artist both address the reader directly, persists as a dynamic feature of the genre.  So it is always wonderful when a comic book creator works especially hard to avoid the simplicity of talking heads.

Robert Kirby has brought together in THREE, the first issue of his new anthology series, two other storytellers with very differing skills from his own.  Eric Orner is only less familiar than his comic strip character "Ethan Green".  In "Weekends Abroad" he speaks with a personal voice rather than that of his popular "nebbisher" character.  We encounter personal stories that you might hear if you met him casually at a cocktail party. But they are not simply stories to fill the uncomfortable silences between sips of your drink.  Instead he decorates them with scenes and environments that really bring them alive and outside the flat page.  I am pleased to see his art has moved beyond the static and ironic talking heads of his early strips.  In every location his story goes, from the Hebrew school of his childhood to the outskirts of Tel Aviv, you get the very clear sense that he's been there and he's bringing you along with him.

Joey Alison Sayers's, "Number One" takes a different tact and focuses less on place and time, instead opting for relationships.  I have to admit I am less familiar with her previous work, but I did find it quickly online and am pleased I took the trouble to find it.  She has a wonderful sense of humor and she uses that quirkily in her portion of THREE.  The effect is unsettling within seemingly static panels filled more with space and emptiness than detail. This unsettled feeling counterpoints the easy reading of her brightly colored and breezy storytelling.  My feeling after reading is that I just overheard a series of conversations over the fence between a next door neighbor and her hired workers.  Sometimes the most compelling stories are things you'd rather not know about first hand.

Perhaps the most confrontational story in this anthology is editor Kirby's own offering, "Freedom Flight".  His approach to storytelling for me has always been a little self-conscious and here he is elaborating a story he has hinted at before in other strips.  But he does what he can to help you follow the twisty thoughts of his main character with little formal motif-like arrows that repeat like punctuation throughout the telling.  These curvy and staccato, swirling lines echo the same lines that make up the legs, arms and clothing of all the characters. These are pointers to the dissolving nature of the character's relationships.  That dissolution is both isolating and freeing, so much so that some conscious direction is seemingly needed to connect them on the page.

I like his artwork because even in the tiny panels he gives himself to carve out a story, there is a cohesive design that pulls it together on the page.  He also has a keen eye for arresting images.  Molecular patterns that swirl around his main character and then dissolve into shadows and shading on the remaining page, a street map that illustrates an urban neighborhood and then becomes the pavement where his character walks onto the next page, and a handicapped dog missing a front leg that seems to fade away into silhouette and then disjointed pieces, even as his owner enters the panel with even more curvy lines to retrieve him.  I would like to see more visual real estate given to these small visual moments, because they help to frame and arrange the themes of Kirby's stories.

It is challenging to create a satisfying and whole reading experience in only thirty-one pages of a comic book, which is why most superhero comics serialize a much larger story.  It keeps the readers coming back.  When you share that space with other artists it can be distracting and I have to admit the variations between the artists and stories kept me from jumping into reading this volume several times.  But once I did, I discovered this anthology offers far more heart and soul for your money than any superhero comic can.  Ultimately, I think it is well worth the investment and I will be looking out for the next issue with great anticipation.

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