Tonight, an experiment, as I go delving into two different funnybooks at the same time:
Where is Jake Ellis? #1 (of 5), by Nathan Edmondson and Tonci Zonjic
The Zaucer of Zilk #2 (of 2), by Brendan McCarthy and Al Ewing
These are two very different comics, interested in very different things, and with very different aesthetics. The primary creative force behind one of them, in fact, is on record as saying that he can’t stand comics of the other’s ilk. But I like them both, and for some of the same reasons. So I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast. But first, a little background.
Where is Jake Ellis? is the follow-up to last year’s action adventure series Who is Jake Ellis? It’s by the same team of writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Tonci Zonjic, and it’s the same sort of stylish, globe-trotting adventure, with the same sci-fi hook: a spy with a near-omniscient partner that lives in his head.
The Zaucer of Zilk, meanwhile, is a wildly creative psychedelic romp conceived by British comics legend Brendan McCarthy, with scripts by Al Ewing. It’s about an other-dimensional super hero who draws his power from being shallow and famous, and how he copes when faced with the dilemma of actually growing as a person.
Jake Ellis is a series firmly grounded in Earthly action, the sort of funnybook that many people (Brendan McCarthy included) dismiss as being somebody’s movie pitch in comics form. And it is something that would make a good movie. The spy action is very much in the Jason Bourne mold, and its fantasy hook would translate quite easily. Jake (the disembodied psychic partner) is most often experienced as a voice in spy Jon Moore’s head, and his occasional ghostly appearances, calm and neat in the face of crazy gun-slinging danger, would look great on-screen. So that “movie pitch” accusation feels pretty accurate.
The Zaucer of Zilk, on the other hand, would never fly as a film. Its story is a shade too loose and breezy, with a narrator (the Tailor of Tales) who is literally getting progressively more drunk as time goes on.
This book is all about pure artistic expression, and having a good larf while you’re at it. McCarthy’s bizarre characters and impossible sets might be possible to recreate in animation, but to do them visual justice would most likely cost more than the strange, satirical story could possibly make back at the box office. No, this is comics, pure and simple. McCarthy even had fun with the page design, taking his panel grids and setting them to float on larger backgrounds filled with carefully-chosen clip art, swaths of color, or (in the case of the page below) clouds:
But he also opens that format up, as (on the very next page) the gates of reality are smashed down, and Our Hero is cast adrift in his own backgrounds as he falls from one dimension to the next:
You won’t find that sort of complete visual insanity in the pages of Where is Jake Ellis?, but one of that book’s major draws for me is still the art. Nathan Edmondson’s story is compelling, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the taut action storytelling of Tonci Zonjic that brings the book to life. Check out this page of action choreography, for instance, as Our Hero is tracked across a rooftop by a pursuing gunman:
Such a nice sequence of panels, expressing movement while also giving the reader that queasy feeling of knowing that something bad’s coming for the hero. It also establishes the patient, implacable nature of the pursuers. Jon’s made a daring escape just prior to this scene, only for us to find him in the crosshairs of yet another enemy agent. They’re all over the place, and he’s just one man on the run. His desperation couldn’t be more clear.
There’s another piece of fine technical storytelling later in the issue, as we intercut between Jon, Jake (who’s back in his own body as this new series begins), and a sniper who’s gunning for one of them… but we don’t know which. The tension’s mounting on both sides, until finally…
It’s a double-blind, cleverly executed through cross-cutting. I’m really not sure what went wrong with his work on Grifter for the DC Reboot. Corporate constraints, maybe, coupled with a lack of enthusiasm and art that wasn’t quite up to snuff?
That’s no problem here, of course. Tonci Zonjic is the real deal. I’ve been praising his storytelling, but I like his style, too. Clean and simple, with clear character designs and hints of influence from all over the Alex Toth end of the cartooning spectrum. He does nice close-ups, too:
You won’t find those kinds of classic lines in Brendan McCarthy’s work, but he’s great at character design, too. Just… in a different sort of direction…
That would be the Zultan of Zilk, the Zaucer’s evil cousin and one of the book’s primary baddies. His face in that panel betrays a far greater control of form than McCarthy often shows, but what makes him a favorite of mine is that haircut: twin poodle puffs atop his head, each with its own crown. I can’t help but laugh every time he comes on-panel.
It’s not all fun and games in Zilk, of course. Underneath all the insanity and sight gags there’s a point being made about the insidious nature of depression, and how the only way around it is to grow. Granted… Depression is represented by one of the cartoonier-looking characters in the book, the villainous sorcerer Errol Raine:
But maybe that’s only apprpriate.
So… what have we learned here tonight? We’ve learned that some comics are very commercial, but executed with a fine technical flair that brings them to life. And we’ve learned that other comics take more of an art for art’s sake approach, and are powered by sheer force of imagination. Some are serious-minded adventure stories, and others are fun romps that nonetheless have something to say about the human condition. And both are valid approaches to funnybooks.
And now I’m going to go before I lapse into any more disgusting platitudes…