This month we have perhaps our most eclectic selection of indie books yet, drawn from a trio of disparate genres: horror, traditional high fantasy, and cowboy mech. That’s right, cowboy mech. Not a whole lot of common ground there, and when considered thematically this set of books becomes even more diverse. Which I think is super cool!
For two reasons: 1. It furthers an idea I’m vocal about, which is that if you think there aren’t good comics coming out these days, you just aren’t looking hard enough, and 2. As noted in January and February, the point of this feature is to diversify the comics and creators I’m reading this year, hopefully thereby passing more variety of recommendations onto all of you.
With that in mind, I take the disparity between our three books here as a sign we’re doing this whole thing right. Or, as right as we can anyway. This is a site geared toward writers, so I’d wager most of you well know how impossible it is to get any work 100 percent right.
But enough depression! Onward to our picks:
Infidel #1 (of 5) by Pornsak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell & Jose Villarrubia
Hoo boy, for a guy who doesn’t often read horror comics, I sure read some scary books in March. First there was Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s excellent Gideon Falls, which starts with eccentricity and slowly segues into sheer horror (a la David Lynch’s Twin Peaks), and then there was Infidel.
This book is a pure horror story, one with a fear-heavy introduction. Once that’s over, things let up enough for us to become familiar with our characters and plot: a Muslim-American young woman is living in a new city (possibly Boston?) with her husband (I think), his young daughter, and his mom. The young woman feels like she is starting to get along with the mom, but her lover is not so sure, insisting Mom can’t be trusted. Oh yeah, and there’s been a bombing in their apartment building, racism is blatant and aggressive, and our hero is stalked by ghosts.
Aaron Campbell and Jose Vilarrubia’s imagery in Infidel is truly horrifying, while Pornsak Pichetshote does a great job putting us in the head of our main character, making us feel her doubts over whether she’s being treated differently or whether sheer tense relationships are just byproducts of everyday life. In a sense, Infidel uses horror tropes to make the audience feel the gaslit nature of racial discrimination for many in modern times.
Overall: Infidel has the foundation and potential to be one powerful (and powerfully scary) book.
The Highest House #1 by Mike Carey, Peter Gross & Fabien Alquier
In a recent conversation on Twitter, a friend mentioned that of the genres undergoing a resurgence in today’s comic industry, fantasy is one of the strongest yet least heralded. I thought of Seven to Eternity, Realm, Rat Queens, God Country, Monstress, Mirror, Autumnlands, Rose, Birthright, and many others I can’t recall. So many; I immediately agreed with my friend.
Add The Highest House to the list. A somewhat traditional high fantasy concept done to near-perfection by creative team Mike Carey, Peter Gross and Fabien Alquier, The Highest House is a little darker, perhaps, than most fantasy. It puts readers into a world where slavery is almost pedestrian and the population participates without protest. Within 10 pages, we see an innkeeper sell his nephew and a woman with a dead stare offer up two of her children (one of which is our protagonist). It becomes clear we are in a world rife with inequity and disparity of wealth.
The art is done well throughout. The earliest scenes are kept to constricting, almost claustrophobic panels that really emphasize the tight circumstances of the poor folks at the inn. Once we get to our wealthier city, we finally get a freeing splash page of our lavish new locale. This is just one example of excellent choices Peter Gross makes with perspective. Gross also does a fantastic job hitting the emotional beats, with the sequence below standing out as particularly heartbreaking (that arm belongs to the slave boy’s mother).
Overall: There’s so much ethos in the layers of this fantasy world. I enjoyed the debut so much that I’ve decided to seek out the creative team’s previous work, The Unwritten.
Literary Cousin: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. Technically this is genre fiction, but I’d still like to point out the existence of this phenomenal fantasy novel about income inequality, in which wealthy nobles settle even minor squabbles by conscripting the services of disposable swordsmen who fight to the death.
Dodger: The Man From Cripple Creek by Tres Dean & Jamie Jones
This month’s web comic comes from writer Tres Dean and artist Jamie Jones. This is the aforementioned cowboy mech book, which is part of a larger series called Dodger. This particular installment is titled The Man From Cripple Creek.
And I really dug The Man From Cripple Creek, both for its art and its narrative. This is essentially a story about telling stories, and to me it spoke to our modern times in spite of its Western setting, specifically to how narratives can be distorted and the humanity of the people at the center of events can be glazed over or downright lost.
Not to spoil some of the truly excellent twists within, but our protagonist is the subject of what has become a campfire legend, and the perspective of the folks recounting that legend does not quite gel with that of our protagonist. I won’t say more about the plot, lest I spoil too much of it.
The art by Jamie Jones, it should also be noted, fits really well with the concept of stories, drifting from specific and tangible to almost ethereal and unreal when it needs to be, reminding me in the process of Dustin Nguyen’s excellent water color work in the existentialist sci-fi story Descender. If you’ve ever heard me discuss Descender, you know I mean this as high praise.
Overall: Come for the cowboy mech outlandishness, stay for the philosophical digression about the true meanings of stories.
Zack Quaintance is a career journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.