By Leroy Douresseaux
June 6, 2006 - 06:31
I’ve been thinking about this for a week, and since I’ve been on this road for sometime, I can admit that I’ve been using Mr. Charlie to pimp alt-comix, also known as indie or small arts comics. I certainly love my superhero comics, but the last few years I’ve hardly read any new comics published by Marvel or DC. I have been making it a point to find a diverse range of comics from small publishers, self-publishers, and mini-comics publishers, and then writing about them. Mr. Charlie #86 is no different.
I’m on the comp copy list of a few indie types, one of them being Top Shelf Productions out of Marietta, Georgia. They probably publish the most eclectic line of comics and graphic novels in North America. One of the books I received recently is a title by a cartoonist of whom I’ve long been a fan, Reneé French. I first noticed French in her short-lived, Fantagraphics Books published comic, Grit Bath. The book was off-putting, and it took me years to get used to her comix, which could make me squeamish one moment and enthralled the next.
Years of encountering French’s work prepared me for her new graphic novel, THE TICKING ( $19.95 in the U.S.; 216 pp., ISBN: 1-891830-70-8; hardcover).
It’s the story of a strange-looking boy named Edison Steelhead. His mother dies in childbirth, and his grief stricken father, Calvin Steelhead, spirits the newborn Edison to a remote island lighthouse where they live in seclusion. There, Edison, who shares his father’s deformed face, grows up in isolation, and he learns to relate to his surroundings by capturing them in drawings. He fills his sketchbook with drawings of insects, clothing, and household devices and items. He also likes to delineate various odds and ends such as cigarette butts and pieces of paper, as well as oddities like the mysterious scar tissue on his father’s face.
That is how the boy finds beauty in the simplest things and the most grotesque things, and it is also how he learns to accept his deformed appearance. However, a trip to the alien shores of the mainland will shed light on his father’s appearance, unveil mysteries of the past, shape Edison’s future, and prepare him for a new sister, a chimpanzee named Patrice.
While a story like The Ticking could be interpreted as a somewhat emotionally charged tale of a boy who learns to accept his worldview as normal and his physical deformities as not only beautiful, but worth defending, French’s tale is also a fable of discovery, a kind of mystery story. Using no more than two panels per page, French engages her readers to discover the world with Edison. It’s a way of holding the readers’ intellect, not giving them easy answers, but instead putting them in Edison’s place. It’s rewarding because when he makes a discovery, we can share his joy. When’s something confounds or challenges him, we can feel the disappointment and confusion. The best example of this is Edison’s discovery of his father, Calvin’s scars, and what they mean, what mystery they portend, and how they connect to who and (maybe) what he is. We share his want to know.
This is a grown up way of communicating with your audience that doesn’t require them to understand the arcane rules and ways of a genre, but asks that they approach the material as humans with both a sense of both wonder and fear at the unknown. Using pictures as a narrative vehicle, Reneé French, with The Ticking, delivers on the promise that comics can offer the kind of complex, layered storytelling that prose and drama offer their readers.
This title is available directly from the publisher at topshelfcomix.com.
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