Friday, October 07, 2005

Elk's Run: Bumper Edition

Expectations are a bitch. So often, you'll hear something praised to the skies, only to find it can't possibly inhabit those lofty heights. A band, a book, a comic: it's always an undiscovered gem that will change your life ... and it seldom does. Many times, it's the expectation itself that's to blame: Few works of art can support the crushing weight of "the best thing you're not reading/playing/watching". Buzz is all well and good, but can easily bite the hand that feeds it.

However, there are some books that do live up to the hype. Elk's Run is one of them. In fact, the breathless buzz that's circulated around this criminally underselling gem doesn't come close to describing it's greatness. The first three issues came and went with intense critical fanfare and slim sales. Even a highly-graded pimp from Entertainment Weekly couldn't get the book onto and off of comic shop shelves throughout the nation. Now the book has moved to a new publisher, Speakeasy, and has released the "story so far" in a trade edition with a Darwyn Cooke cover to try and get some sales mojo workin'. And if ever a book deserved some sales mojo, it's Elk's Run.

Joshua Hale Fialkov has taken a concept so well-tread that it practically deserves it's own genre: "The Town With A Secret". From The Lottery to In The Hills, The Cities to Twin Peaks, it's been done often and done well. Especially in the modern era, as our sense of community withers with the advent of Big Box Stores and the Internet, these stories have a strange attraction. We find the concept of "community" at once both comforting and terrifying, safe and stifling. Fialkov feels these vibrations in the zeitgeist, and has crafted a worthy entry in the genre. Elk's Ridge, West Virginia is a small mining town that the 21st Century has left behind. It's not a bucolic Smallville, but it is the sort of close-knit community that's slowly dying away in the USA. Everyone knows each other's business, and no one ever leaves ... but neither of these is necessarily by choice. This town harbors dark secrets and family problems quickly escalate into political problems that the community must deal with as a whole. It's gripping stuff, and the tale is strewn with dense foreboding. Since each chapter is told through a different characters' viewpoint, we get a whole new take on the town with each issue. While there are definitely heroes and villains, as viewpoints change each character feels fully justified in their actions. Everyone is trying desperately to do the right thing: they just don't agree on what that is. Too often, stories about a secret can become more frustrating that enticing, as the reader is stonewalled in order to stretch out the tale. Fialkov has enough confidence in his strong characterization and plotting that he can afford to hand out enough information to prevent that feeling of frustration ... he has more hooks into the reader that just that secret knowledge.

Noel Tuazon's art is a revelation, if only because you can't believe that an artist this freakishly talented isn't playing in the "big leagues". His bio in the back of the book says he's working a non-art related 9-to-5, and that's completely insane. It's like Bono waiting tables between gigs. His storytelling eye is sharp, his page layouts graceful, and his linework is stunning. It's a looser style than most mainstream comics art, but is gestural and expressive. Smartly, there's no inker here "tightening it up", because that would destroy the wonderful freedom of the work. Although it's highly cartoony when you look at the individual figures, it feels intensely realistic and filled with humanity. The characters all come vividly to life, as does the major character of the town itself. It's really a two-man show here, though, as Scott Keating provides the best coloring I think I've seen. Period. Keating provides the necessary structure for the pencils to shine, but he goes above and beyond the call of duty by making the colors tell the story as much as the pencils do. He uses color as a percussive element, establishing rhythm and beat through abrupt shifts in full-color vs. monochrome. It's thrilling to me when usually underappreciated parts of comics - like lettering or coloring - really come to the forefront and establish the possibilities of their art. When I say to myself: "Wow. That is some fine coloring. Coloring is cool." Suddenly, it's like you realize you've forgotten rooms in your house, and see there's more space available that you could have imagined.

Maybe I just have format on the brain lately, but that's my only complaint with the "Bumper Edition" of Elk's Run. The square binding means that double-page spreads like the stunning establishing shot in the first issue can't lay flat to be enjoyed in their full glory. Though I have no idea what the practicality of it is, I would have preferred to see this as a stapled floppy, like the "Marvel Must-Haves". It's a testament to the power of Tuazon's craft that, after paying eight bucks for the collection, I now feel a burning desire to track down the monthlies - so I can enjoy the art as originally intended.

As if all the buzz in the world isn't enough, you can read the whole first issue for free. If you can read that and not be interested in seeing where the story goes from there ... you may need professional help. It's certainly beyond what I can provide as an amateur.



Jason said...

Well, on behalf of the Elk's Run team I'd like to say thanks for that. That's one hell of a review right there. It's the kind of review that's gonna make the lot of us smile all day. Glad you dug it so much.

Although, you forgot to mention the totally awesome and insightful "Plot to Page" piece written by the ridiculously intelligent (and sexy) editor. But I won’t hold it against you.

Mark Fossen said...

I forgot to mention a lot, Jason. The "Directors Cut" pieces were great, and the only thing that makes me think I should keep the Bumper, as opposed to ordering floppys.

Other thing I forgot to mention: I read the book (cover to cover) before going to bed. I was so excited to site down and blog about the book that I couldn't sleep. I seriously had trouble sleeping. I kept waking up throughout the night, full of ideas to write about.

zilla said...

thanks for the review mark - i've been waiting for a trusted review of this book... me thinks i'll order a copy today-ish. so chalk up one more sale!

Mark Fossen said...

It's easily one of the best books being published - you won't be disappointed.

Jim Roeg said...

Drat--another book to track down! Great review, Mark!

Mark Fossen said...

Jim, In the immortal words of Vincent Vega:

"You'll dig it the most."