Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Steady Beat, Volume 1

Centuries from now, when scholars and scribes begin to decipher my critical oeuvre, one of the hot topics will be shojo manga. While I've tried different genres of manga, I keep gravitating towards books like Fruits Basket and Yotsuba. Dissertations will be written and careers made by plotting the exact cartography of my shojo leanings, and where the outer borders lie. Academics of the future, I speak to you now: you can plot the border right around the outside edge of Steady Beat. Any farther than that, the map becomes fuzzy with warnings that "there be monsters".

I vacillated for some time in Borders this weekend over Steady Beat. The story of a high school girl that discovers her too-perfect sister is receiving love letters from someone named "Jessica" while simultaneously dealing with her own love life ... well, I didn't quite know if I could go there. "There be monsters", after all. I would take a lot of art and craft (as in Me and Edith Head) to get me involved in what promised to be a Very Special Episode of some WB Teen Drama. Steady Beat creator Rivkah's made some waves in the comics community for daring to talk about things like "Passion" and "Art" and "Dedication"... but this is where the rubber would meet the proverbial road. I've enjoyed her take on the industry, and it was for the sake of Rivkah, for the sake of supporting a new voice, and for the sake of seeing if her money and mouth were co-located that I picked up Steady Beat.

I'm very glad I did. Very. Not because it's an unqualified success. In fact, I would hesitate to call it a qualified success. The main plot is set up nicely in the first few pages, but doesn't then progress past that initial setup. By the end of 160 pages, I had expected we'd have gotten somewhere, but we're stuck firmly in neutral. The same notes of teenage indecision and angst-y-ness get played again and again in all the plotlines, and the introduction of the love interest is so odd and extreme that it doesn't really hit true emotional notes. The characters all have the same general wispy-manga bodytypes, and it's often difficult to keep track of all the similar-looking people. In many ways, it's the eminently dismissable teen drama it appears to be on the surface.

But then there's the "Special Rivkah Factor", and it makes all the difference. The "Passion" that got her in trouble with seasoned comics pros is on full display, and it's wonderful. In discussing Fruits Basket, I talked about finally feeling in manga the real presence of the creator ... and Rivkah delivers that in spades. From silly IM conversations between her and the characters to the text boxes that read like Pop-Up Video to the wildly expressionistic art, Steady Beat reeks of "Passion" and "Art" and "Love". Rivkah's not just talking a big game, she's bringing it. This is like that first disc from a band you'll grow to love ... full of energy and promise, but not necessarily polish. Her art shines as characters and situations constantly distort to give you a view inside their emotional lives, ranging from standard manga deformations to surreal quirks like exquisitely rendered elephants as a symbol for the huge issues being left undiscussed. It's a very personal view of the world that's certainly influenced by manga, but not a slavish imitation of it. Rivkah's clearly her own person with her own artistic agenda, regardless of any OEL label.

It doesn't all quite work. Not yet. The jumps in style are abrupt and staccato, and you never have the feeling that this undercurrent of passion is there at all times. It leaps out irregularly, and often seems more like a set piece than a natural extension of the story. But a career is a work in progress, and I'm confident Rivkah's no one-hit wonder. She's immensely talented and has a unique artistic vision - now it'll be a question of harnessing that and marrying it with craft. I'll be following her through the continuation of Steady Beat, and on into future projects ... even if "there be monsters", because a vision like this is worth it.


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