...is Doug TenNapel's new graphic novel from Top Shelf, due out in September. Weighing in at a tidy 208 pages, this black and white brick qualifies as much more than a doorstop. It's a book that I've read twice in the past 24 hours already, and one that I think you'll enjoy, as well.
"Creature Tech" is the nickname for a government facility that houses 763 crates full of things that Uncle Sam wants to keep secret. Doctor Michael Ong is there to do the job of categorizing and researching everything in all those boxes, with the help of a workforce comprised mostly of the local yokels. He also has security help from a giant mantis named Blue that the government loans him. When a slug creature attacks as a diversion while a ghost attempts to steal the Shroud of Turin (with its fantastic healing powers), Ong gets saddled with a parasite that gives him a couple extra sets of arms and brands him a freak in town. The attention doesn't last for long, though, as other and much larger problems present themselves, household cats start attacking, and a space eel takes center stage.
You can start to see the silliness of the whole thing.
It's not a silly book. Yes, it's got plenty of conspiracy theories, fantastic creatures, and monster chases. At the heart of the story, though, is the conflict between religion and science. TenNapel includes the subject in the book as a main thread without the reader realizing it. While you're easily diverted to the action and zaniness of the situations, TenNapel very quietly throws in meditations on philosophy and religion that are perfectly fair and honest. He doesn't run the usual comics cliché that religious people are nutty fanatics. He doesn't set up straw men for the scientists to torch to the ground. It's impressive how neatly he includes it as a main feature of the book without hitting you over the head with it, or making you choose sides.
Doctor Ong, who gave up on the seminary to become a prodigal scientist, represents the scientific point of view. The religious point of view is represented by his pastor father, and lab assistant, a local genius named Jim. Jim's one of the most quiet and unassuming characters in comics. He's a man of few words, but all of them have great impact. He might just be my favorite character in the book. Put him in a room with Ong and his father and you could make an entire comic out of their discussions.
The strange thing is how subtle the religious subtext of the book is. There are three or four scenes, in total, that focus on it. For the most part, they're slow spots in the book, meant to bring the pace down just before the next action sequence starts up. Upon first reading the book, you'll be most impressed with the art and the action in the story. You'll get stuck on the kung fu moves Ong makes with his new symbiote, and you'll fall in love with the good doctor when he falls in love with a local girl. You'll admire TenNapel's pace and the storytelling.
Then you'll hit the end and want to reread the book with slightly narrower eyes, which is where you'll pick up on lots of the subtext and thematic material of the book. It's a very rewarding second read.
TenNapel's background contains a fair amount of animation work, including EARTHWORM JIM and ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES. Unlike most animators transitioning to comics work, though, his art isn't drawn in a completely animated style. Look at the work of Steve Troop on MAYBERRY MELONPOOL or Mike Kunkel on HEROBEAR AND THE KID. Their art looks like it came from the pen of an animator. The lines are simple and their characters are highly emotive. The animators who work on more superheroic comics tend to channel Bruce Timm's work. TenNapel, on the other hand, forges his own path. He has control of his characters, making them great actors and agile on the page. He also has an inking technique that resembles something from a classic EC horror comic. He's not afraid to slop the black ink around and create darker and weightier pages. He plays with light sources in his inks, without losing the solid fundamentals of his art.
Digital Chameleon does the lettering, using a font that I'd imagine might be based on TenNapel's handwriting. It works for the book. What I found most interesting is the way they vary the weight of the line on the word balloons at random. It makes the lettering blend in, as if drawn right on the page.
Top Shelf does its usual excellent production job on the book, using a nice heavy white paper and the type of cover that has a faux dust jacket on it. If you have any of Bendis' reprinted JINX books, you'll know what I mean. The cover flaps under itself on the front and the back. It's a little thing, but it prevents some damage to the book by way of dog eared corners. I like them a lot.
Doug TenNapel has a bright future in comics if he wishes to continue. It would be a shame if this was his first and last word in the medium. The back cover quotes a review referring to him as the Dr. Seuss of Generation X. At this point, I'd have to say that Michel Gagne's art style is closer to that, but TenNapel is definitely in the running for telling compelling stories with strong graphics to back them up. At only $14.95, this book is a steal.
NOTES FROM THIS WEEK'S RELEASES
I'm surprised DC didn't cover up the swear word so clearly shown on the cover of this week's TRANSMETROPOLITAN #59. Check out the label on that bottle of whiskey.
Mark Evanier's collection of P.O.V. columns, COMIC BOOKS AND OTHER NECESSITIES OF LIFE, is now available in your local store courtesy of the fine folks of TwoMorrows Publishing. It collects more than 30 of his original CBG columns with brand new cartoons by Sergio Aragones. There is some great reading in there. The introduction is a wonderful celebration of a life of comics. The book is just under 200 pages and will run you $13.
Rich Koslowski's THREE FINGERS is finally out from the people at Top Shelf. It's a beautiful looking book that I sadly don't have time to read before deadline on this column. Look for a review soon, though.
If you can find it, the new issue of COMIC BOOK ARTIST is a beautiful magazine. On one side, you get a look back at John Buscema's career, with some gorgeous illustrations. On the other half, you have a large Adam Hughes sketchbook and full-length interview with the man. BUFFY fans might drool over the page devoted to likenesses of characters from the series by Hughes.
Next week: More graphic novel/trade paperback reviews. I've gotten a lot of reading done, but not enough writing. I'm working hard on catching up.
Pop back in on Tuesday, in the meantime, for the usual batch of reviews of the week's comics.
More than 400 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.