Review time! with <i>Templar, Arizona</i> volumes 1-4

Another webcomic? What am I, 20 years old? Sheesh.

This past weekend was the Phoenix Comicon, and I moseyed on by for a few hours. It was a nice experience but not compelling enough to write a whole post about it. I did get to see John Layman, Richard Starkings, Tony Parker, Stuart and Kathryn Immonen, Aaron Campbell, and Meredith McClaren, and I chatted with all of them for some time.

I also spotted "Spike," the creator of Templar, Arizona (her real name is Charlie Trotman), and as she had four volumes of the comic on sale, I figured I would buy them all. I'd heard good things about the comic, and Spike was extremely pleasant to talk to (this was before she lost her wallet at the con, which would put anyone in a shitty mood), so how could I resist????

The set-up of Templar is easy to describe, even if the actual comic isn't. Spike created a fictional town in a world slightly different from ours and populated it with a bunch of odd characters. Her point of view character is Ben Kowalski, an adoptee from South Korea who fled Yakima and headed to Templar. He's 21, is completely non-threatening, and is socially awkward. He's also on some kind of medication (we don't find out what kind in these volumes) and has been seeing what we can assume is a psychiatrist, and he hasn't told his family or the doctor where he is. He writes for the local newspaper, which is a smart idea, because it means he doesn't have to go to an office for a job so he can interact with all the weird people in the town, plus he has an actual reason for interacting with all the weird people in the town - it gives him things to write about. While Ben is the central character of the comic, he's definitely not the dominant star - there are long stretches of the book where he doesn't appear. Spike just uses him to ease us into the bizarre world of Templar.

Spike told me that the four volumes, along with whatever she's put up since on her site, is about a third of the entire story, and it's impressive how many slow burns she has going in the comic.

I certainly don't want to say it's plotless, because there are plenty of things going on, but she often drops in on characters to check on them, and then goes away, letting them live their lives off-page. Spike has spent a great deal of time creating dozens of interesting characters, and so far, only a few lingering plot lines have emerged. In chapter 2, a man attaches a strange disc to Ben's window, and no one comments on it (and another one shows up a few chapters later, so who knows what's going on with that). Ben and two of the other tenants of his apartment building find a doctor sitting down in the street and take him home, and it seems like there's something very odd about him. The doctor left his jacket in the street, and it's found by a junkie named Elliott Bigelow (who's called "Biggs"), who ends up in big trouble with a fanatical anti-modern group called the Jakeskins. I'm sure several of the other characters will be involved in plots eventually, but Spike takes her time, preferring instead to just create these interesting people and let them do their thing.

There's far too many characters to go over, but the main characters, beside Ben, are other tenants in his apartment building. Reagan Mancuso is an outspoken, fairly vulgar lady who loves to argue with Scipio, a very tall black man who rocks a kilt and works as a bodyguard even though he follows Buddhist teachings fairly closely. Gene, who also lives in the building, is connected to the Jakeskins even though he's not one of them, and he often loses track of his daughter, Zora, who likes to wander. In volume 3, Ben meets Morgan, a transplant from Nebraska who likes to study space.

They have instant chemistry, but Ben isn't sure how to handle it. What's most impressive about all these characters is that Spike makes them unique, from their looks to their dialogue. They all have distinctive voices, so when you're reading, you can even envision the inflection they use because the words are so precise. Even minor characters exhibit this, so when Tuesday is talking on the television after we meet her, we know that it's her even though we don't see her, just her word balloons. The dialogue carries the comic, obviously, because it is so character-driven, and it really puts someone like Mr. Bendis to shame, because Spike doesn't resort to a lot of pauses and "um"s to make the dialogue sound realistic. All she does is figure out how each of these characters would speak based on their personalities, and goes with it. Therefore, Ben is hesitant and quiet (which comes across because the lettering of his dialogue is often smaller than others), Reagan is brash and bombastic, Scipio is earnest and concerned, Gene is spacey and tangential. Someone like Thutmose ("Moze") speaks utterly differently than someone like Tuesday, which makes their post-coital conversation in volume 4 wonderful to read.

Spike's art is wonderful, too. It's nice and cartoony, giving the book a slightly softer tone that she uses to good effect when, for instance, the Jakeskins go on a rampage and start killing people. Spike's art works hand in hand with the dialogue, as she creates these fascinating characters with their own style and look. Ben, as our POV character, is fairly bland, but the rest are wonderfully designed. Spike draws all kinds of body shapes, from Reagan's generous portions to Scipio's large, sculpted body to Tuesday's tiny, slightly boyish frame (Moze tells her she shouldn't shave her pubic area because her breasts are so small it makes him uncomfortable to see her naked - she gets naked on television, so this isn't an uncommon occurrence). Not only does each character have an interesting body type, but Spike dresses them in different clothing, too, even though they all have their own style. It doesn't hurt that Templar is such a weird place, so there are several different groups that have their own tribal codes and styles in the city. There are Pastimes, which are basically historical re-enactors who, apparently, never break character; Sincerists, who practice extreme honesty; the Cooks, who apparently enjoy breaking up demonstrations just for the hell of it; Nile Revivalists, who worship ancient Egyptian gods, and a whole bunch of others.

What's really fascinating about this comic is that Spike doesn't just make up these weird characters and use them as backdrops - they interact with each other and the "normal" folk, and they are involved in "real-world" concerns - Sunny, who's part of the Nile Revivalist movement (although he rejects it), isn't an American citizen and can't get in any trouble or he'll be deported back to Egypt. The way Spike blends this weird, wacky, and off-kilter town with things that any municipality has to deal with is one of the strengths of the book. She manages to cram a lot into the comic without every really overwhelming the reader. The one problem I have with the artwork is that it doesn't really look like Arizona. Spike doesn't live here, and I know it's fictional, so it doesn't really matter, but the architecture looks off, as it's a bit too ... I don't know, "East Coast" for Arizona. It looks like an actual city, where there's not a lot of space, which in Arizona is not a problem. It just seems like Templar would be spread out more, and while Spike has some nice nods to the state - there's an old Spanish battlement in town, and the rivers are dry - it doesn't "feel" like Arizona. I always get this way when a creator sets something in a specific place - why did Spike pick Arizona, specifically? I feel like she should have a reason, and four volumes in, I don't know what it is.

That's really a me problem, and it probably doesn't bother anyone else in the entire world. It doesn't really bother me, either, and it didn't affect my enjoyment of these volumes at all. Obviously, with all webcomics, you can read this sucker on-line for no money, although I'm not sure if the endnotes are on-line, and I really like the endnotes. Or you could just pony up $12 a pop for these Strongly Recommended volumes, sit down, and enjoy the hell out of them. You like enjoying the hell out of things, don't you?

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