Thursday, January 10, 2013

This Exists!: The Collective

This Exists! is a semi-regular column about particularly strange, ridiculous, and/or obscure comicbooks I happen to have stumbled across. 

I briefly met Ben Bishop a few years ago at my first and only (to date) Boston Comic Con. At the time, he was primarily promoting his recently-completed graphic novel, Nathan the Caveman, which didn't interest me. One of my roommates did buy a copy, and it ended up being significantly better than expected, but I was more immediately drawn to the other, much smaller self-published project Bishop had brought with him: The Collective. A half-sized comicbook with three chapters, each written and drawn by a different creator in an attempt to tell an unplanned, collaborative story.

Bishop also signed my copy. Thanks!

Now, The Collective is a failure in several ways, and it certainly doesn't live up to the promise or potential of its concept, but when I reread it in preparation for this column I found it much less disappointing than I remembered. It's a big swing, or a series of big swings, and far better to fall short on a bold move than succeed at something safer.
     Bishop, who cooked up this project, also contributes the opening, and it is easily the strongest section. Despite the idea being that the various creators are telling a singular story, each chapter reads like the beginning of a different comic, and Bishop's is the only one that makes me want to pick up a hypothetical second issue. A young guy wakes up in the back seat of a taxi being driven by silent men in featureless masks, and he has no memory of how he got there or what's going on. Bishop utilizes the smallness of the setting and of the comicbook itself with tight, rigid, claustrophobic panels.

These pages are not consecutive

None of his pages have fewer than seven panels (until the final splash page), but he never sacrifices clarity or detail, and his script is just as carefully and skillfully crafted. The protagonist is relatable and efficiently introduced, his internal monologue full of dry humor and confused fear in light of the extraordinary circumstances in which he finds himself. And as the details of those circumstances are slowly revealed, the mystery of the story deepens and widens, racing us toward the powerful and intriguing cliffhanger on Bishop's last page.

These, on the other hand, are totally consecutive

So "The Crash and the Crowd" (the title of Bishop's initial chapter) is a triumph, and one hell of a gift to Joel Rivers, the man tasked with creating the next piece of this comicbook puzzle. Bishop establishes a strong leading man thrown into the midst of a tantalizing and surreal mystery narrative, and all Rivers needed to do was run with that baton. Alas, he chooses instead to change the tone, storytelling methods, visual style, and genre, resulting in a jarring and far less enjoyable second beat.

See? It's a whole new world

If taken out of context, Rivers' chapter ("Beyond Belief") isn't actually all that bad. There's still some solid humor, an intentionally unfinished art style that adds to the overall sense of chaos and terror, and the final two pages, despite being the furthest diversion from what Bishop built, are exciting and enticing on their own. But we also lose the narrator's voice entirely, and the subtle and silent masked men become loudly-buzzing insect monsters, so it's a pretty disjointed attempt at continuing the story which precedes it. An ambitious failure, bold in how brazenly it casts off much of what came before, but also ultimately a flub for the same reason.

That lightning guy with the sword will never be seen again

Which brings us the the conclusion of the actual comicbook I acquired in Boston---but not of the project, more on that below---a near-silent, six-page "addendum" titled "Some Time Ago" by Jason Gorcoff. Though it features the masked men and at least the name (possibly also the person) of the woman from Bishop's story, there is no narrative to it whatsoever. It's beautiful, a little sad, and strangely powerful, but it does not extend the story, only underlines the themes of confusion and a lack of control.

Also not consecutive, but it makes little difference here
I did a bit of digging and found this, which includes a fourth chapter by Ryan LaMunyon that's the closest in tone to what Bishop lays out at the start. I think Bishop followed by LaMunyon makes for a pretty stellar first two chapters of a story, especially a story-by-commitee, though to LaMunyon's credit he also pulls a lot of stuff directly from Rivers' chapter, and even Gorcoff's. It's a shame that Lamunyon's work wasn't included in the initial printing, because it's a far stronger landing than what I got at first.
     And what became of this theoretically ongoing effort to make a collaborative comicbook? I was unable to find out online, but I assume that, as many homegrown artistic projects go, there was trouble raising further interest or commitment from new artists and so the whole thing petered out. I'd prefer to be wrong, that four years later there's still a tradition amongst Portland comic creators to contribute a chapter to this now-sprawling epic. There's an article reprinted in the back of the issue that even names a few other artists who have supposedly signed on, including Ben Asselin, who had already agreed to be the one to write the ending. Did Asselin ever actually produce any work for this title? And if so, where is it?
     I'd like to know because I want to see things like this succeed. Not just independent comicbooks, but experimental ones, cooperative ones, and ones that don't sacrifice the quality of the art or writing just because they have a lower budget. And it needs to be said that all four of the creators involved delivered quite solid work on both fronts, even if there wasn't a lot of cohesion to the final product.

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