Comikaze Spotlight: Kel McDonald and Jose Pimienta’s From Scratch

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On the far edge of the exhibition booths with towers of toys, old and new comics, and any other merchandise tied to pop culture of the past and present you could imagine, Stan Lee’s Comikaze’s Artist Alley stood in modest rows. As per our usual approach to any comic con, we first focused our attention on this section looking for independent work and new experiments in the comicbook form (based on Stan Lee’s introduction to the extended weekend celebration of comics and pop culture, he insisted that “comic books” should be “comicbooks,” and in honor of that, I’ll stick to the nomenclature he prefers). After winding through the tables and passing by plenty of illustrators who were selling prints, we stopped at Jose Pimienta’s table, lured in by copies of The Leg, which he illustrated (and I reviewed in the past), sitting at the edge of the table.

As fans of the illustration style in The Leg, we decided to pick up From Scratch, illustrated by Pimienta and written by Kel McDonald. Independently published by McDonald, From Scratch contains plenty of familiar creatures of the supernatural that we’ve come to know, but rather than showcasing the powers we have seen them utilize for decades, these beings exhibit their more human components and foibles. Set in the 1920s, From Scratch has a hint of a film noir look to it, but it is far looser in its storytelling and visual style than most noir comics out there.

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Noir Pulp-esque Cover for From Scratch

From Scratch opens with Aaron and Seth arguing in a dark speakeasy. Aaron has agreed to join Seth and his group on a job to eliminate a Mr. Zamboni and his group of mobsters, but not without some doubt about where this first foray into paid killing will take him in the future.

When the two meet the rest of the team, we begin to realize that the crew is not composed of your average hit men. Aaron and Seth are vampires as well as Loki, who also possesses specific sorcery power in addition to his ones as an undead creature of the night. Beyond the vampires, we also have Sasha the werewolf and Lady Kimaya the ice demon, and all of these folks take their instructions for the job from a demon with a sinister grin and face paint to match named Darkfire or, in more human terms, Mr. Tamura.

After the introduction to the cast, the plot focuses on one specific job for the group as their more human characteristics such as common sense lead them into blunders and an overall messy and too overt execution of their task. In the course of running through the halls of a stately art deco hotel looking for their target, Mr. Zamboni, the members of the team attempt to handle the order as humans, causing struggle that leads to them resorting to using their supernatural powers. Despite your natural assumption that these characters have a far greater advantage in accomplishing their deed because of the fact that they are not human, their powers cause more inconvenience than efficiency; the superpowers cause more destruction to the building and make far more noise, making the demon assassins less anonymous and quiet in their attempt to clear out everyone guarding Zamboni.

From Scratch sets its sights on placing familiar supernatural characters in circumstances and settings that deviate from their archetypal courses and succeeds. In addition to McDonald’s fun and distinctive script, Pimienta’s work here shines, with each page containing a unique visual element, ranging from varying lettering to abstract forms created from the bloodshed of the crew’s deed. While the book is comprehensive and complete, it leaves some fascinating remaining questions open, perfect for a second volume and even more. Unfortunately, only one book for the From Scratch crew and scenario exists, which is the real shame because it generates an imaginative and absurdist world with strong characters that I would love to learn more about.

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Example of Mixed Art and Lettering Style

Regardless of my disappointment that more of From Scratch does not exist, it stands as an excellent example of the type of gems buried in the crowded aisles of the Artist Alley of any comic convention. Next time you’re at a con, take some time away from the walls of mesmerizing Funko toys to talk to creators at their tables in Artist Alley. You’ll most likely discover a work that tests your expectations for comicbooks, and that’s always a treat well worth the time and effort.

From Scratch is written by Kel McDonald and illustrated by Jose Pimienta and is available in print and electronic forms here

Also, keep an eye out soon for our wrap up on Comikaze, which will be posted on Forces of Geek soon!

Am I A Western? Looking at High Moon

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As a fanatic of westerns, I felt that it is appropriate that the same love for those films carried over into my graphic novel readings. In the wake of the current craze surrounding East of West, which I admittedly did not enjoy because of its pretentiousness and overbearing dialog, I read the first volume of High Moon, a former webcomic from DC’s online comic branch, Zuda. In 2009, High Moon was selected from a pool of webcomics published by Zuda to be transferred to the print format. After reading the first print volume, I cannot say that the print transition was a bad idea for Zuda, maybe just not the best.

High Moon Volume One

High Moon centers around a man named Macgregor in the opening of its first chapter. Macgregor is a former Pinkerton detective who now has more of the appearance of the archetypal man without a name. He is somewhat of a bounty hunter, and in the tradition of the many bounty hunters of westerns past, he speaks little with the few words he says tied to questions around getting more information on the man he is chasing. After talking to many of the town locals, we find out that there is a little girl missing and that there is something causing blight on the cows and the cowboys around the town. In parallel to Macgregor’s investigation, we get to know more about the the man he is after, Edward Conroy, and we find out that the hunter and the prey are far more similar than Macgregor would believe; both are werewolves who are able to tame their transformations, and both are trying to save the little girl.

As the chapter progresses, the true villains of the Texas town emerge and Conroy and Macgregor, in a very abrupt moment, battle together against the monsters who are the source of the destruction and the massacre in the town. And in a bizarre twist, Macgregor is killed and Conroy absorbs and bears the identity of Macgregor. In the next chapters, we see Macgregor version 2 on his adventures in Texas. On his path, Macgregor runs into traveling performers, bartenders, arguing family members, and train robbers, the universal western peripheral crew. However, he also runs into the supernatural: other werewolves, a Native American tribe with the ability to transform into bird-like super beings, and oddly enough, steampunk accomplices and assistants to Nicolas Tesla.

High Moon is a bit of a tough graphic novel to review. While the main idea of the bounty hunter werewolf is interesting, there are almost too many supernatural elements to the story. By the time the Tesla assistants emerge and use their seemingly mystical robotic weapons, the story loses its greatest strength, its core character. As Conroy Macgregor continues to encounter more monsters in his journey, he defies death more and more. We begin to get the sense that he is invincible, and thus, every monster and supernatural challenge he faces becomes less interesting and engaging because we know that he is going to definitely survive.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that having an invincible protagonist is not necessarily a bad thing, but given that the physical challenges the protagonist will face will have the same outcomes, there must be further attention given to the exact persona of the character in order to keep the reader interested. For example, we never find out why Conroy has decided to become a protagonist in the first place. In the first chapter, we know that Conroy has committed serious crimes, and in the second chapter, we found out that he is the reason behind the death of another young girl. However, we never get a sense of the origins of his change of purpose. Without the layers of character construction, the entire narrative gets reduced to a bunch of moments of big fights and victories, which get all too boring too fast.

I don’t think that the creators David Gallagher and Steve Ellis were oblivious to the fact that they were not building characters. They give us the history of the warring brothers in a town; they give us the history of  the steampunks, Tristan Macgregor and his wife. However, they just do not give history and complexity to their center character, which is a very strange decision because he is the one who warrants and rightfully deserves the most attention.

In terms of a formal style critique, High Moon has dialog and narration written in a very abrupt style. The artwork is beautiful, and I think in order to preserve the art, there are few sentences on each page. Consequently, with few words used to guide the story, there are some events that happen in the narrative that are not relayed to the reader in a clear way. I found myself too often reading a piece of narrative that did not have clear motivations or that did not make sense given the previous events.

High Moon is a messy graphic novel. It has a strong core narrative, but it feels as if someone talked to the authors about avoiding alienating non-western loving audiences, and consequently, they added all of these other elements ranging from steampunk to love triangles to try to pull in a more general audience. All of these additions lead High Moon to become a bizarre mix of stories with an identity crisis.

There is one remaining layer that is the most bizarre of all: the race politics. When we meet Macgregor version 1, he is an Anglo American, again, the archetype of westerns in the past. Then, Edward Conroy, Macgregor version 2, is African American. The authors made this explicit decision to change the race of the bounty hunter, but they did not seem to consider to try to change the clear racial stereotype tied to Conroy’s past: his criminal activity. There is some political statement trying to be made here, but it is cloudy and conflicted, which is probably the deepest, though not necessarily last, nail in the coffin for High Moon.

High Moon has some interesting ideas in it, but the execution sadly leaves the reader wanting more. The artwork is excellent, but the lettering is too sparse. The main character is interesting, but more attention is given to the peripheral characters. There is halfhearted commitment to both traditional western and werewolf narratives. It’s really a shame. High Moon had the potential groundwork to become a magnificent series, but it just got too ambitious and too confused, which is why I suspect that it ended at the beginning of 2011, a little over a year after the first volume of the graphic novel was released.

High Moon Volume One is available via DC Comics.