February 10, 2010

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The Aviary

Written by Jamie Tanner
Illustrated by Jamie Tanner
AdHouse

The Aviary, according to AdHouse's website, is a collection of stories that appeared all over the place, according to AdHouse's website.

If that's true, then that makes this book even more amazing. The Aviary is a series of short, interlocking stories that don't appear related at first--until you keep reading further and further into the book and realize that little hints dropped as throwaway lines have deeper meaning and characters start showing up in each others' stories. The hidden depth of the interaction between the vignettes is really cool and what makes this compact but lengthy book worth checking out.

Tanner's book is structured in such a way that it will take you some time to get to the idea of the Aviary itself. We start with a quirky old man who wishes to buy a toy bird for his own amusement. He's obsessed with the sins of the world, and wishes to rid himself of them, using the strangest method possible. It seems like we'll follow him for a bit, but if I were you, I'd pay attention to the folks selling to him instead.

As the shorts progress, we are introduced to more and more characters, who are weaved into the fabric of the overall narrative, as a strange silent bird looks in in various guises. There's an ape-faced pornographer, a set of drunken mad scientists, twins joined by dreams, and even a violence-obsessed penguin who takes crime photos. The further we get into the book, the more Tanner's creations get progressively weirder and more interesting to read.

By the time we get to the big reveal at the end, it all makes a twisted kind of sense and the linkage of all the stories comes together in a way that answers the reader's questions but also leaves some of the answers open-ended, giving a nice sense of ambiguity without leaving the reader feeling cheated. That's a tricky balance, but I think Tanner pulls it off rather well here.

I haven't read too many books that remind me of The Aviary. Plastic Farm is probably the closest, featuring the same idea of interlocking stories that aren't immediately obvious. I might also link it to Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, another series that oftentimes was just plain bizarre. (My friend Noah might include Seven Soldiers because of its interlinking stories, but I wasn't a big fan when I read it.) It's extremely ambitious of Tanner to do so, especially since he starts the book with arguably the least-interesting of all the characters we see in the Aviary. Overall, however, I think the conceit works well for the reader, with Tanner revealing why all these stories are in the same book at just about the right time.

The only place where the book suffers a bit for me is in the story itself. After all the build up, I felt like the solution was just a bit too easy to swallow. We'd been winding along so many twists and turns that to have the rather tidy solution revealed with almost no time left in the book to deal with that revelation made me wish for a few less vignettes and a bit more as to why this all happened.

I don't feel like Tanner cheated--I just feel like he stopped this one a bit prematurely. It doesn't appear that he ran out of time, either--at 300 pages, I'm sure another few more wouldn't have hurt. I just think this is a case of the author feeling like his tale was done and me disagreeing a bit. Nothing wrong with that at all.

The Aviary's art is probably best described as being similar to Richard Geary. The tone is designed to evoke a very 19th Century feel, just as in Geary's books. After all, part of the story is based around ads that are similar to the ones they used to put on Wendy's tables to evoke the "old fashioned hamburgers" theme. While the art itself is the same from story to story within the collection, there is a lot of variety in panel structure. Some pages have small, tight art while others are only a panel or two. His characters are all very stiff, which normally might bother me but works in context. I wonder if some of the shading changes and inking level adjustments are due to the variety of sources these stories originally appeared in.

I think you'd have to be a certain kind of reader to enjoy The Aviary, willing to accept experimentation in form and narrative while also being ready for an extremely dark story that features all sorts of killing, maiming, and other vices. Those two audiences don't always mix, but anyone who ventures into The Aviary definitely is in for a treat. You can find some previews here. Check it out--I think you'll be glad you did.