September 2, 2014

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Rose City Roll Call: Jamie S. Rich and Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks

Rose City Roll Call! Cambot! Gypsy! Tom Servo! Croooooow! Periscope! Dark Horse! Kurt Busiek! Ooooooooooonnnnni! It's another Panel Patter feature on creators and publishers who will be at Rose City Comic Con! You can find all our features for the show right here!

Written by Jamie S. Rich
Illustrated by Dan Christensen
Published by Oni Press

Jamie S. Rich is an extremely talented writer who was also working at Oni Press back when I first started discovering comics that didn't involve superheroes, though I didn't really take note of that at the time. So it's no shock that I'm a big fan of his writing, whether it was one of 2013's best books, A Boy and A Girl (review here), one of 2014's best books, Madame Frankenstein, or one of his more recent books, Archie Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, which shows that even when he's got multiple irons in the fire, Jamie is at the top of his creative game right now, with no signs of slowing down.

The thing about Jamie's work is that while they're fun on a conceptual level-like the idea of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Frankenstein, high school age witches using their powers in ways you'd imagine a teen might, or what happens when you try to replace your superhero sister-every one of Rich's stories are character-driven. No matter how much else is going on, we really get to know the people in Jamie's worlds. Regardless of their powers, they're still human at heart, with real feelings, hopes, dreams, and failures. Seeing them strive is what makes the comics work.

The other thing I know about Jamie is his ability to collaborate and team with his artists. Both from interviewing Jamie (along with artist Megan Leavens, which you can read here), casual conversations, and looking carefully at his body of work, you can tell that there's far more going on than writer scripts, artist draws. Perhaps it's from his his time on the editorial side, but there's a flow in Jamie's comics that shows how much in sync the creators are together.

In Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, both of these elements are on display from the very first pages. The story of a hypnotist who is so good he can get inside the mind of a cat (a funny joke that Rich later uses to turn felines into a Greek Chorus warning Archer of impending mistakes), Archer finds he's been deceiving himself, playing a dangerous game that leads to murder, with him as the prime suspect.

What starts off as a fairly straightforward noir story with a man caught up in a set of crimes he didn't commit and a woman with looks that can kill quickly morphs and changes into a plot where reality is questioned at every turn of the page and even when it finishes we aren't 100% sure of the truth of the ending. The saying about making your bed and the having to lie in fits well here. Archer may seems like a stand up guy with a stand up act, but though not a magician, swallowing the reality of his situation is going to require magic.

It's an absolutely brilliant transition that only works because of how well the script, plot, and art come together. There are several times where the dialogue works best because of the scene being depicted, such as when we get a visual representation of the effect of Archer's hypnotism. In another case, we see it as work by having the panel become a jigsaw puzzle from which pieces are slowly removed. Even when it's no so dramatic, Christensen is able to deftly move from scene to scene effortlessly, allowing Rich to jump his way across Archer's present and the shaky memories of his past. If he had to slow down to keep the reader informed, the surprise reveals would never work. We have to be just a bit confused, but not to the point of giving up. Rich and Christensen walk that tightrope carefully, and make it across to the ending, which finishes this story but allows for more work in the future.

Christensen isn't just good at the high concept work, however. Creating in black and white, which is appropriate for this noir tale without an exact setting (I'd place it in the 40s myself but it really is left up to you, with no obvious signs of modernity or historical clues), he does a solid job of letting light and shadow color the reader's perceptions. It's not easy to do this in an age where Photoshop and digital coloring effects tend to dominate, but I came away impressed with how the grey tones, whites, and blacks allow us to know just when we're supposed to see things in focus and when they are to be blurred. 

The overall linework is very crisp, too, with a lot of small, angular strokes that make things feel stark, yet at the same time provide a lot of background detail. Christensen doesn't overdo it, either. There are no stray marks or other things that might add an element of grunge. The art style feels very clean to me, and I really like how that set the tone for the story. Despite the ambiguities of the plot and characters, what we see is in sharp relief.

That's also true of Rich's scripting. Even though we quickly learn everything isn't as it seems, there's no attempts to obscure the truth via dialogue. Characters don't speak in riddles--they speak their minds. Or, put another way, they speak what's on the mind they wish to share. It's what's not said, rather than what's mashed under paragraphs of words, that tell the true story--or at least the one we believe to be true, filtered through Archer's increasingly unreliable world view.

It's a very human approach, one that fits Jamie's style of writing and the stories he likes to tell. Archer thinks he knows himself and how he got here, but when you can convince yourself of something like "you no longer wish to smoke" what other traits will you remove? And what happens when you cut too much? It's the key question of Archer Coe, and what makes it so good.

If you enjoy character-driven stories that tend to have a sense of mystery to them, Jamie S. Rich is a can't miss stop on your Rose City agenda. Can't make Rose City? You can find him on the web here.