A visually beautiful yet uneven collection of stories that range in style from surrealism to memoir.
Now #1, edited by Eric Reynolds, is the first in a tri-annual anthology comics series published by Fantagraphics that was founded with three noble purposes in mind. The first is to allow a venue for the unique art and diverse voices of new and established comics creators from around the world. The second is to feature short stories that allow creators to experiment with the comics form, and, for some, hone their craft before attempting lengthier work. The third is to be an affordable entry point for people who are seeking a guide into the world of alt-comics. This reviewer comes to Now #1 as just such a reader, and found this maiden voyage to be a visually beautiful yet uneven collection of stories that range in style from surrealism to memoir.
While the comics industry has evolved around the long-form graphic novel, Reynolds has been a champion of shorter works, having edited Fantagraphics previous anthology series Mome, from 2005 to 2011. What separates Now from that earlier venture is the focus on diversity. Reynolds wants to use Fantagraphics platform to promote voices beyond the industry default: white and male. There has never been an easier time in the history of cartooning for an artist to get work out to a potential audience. Social media and the blog rolls are cluttered with comics. Reynolds wants his new anthology to cut through the din and boost the signal of more ambitious creators.
The election of Trump catalyzed Reynolds’ decision to create Now. Art is political, and he felt the imperative to promote diversity at this reactionary moment. Sadly, the stories featured aren’t political enough. The only entry that overtly addresses the election is “Scorpio” by Dash Shaw, one of the strongest stories in the anthology. Shaw tells the story of a couple nearing the birth of their first child. The mother goes into labor on Election Day, asking for updates on the vote count between contractions. The father keeps looking at his phone in disbelief as Trump continues to amass electoral votes. The child is born and the exhausted mother wants to know who won the presidency. The father saves the answer, preferring that he and his new family enjoy each other before embarking on the existential terror that is the Trump presidency.
Tommi Parrish offers a more subdued political story with “Untitled.” It is the story of two trans shoplifters who are made political simply by their very existence. Parrish uses minimal line work to tell his story, focusing mostly on the nominal features of his characters’ faces and their disproportionate bodies. It is a quieter tale of transitioning and avoiding getting caught by mall security. The actual mechanics fade from memory but Parrish’s grotesque figures and faces stick to the mind as if the artist is rightly describing body dysmorphia as a collective condition of the human consciousness.
To coax readers in for Now’s initial effort, Reynolds may have been focusing on the diversity of whimsy available in the alt-comics. The collection opens with Sara Corbett’s “Constitutional” and continues with two works by Tobias Schalken “21 Positions” and “The Final Frontier.” Corbett offers up characters and panels that are very round: a fat old woman taking her cat for a walk. A silent cartoon that lasts one page, her images are warm and engaging like those of a greeting card. Of Schalken’s two entries, “The Final Frontier” is haunting. In it, a man and a woman rendered in gold occupy fifteen white panels apiece. They complete each other’s movements – a hug, a kiss, holding hands – but they are separated by borders and white space. They are each in their own prison. Their brightness feigned while their loneliness seems radiant.
“Wall of Shame” by Noah Van Sciver looks exactly what one imagines an alt-comic to be and is likely placed in the center of the collection for that reason. Van Sciver’s style sits somewhere between the styles of Art Spiegelman and Daniel Clowes. The subject is seemingly autobiographical, a cartoonist returns to his hometown as guest of honor at a museum opening while dealing with his family, especially his younger brother, who are at the root of the shame in the title. It is the least visually experimental of the stories to that point, but its solidness and familiarity of form serve to ground the collection. After that, the collection gets wonderfully weird with varying degrees of success. “Widening Horizon” by Malachi Ward and Matt Sheean, a reimagining of the history of spaceflight, is the notable exception. It is drawn more like an adventure comic with Sheean’s work showing echoes of Dave Gibbons.
In the end, Now #1 achieves its editor’s goals. Every pop culture world requires its Sherpa, and Reynolds is intent on being the one for alt-comics. There are 17 creators featured in the anthology, a hearty number from which a few favorites can be gleaned. He has done the difficult work of amassing the talent. The rest is up to us, the curious, and our search engines.