Thursday, February 10, 2005

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart

Wet Moon - Book One: Feeble Wanderings

Having no expectations at the outset, the first volume of Ross Campbell's Wet Moon series was a delightful surprise. Although it is not, perhaps, a singularly unique work -- Campbells's influences as an illustrator are plain -- the book is defined by a strong feel for character, and an intuitive understanding for the authority that small incidents carry in the process in elucidating the mystery of personality.

When the book first arrived I admit that I was unfamiliar with Campbell, and the vaguely Goth-y looking cover art (bringing to mind all sorts of bad Anne Rice and Jhonen Vasquez connotations) had me expecting something much less compelling than what I actually found. Certainly, the bulk of characters in this book could probably fit into the conventional "Goth" rubrick, but that's hardly important: its not a book about any particular sub-culture, its about regular people who happen to dress in a certain way. Just by opening the book and reading the first dozen or so pages you get a perfect feel for the quiet understatement that defines the book's narrative: Campbell isn't afraid to devote space to his characters' interacting with their environments, walking through unfamiliar spaces and defining their personalities through body language.

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Cleo has company.

The dialogue is similarly minimal, and yet somehow far more illustrative than the sum of its parts would suggest. Again, Campbell gives his characters room to define themselves through everyday banter, of both the witty and puerile variety. Without having to ever state anything so didactically, his characters slowly emerge into pleasingly rounded figures, people with endearingly lonely, frustrated, horny, embarrassed and confused reactions to their rather mundane surroundings.

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They're not saying a whole lot of anything, but how they say it reveals a lot.

Campbell's art is informed by Charles Burns, and shares Burns' enduring fascination with the rounded lines of the human figure, as well as the surpassingly grotesque imagery of the unexpected. His characters can be attractive and repulsive at the same time, and its an engaging, naturalistic effect -- there's a lot of perception in his visual eye. Just look at the way that his female characters are drawn with an eye towards their imperfections. There is a great deal of subtext in Wet Moon dealing with body images and the way each of the characters percieve themselves. There's an unsettling dichotomy in most comics art, where characters are either fully attractive or despicably ugly - perhaps it's just not very fun to draw normal people. Nonetheless, that is exactly what Campbell does here, drawing a group of otherwise unexceptional and yet vigorously realized characters in the full swing of a very vivid fictional reality.

Campbell lack's Burns' eye for the deep black of a well-brushed ink line, choosing instead to adopt the intricately defined thin-line approach of Jacen Burrows (who is himself an obvious student of Geoff Darrow). Its an interesting effect, and while I can honestly say I am never fully satisfied with the computerized gray tones that occupy most of the book, they are used to good effect. Campbell uses grey ink washes for selected scenes, and they are significantly more attractive - but I can probably understand why they were used sparingly. Inserted only as a moody counterpoint to the regular narrative, they provide a useful contrast.

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Here we see Campbell's moody inkwashes used to add depth to Cleo's unhappy day.

The one problem I have with the book is the rather awkward insertion of (possibly) supernatural elements. The characters and situations set up in this first book are so interesting that I am hesitant to see these few macabre elements accentuated in future books. As it is, the mysteries are only briefly touched, and hardly enough to detract from the understated character drama which serves as the book's prominent attraction. If the story evolves a more elaborate and involved plot in later volumes, Campbell should take great pains to ensure that this more understated quietude is not forgotten. I could easily see buying and enjoying half a dozen or more books focused on these fascinatingly vivid characters.

Wet Moon is an immediately engaging and deeply satisfying book which serves as an excellent introduction to a new and promising talent. It's probably the best thing I've seen from Oni so far in this series

(Special Thanks to Randall C. Jarrell @ Oni for the help with promotional materials - except for the part where he sent me an attached file so big it crashed my computer!)

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