I don’t usually do reviews. Probably because it reminds me of corporate reviews, and the idea of putting on face and abiding by some fixed rules someone constructed that are based off an arbitrary list of standards. So instead, let’s call it a thought experiment. Ah..I feel better already. Here’s a brief ramble on a topic that I am not an expert of, but feel that I possess enough knowledge about in order to critique effectively. I’ll start by giving a brief history of my relationship with comics.
As a youngster, I wasn’t much of a reader. Outside of Goosebumps and required reading for school, comics were the only thing I read. I wasn’t attracted to them for the writing though. Mostly for the illustrations. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn and Spiderman issues, Chris Lee’s X-Men and Fathom issues, Sam Keith’s The Maxx, and the occasional blockbuster comic like Doomsday v. Superman. Of course there were also the comics of the Sunday variety; Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, Heathcliff, Peanuts etc. In hindsight, I think these probably spoke to me more, as they catered to my appreciation for art, while still providing a clever philosophical twist or satirical truth. Mondays ARE terrible.
As I reached my teens, I had become more open to reading as a pastime and moved on to graphic novels. In all honesty though, I was still drawn to the illustrations and the panel design much more than anything else. David Mack’s Metamorphosis in particular had been a stand out figure in my growth as an artist. He influenced me to improve my watercolor techniques, while showing me that cover art didn’t have to be a pristine glossy image. That the chaos in the strokes and bleeds of the colors can create a sense of anxiety, or femininity, or surrealism that gives depth to what might otherwise make for an insipid comic. It was also one of the first time’s I had seen a “cover artist” who was also the writer (or adaptor) and used the same illustrative style all througout the book. It showed me a side of the comic world that I hadn’t seen in the past. One that meshed the writer and artist into one, to create something that was more cohesive and personal than comics I owned in the past. I continued to explore more international and cult titles and learned of artists such as Akira Toriyama, Mobius and Robert Crumb. What I learned from all these titles thru my youth is that like any other form of collaborative art, when harmony is found within the group, it shows in the final product and that is the case with Totem.
Totem is a comic about spirit animals. Most everyone has tossed around the idea of a spirit animal at some point. For whatever reason we feel some sort of metaphysical connection with a certain creature with a similar temperament, living style, or even looks. For me it’s the Loon. For the humans in this book its a polar bear, and a baboon. We never see the human counterparts though. Not yet at least. In this first issue we start by following a Polar Bear as he walks through a range of temperate zone and geographic landscapes. Through sea, beach, forest and eventually a grassy field, the bear wanders in search of food. After what is presumably a long arduous journey, the Polar Bear, tired and hungry, comes across a Baboon getting some shut-eye under a tree. With his sword at his side and hat blocking the sun, the Baboon pays little attention to the bear until he makes his intentions known. The Baboon, not inclined to become a meal, quickly hops into the tree dropping down several fruit for the bear to eat instead. The Polar Bear, uneager to eat the Baboon, placidly takes the fruit as substitute.
This is where things start getting trippy. The Bear begins melting like an ice cream cone. The Baboon watches in contentment as the fruits psychoactive qualities take effect. An array of floral patterns and retro color schemes begin to engulf the Bear as he slips into a psychedelic dream-state. The comic ends with the two spirits seen lying under the tree together with eyes closed and subtle grins.
Though there is minimal dialogue in the first issue of Totem, it’s easy to see how the concepts written by X.C. Atkins have been translated effortlessly through Keith Ansel’s impressive compositions. With a touch of Mobius seen in the detailed ink work and unbounded landscapes, the mood of the story is equally emphasized through clever use of panel/layout design, drawing from a mix of manga style character interaction and the introspective compositions of Calvin and Hobbes. The anthropomorphic qualities of the two characters sway from page to page, teetering between scenes that resemble Planet Earth and the hallucinatory worlds of Hayao Miyazaki.
As much as I enjoyed the quaint first issue, I couldn’t help but notice some inconsistency in the drawing style near the end of the issue. I attribute it to the use of simpler shapes as a way of adding comedic affect, but where one would expect a detailed flex of artistic tenacity via a fantastical dream sequence, the illustrations begin to fall short, feeling rushed and anti-climactic. Part of me almost wishes the Bear hadn’t met the Baboon either. It seemed an after thought that could have waited until the next issue and possibly developed more, both visually and literarily.
Overall a nice first issue, but if there’s anything George Pratt taught me in Sequential Imaging at VCU was that pacing is a precarious art in comics and with one as meditative as this, I hope there is a bit more attention to every little moment. Conceptually though this comic has legs, and I look forward to seeing the dynamic between the unlikely friends progress. Will they keep taking drugs and go to Bonneroo? Maybe they’ll do bath salts and rob a liquor store. Will their human counterparts come into the picture? Until next time…