In my very first review for AiPT!, I tackled the premier edition of NOW, a quarterly anthology from the folks at Fantagraphics featuring the best and brightest of the indie comics world. In the months since that piece, I’ve reviewed books ranging from tales of haunted punk rock bands to the saga of a suicidal A.I., exploring the fringes of the grander comics universe.
Yet my mind frequently returned to NOW. Namely, what the future might hold for this intriguing little series that pushes the boundaries of comics storytelling while still serving as an easily digested entryway for fans. With the release of NOW #2, we get a better idea about where this concept is headed. And what wondrous a second act it proves to be.
What struck me most about issue #2 was that there existed a sense of continuity – or as much that can be amid many unconnected stories. For instance, there was a moment between two stories – Fabrio Zimbres’ “The Apocalypse According to Dr. Zeug” and Tommy Musturi’s “Samuel” – where it was as if they were the same extended piece. This comes despite two drastically different styles of art (the former is minimalist, evoking cartoons one might draw during social studies, while the former explodes with a neon-colored whimsy).
Part of that is these stories share a certain emotional tone, a balancing act between the quaint and the intense. Both pieces hit this mark in different ways (the former relies on text/dialogue, while the latter provides more subtle visual cues). Either way, it creates a sense of cohesiveness that is essential in making this book feel whole despite being a great many parts.
There are a few other such moments in the book, like the subtle but powerful transition between Conxita Herrero’s “Hot Heavy Days” and Ariel Lopez V.’s “A Perfect Triangle”. Even without that shared visual language, the rest of the book feels just as unified in presenting nuanced emotional landscapes, balancing the serious and the silly in all of its many iterations. That cohesion is born out of similar art styles, stories that share certain aesthetic highlights (minimalism, a distinctly European flair, etc.) without seeming overly contrived. These threads are available if you happen to be looking, and that sense of ease makes it so the book tells a powerful, united story without appearing cumbersome in its efforts.
Having that cohesive, unified aesthetic is a powerful accomplishment, but it does have its inherent downsides. There’s a tendency for the stories in this book to repeat not necessarily whole ideas, storylines, and visual jokes and gags, but rather a feeling or accompanying tinges. Namely, there’s a sense of disconnect most characters share, whether they’re people or freaky mutant dog-folks. With that outsider status comes a clear commitment to embracing weirdness. The book seems to land on that dynamic as a default state, so much so that it feels like the dominant narrative regardless of where individual stories may wind up. To an extent, it can prop stories and create a consistency that feels compelling.
However, it can also hurt those stories that feel genuinely odd and off-kilter, like Anuj Strestha’s “National Bird,” which goes beyond wacky characters to tell a quick and compelling story that feels essential. That’s not to say even a more absurdist tale like James Turek’s “Saved” doesn’t have value – just that too much weirdness (or anything for that matter) is as much a weapon for engagement as it is a hindrance. This doesn’t hurt the entire collection in any lethal way, but that feeling of consistency can swerve into a sense of derivativeness with repeated readings.
As with the very first edition, NOW #2 is entertaining because of its many clever and inventive components. With that said, there are still a few stories that stand above the crowd. There’s no real point of weakness in the collection, just that you’ll find certain tales more resonant than others. It’s these heavy hitters that provide a baseline for the other stories, helping to regulate emotion and content and ensure sustained interest across all 121 pages:
Susan Jonaitis and Graham Chaffee – “Sharpshooter”
If nothing else, the gritty, black and white art style stands out amid the larger book’s cavalcade of color and wacky characters. But what Jonaitis and Chaffee accomplished in just a handful of pages makes this all the more compelling of a tale. It’s a story that feels plucked out of time, a young girl dealing with a burgeoning power in a strange world. Nothing feels truly resolved, but then that’s the point – a great story leaves you with all the heavy lifting.
Anuj Shrestha – “National Bird”
Here’s another example of what a slightly realistic art style and a minimalist narrative can do. The implications and analogies of “National Bird” feel as subtle as a kick to the juevos. But then that’s also the point: great satire bashes you in the head, making you realize that the only reason you haven’t seen the world’s dark underbelly is that your eyes were previously closed. This would be a gorgeous revelation, if it weren’t so damn existentially terrifying.
Joseph Remnant – “Photo Case”
And speaking of terror, the book ends with perhaps one of the most powerful single-page comics I’ve yet encountered. I dare not spoil Remnant’s narrative, but it is equal parts compelling and profoundly disturbing, a string of unease tying together 16 panels. Remnant’s own work expands on the narrative of the photos he’s found, creating a feedback loop of art and emotion and religious oddities that sucks in the reader with pure efficiency.
It’s easy to call NOW #2 a bona fide success. It presents not only great stories, but those that feel interconnected via their artwork, emotional content, and general narrative arcs. Yet that only feels like telling half the story. What proves most exciting for this anthology is that sense of “now-ness,” a keen interest in what comes next. Both for the stories themselves but also our own perceptions as readers and consumers. In that regars, NOW is a book to truly obsess over.