With his long-running series Copra, writer-artist Michel Fiffe presented what is essentially the arthouse version of Suicide Squad. Along the way, the book’s driving force has been Fiffe’s art style: sharp as a dagger, with a clear penchant for minimalism, yet unabashedly bright and bold. A tasty gourmet meal from a modern French cafe, but with more guns and fighting.
More recently, Fiffe’s unique aesthetic has birthed a new anthology that is more deeply personal and nuanced while simultaneously upping an inherent sense of grandiosity and over-the-top-ness. That book is Zegas, and it’s nothing if not a powerful meditation on storytelling and the connectivity of truly meaningful art.
Zegas tells the story of siblings Emily and Boston, who must navigate adult life following the death of their parents. Except dating, paying bills, finding happiness, and seeking out decorative cactuses is played out against the backdrop of a sci-fi epic, with the Zegas siblings dealing with interdimensional traffic guards, falling space debris, defective robots, psychedelic space DJs, and a weird wish-granting alien mouth thing. It’s sort of like One Tree Hill meets Seinfeld meets every popular sci-fi property ever.
While that sounds amazing on paper, that mixture of the trivial and the otherworldly isn’t always so easy to generate in sustained, meaningful ways.
On the one hand, it’s Fiffe’s wild artwork and keen design choices that generate a continuous sense of “success.” As people engage in seemingly mundane conversations about food and running errands, Fiffe delivers detailed depictions of a multi-headed blob man and giant swirls of stark colors.
By default, the mind makes room for both dichotomous worlds, warping together elements that have nothing to do with one another into a cohesive universe. Nothing feels out of place, and the ley line between real and artificial doesn’t quite exist wherever the Zegas family resides (perhaps Minneapolis if it was dropped in the Martian desert).
Similarly, the fact that this is an anthology, and we’re given quick stories and an in-out view of the pair’s universe, is essential to true narrative fulfillment. It’s clear that Fiffe likes to tackle the trivial, and he’s mastered a sense of timing that gives the reader the sense of weight that real life carries without dragging down the momentum. Pacing is essential to balancing such opposing elements, and any long, ongoing stories or plots may lose that spark generated by Fiffe’s unique version of comic alchemy.
Yet even with the relatively quick pacing involved, there are times when Fiffe’s work doesn’t exactly achieve what he set out to do. Part of that problem is that as exciting and entertaining as this whole concept can promise, it’s almost always going to have a less than perfect ratio of success in terms of expressing an idea, growing characters, and providing some spark. Partially because it’s difficult to remain consistent between stories requiring such a specific balance.
Take, for example, the book’s first two stories:
In “Birthday” (which is still a perfect intro to the Zegas “concept”), we attend Boston’s 30th b-day shindig. Through the course of the evening, we get to see his isolation and disconnect about growing older and being unhappy with himself and his choices. That realism is played off nicely with the sci-fi elements (like a tussle with the aforementioned alien mouth), but it feels incomplete. As if the two worlds are only mixed slightly, and there’s a tendency not to go headlong into the interplay between the fantastic and the ordinary. This denies the story and book some power, and it can be frustrating to see the nooks and crannies between people and the backdrop that are ripe for deeper exploration.
“Cactus” suffers from a similar dilemma – a great story (about finding the titular plant, no less) that simply isn’t given enough time/space to be more worthwhile. However, it spins far too quickly into some bizarre mating ritual between space-faring spirit angels. Which is an awesome starting for interplay point between the elements, and arguably the kind of aw-shucks magic the book was made to exude and project. However, the two worlds still aren’t given time to develop and grow before mingling. Without that breathing room, we get a story that leans too heavily toward one set of ideals to strike at the reader’s sensibilities.
These two stories are still deeply enjoyable, but their issues are essential to explore and emphasize given the overall aim of Zegas. Some stories feel a bit more streamlined – “Plum” is super funny and moves like a space-faring tiger shark, while “Looking for the Perfect Beat” hits a tight balance despite being broken up into two parts. While you can enjoy or dissect single stories, this is a collection that requires much loftier standards.
Zegas nearly begs to be seen as a whole book, with Fiffe working it all out on every page and with each new story. Through every successful tale and obvious misstep, he’s building a world. One that’s like ours, and yet so utterly removed from our own senses and understanding. As he tries to nail things as a creator, it’s reflective of the characters and readers working through life’s grand mysteries and endless banality to find something of value. It’s not always pretty, and sometimes it’s just plain boring, but it’s a journey that demands your un-splintered attention.
If you walk away with anything from Zegas – aside, perhaps, from a reminder that your rent is totes late – it may be that life is nothing if not entertaining and unpredictable. This tome is a clear demonstration that you never know how things will unfold, for better or for (much) worse. In that way, it’s a salve for whatever it is that ails modern life, which is LOTS. A potent tonic of the absurd and asinine to help ground your experiences without proving overly depressing. Sometimes it’s far too bitter, or maybe way too sweet. Either way, it’s a book worth exploring at your own leisure and depth (perhaps between trips to Phobos and the grocery store).