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NOW #4 review: A comic turducken (but with great stories and no poultry)

A year or so in, and this Fantagraphics series continues to deliver a mighty blast of cerebral, highly evocative comics.

Not since the first 52 have I become as invested in a series as NOW. Just four issues in, and already Fantagraphics has delivered something that’s grown before readers’ eyes in the most meaningful and organic of ways. A series that demands engagement with a slow-growing arc of consistent and captivating comics from young, fresh indie creators.

What’s most impressive, however, is that as entertaining as issues one through three have proven to be, it’s issue #4 that’s the clear benchmark for the collection as a whole.

I’ve spoken in the past about how the key to NOW‘s long-term success was achieving a mid-point between interesting standalone stories and something resembling a “connective” narrative. That true “success” is cultivating certain ideas and aesthetics and letting them play off one another in subtle, interesting ways.

Perhaps issue #4’s greatest feat comes with the first three stories: “30,000 Years Ago” (John Ohannesian), “Pray for Pianoland” (Brian Blomerth), and “From Noise to White” (Cynthia Alfonso). All different stories, with their own emotional and narrative objectives, united by a few key elements. Namely, a certain commitment to color, with each story brimming with bright hues to set the mood and facilitate a slightly ethereal vibe. Not to mention the stories seem to build up in terms of intensity and seriousness, which only makes for stronger individual cogs in this greater mechanism of expression. Each of the tales is structured in a way that creates space for new ideas to spin into other directions, an openness that is both highly unifying and essential for each story’s independence.

All of this is the result of truly great curation, a creative sleight-of-hand that comes with aligning certain images and ideals in a way to suggest ideas and visions to the reader with disparate parts. You might just enjoy each story individually, but consuming them as a whole (which feels like a true commitment) has proven to be deeply entertaining. And there are other moments like this in #4, where stories and individual moments and themes coalesce, and the whole project feels more alive and alluring for it. (The connective bits between Maria Medem’s “Maimed Gaze” and “From Nose to White,” or the emphasis on abstract human imagery in several stories.) The fact that each subsequent book is more integrated than its predecessors is a testament to the thought and care put into NOW.

As always, though, there are some stories that simply stand out. Perhaps they’re indicative of that aforementioned coalescence, or that they’re just more fully realized individual artifacts. Either way, these moments help drive the book’s profound artistic momentum.

Here’s my top five:

“From Noise to White”: Without a doubt, Alfonso – who’s also behind several gorgeous prints – has achieved one of the book’s clear emotional apexes. From the minimalist artwork – again, brimming with rich, organic color – to the poetic narration, the story should kick you right in the gut with its earnest exploration of depression and existentialism and how the self exists in the big, bad world. It’s not a depressive piece (even if the tone might leave you feeling weepy). It’s more that her approach fills you with a sense of admiration for such vulnerability, and a strength to delve deep into your own psyche for such raw, naked emotions and shortcomings. If you’re like me, you’ll go back for a second and third spin kick to the solar plexus.

“The Absolute Truth” (Diego Agrimbau and Lucas Varela): Almost nothing makes me happier than meta fiction, and it doesn’t get more layered than this piece. With a wit and humor like the hybrid child of Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Gilliam, the pair of Agrimbau (the writer) and Varela (the artist) weave a humorous tale about creators and their creators. In a few pages, they reference and explore religion, the challenges of artistry, existentialism, self-actualization, and bureaucracy. Funny, poignant, and thoughtful, it’s everything NOW represents.

“I Am Bananas” (Walt Holcombe): If there’s a clear runner-up for emotional high-point, it’s the gem from the creator of Things Just Get Away From You. Holcombe’s cartoonish style – with goofy characters and a Ren and Stimpy-esque attention to gross details – is the perfect vehicle for discussing anxiety and meditation. He’s utterly revealing and self-deprecating, unafraid to crack wise about serious issues affecting his health and well-being. Yet in that humor he comes across as profoundly genuine, and it’s easy to become invested in his story as a pseudo-cheerleader. Lots of writers/artists talk about mental health, and here it’s presented in a way that is unflinching but without feeling emotionally or mentally overwhelming.

“The Cave” (Matthias Lehmann): If you’re a creative type, the best art is something that reflects back your own perspectives or approach. With “The Cave,” Lehmann has delivered a tale that dips back and forth between touching and quaint to existentially unsettling. It’s in the tight, stark pencil works, the way characters communicate through light and facial gestures, and the undertones dwelling below scenes both joyous and ominous. Its imagery burns and flickers long after you’ve closed the book, and that nugget of creepiness is more than welcome.

“Kewpie” (Nathan Cowdry): Yet again more meta fun, albeit this time with a twist (and not just the naked baby and the flesh-colored dog). The fact that both characters are facing away from the reader really drives home the self-directed commentary Cowdry’s unleashing onto himself. At the same time, perhaps it’s a clever ploy to gain favor with the reader by creating some kind of distance or perspective. That may all well be the point: more narrative and artistic magic to mess with the readers’ head and get them thinking about the power and responsibility of creation and the creator-audience relationship.

Special Shoutouts: “Waves” (Rebecca W. Kirby) for being among the more gorgeous entries, Julian Glander’s “Skybaby” for poking both my nostalgia node and the ganglia responsible for daydreaming, and the front and rear covers (Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “Mr. Mouth, A Side Profile” and Nick Thorburn’s “Now”) for providing so much context in such little space.

Is it good?
A year or so in, and this Fantagraphics series continues to deliver a mighty blast of cerebral, highly evocative comics.
Another cohesive collection of indie comic weirdness.
Stories interact in subtle ways, from shared colors schemes to strands of humor and existentialism.
Individual stories still receive ample room to shine.
The cohesiveness may be more understated, and a gift for regular readers.

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