“Nearly every romance story ever told is about two people perfect for each other struggling to overcome obstacle after obstacle to live happily ever after.”
So says Tony, pragmatic editor of upstart comics publishing company Blam! Comics in Over. This is indeed true, but from a stereotypical male perspective, I’m not the biggest fan of romantic comedies in general. I watch a commercial for one, and as much as I try to tell myself I’m a grown man of refined tastes (so long as my books have pictures in them, that is) I find myself regressing into that little boy from The Princess Bride, saying, “Is this a kissing book!?”
But I’m not one to write off romance stories altogether. The movies of this kind that I’ve found appeal to me are the ones that are more cynical about storybook romance, while at the same time acknowledging love as something true and powerful that can take a hold of you and make you do dumb things. Movies like The Heartbreak Kid (the classic 1972 original starring Charles Grodin, not the gross-out 2007 Ben Stiller remake) or 500 Days of Summer. The lovelorn figure at the focal point of such stories is typically male (what does that say about our gender, that women view romance as two perfectly-matched souls coming together, while men masochistically view it as toe-curling misery?), though Muriel’s Wedding is a great example of the female equivalent. And now we have a thematic cousin to such films in comic book form, in the shape of Over by Tyler James.
Originally taking the form of a popular webcomic, Over was recently collected as a graphic novel, available for sale at http://www.tylerjamescomics.com. It’s a nice package – smaller in size than your average graphic novel, more in line with a manga book (a format, incidentally, where the romance comic has had more success). Included in the back matter is a script containing a never-drawn “epilogue” to the story and a bunch of character sketches. Best of all, however, was the personalised sketch drawn on the opening page: a nice touch that you’ll only really find on the indy comics scene, short of taking your book to a convention and commissioning an artist to draw something in your book.
As for the actual content of the story itself? Admittedly, at first I wasn’t too keen on the art, with its oddly-shaped bodies and ropey anatomy. But despite any initial misgivings, once I got into the story any problems with the art quickly ceased to become an issue. The story in question centres around Felix, a comic writer enjoying some degree of success with his fantasy series, Fire of the Pendragon, who, in the wake of being dumped by his long-term girlfriend Faith, writes and draws rambling, heartfelt opus which – through thinly-veiled analogues – catalogues the collapse of their relationship. He thinks it will be seen as his masterwork. Everyone else thinks it’s a disaster.
From here, Tyler James draws us into a world populated by likeable, fully-realised characters that feel like the kind of people we might know, or might like to know, blending the familiar with a slight degree of nuttiness in his creations. Blam! Comics seems like an awesome place for a comic writer to work, given that the whole creative and editorial team seem to all live within walking distance of each other and are all friends: how often does that happen in the industry these days? And some of the most enjoyable elements of the story are the minutae of day-to-day life as a jobbing comics professional – from Mary-Jane VS Gwen debates to submission slushpiles to smelly convention halls – that Tyler James works into the story, perhaps drawing from experience (though not too much, I hope!).
Indeed, I think life working in the comic industry has a big part to play in the overall shaping of the narrative. While at first we’re trapped within Felix’s blinkered mindset, viewing the course of the story being Felix’s need to get over losing Faith and his desire to win her back, by degrees our perspective is widened and we see the bigger picture. Felix’s selfishness in writing Over at the expense of new issues of Fire of the Pendragon has put his colleagues at Blam! Comics in danger, given how much their success depends on the book.
As such, it seems like the more prominently featured character arc of not letting nostalgia for a “great love” who doesn’t love you back blind you to the possibility of finding true love right in front of your face in fact becomes symbolic of a larger, overarching theme. The idea of being professional and keeping a good work ethic, of not letting the artistic muse for some passion project (what Tyler James might call the “Sexy New Idea” in one of his columns) impede the progress of commitments to paying work that the livelihood of others (and even the happiness of readers) is tied up with. It seems like the message at hand is “be a good comic writer”. Or to apply it more universally: “be happy with yourself first, then perhaps happiness with others will come.”
And despite my earlier complaints about the art, it grows on you. It’s clear, surprisingly detailed, and the faces are expressive – an important element for a story based so heavily on emotion.
In terms of the back matter, I thought it was a worthy inclusion, a “deleted scene”, if you will. But I for one am glad it remained on the cutting room floor. I think it too closely echoes the obnoxiously happy ending Felix puts at the close of his own version of Over within the story, which editor Tony promptly notes as ridiculous. Though maybe that was the intention, a sly wink to the reader.
Speaking of sly winks: a closing note. I’ve talked a bit about how Over uses the pretext of being a romantic comedy to cover a broader theme, and about how it falls into the more cynical, subversive corner of the genre. But amidst all that, Tyler James – crafty dog that he his – sneaks up on us a classic love story of two people, perfect for each other, overcoming their obstacles to live happily ever after as our story comes to a close.
Over is a great comic – both funny and heartfelt – and comes highly recommended.