There’s something delightfully old school about an anthology book. When I think of the word in a comic context, I think of Tales from the Crypt and other ghoulish collections, the kind of gruesome pulp Frederic Wertham and the Comics Code Authority tried to stamp out of the medium. Today, anthologies seem to have fallen out of favor within the comics mainstream, though Marvel and DC have made some attempts at reviving the format, with books like Marvel’s Strange Tales or the upcoming Strange Tales from Vertigo. On the indy scene, however, there are still plenty of anthology books to be found, many of which don’t even have the word “strange” in the title. One such example is Visionary Comics’ Digital Visions, the fourth issue of which I recently read.
Anthology books work best as a platform for new creative voices, giving them a showcase without necessarily throwing them in the deep-end with their own 22 page ongoing monthly. But with the pressure off individual creative teams in the selling of a book, the onus is on the book itself to have a unifying concept that will attract readers. With Digital Visions, the overarching theme of these stories seems to be the overlapping of the supernatural with the real world, with issue #4 providung us with a trio of largely enjoyable stories.
First up is Cabra Cini: Voodoo Junkie Hitwoman. Of all the stories, I’d say this is the one that best captures that idea of pulpy, trashy delights that I associate with a classic anthology book. I mean, look at that title again. Cabra Cini: Voodoo Junkie Hitwoman. Writer Sam Johnson gets it. With relish, he throws out lines like “I swapped crack for voodoo” at us, giving the story a feel of pure grindhouse. But far from being all style and no substance, there is depth in here too. In Cabra, Johnson has created a heroine with just the right balance of toughness and vulnerability. While making her a simpering, damaged damsel-in-distress could have been an easy trap to fall into, and making her a badass Mary-Sue with no personality would have been an even easier trap to fall into, Johnson makes her feel like a real, rounded character, someone who’s been put through a lot and who still inhabits a dark world, but who has gained strength and grit from her hardship. It helps that artist Bruno Letizia’s stylish art (reminiscent of Sean Phillips in its minimalism) never resorts to cheesecake in the rendering of the character.
The story itself reads more like a preview of things to come than a full narrative in its own right. In the few pages we have here, we get a taster of who Cabra Cini is and what she does, and some of the ground-rules and conventions we can expect from that. It is very much structured as a teaser, with what initially seems like the main thrust of the narrative remaining unresolved (albeit with said resolution implied) at the story’s climax. This is more about setting the scene, and does it well. And it helps that the exposition is positioned around a well-realised action scene. On this note, kudos go to colorist Rodrigo Diaz, who shows versatility in taking us from the somewhat muted palette of the real world to the psychadelic reds, pinks and oranges of limbo.
The next story, Gangland Avalon, is possibly the show-stealer. The concept behind it is tantalising: magic-wielding gangsters in a turf war. If there’s any downside, it’s that this is almost all concept. I was having such a good time getting immersed in this world and the diverse cast of characters writer A. David Lewis brings to life, that it felt like the story ended just as everything was established! This, though, is a world I’d be very interested to revisit in future stories.
It’s a credit to penciller Michael Angelo Lee (as well as inker Chuck Bordell and colorist Gonzalo Duarte) that as characters are introduced to us thick and fast, they all look distinct and visually identifiable. Indeed, much of the story here is a “who’s who” game. But on top of that we get a story with a clever twist in the tale, that works as a satisfying standalone narrative just as well as it does as the prelude to something bigger. Obviously I hope it’s the latter.
I found Deity: The Darkness and the Light to be the weakest of the three stories, unfortunately. The art of penciller K. Altstaetter and inker Victor Olazaba was off-putting, feeling a lot like a throwback to the now often-parodied ’90s style. Earlier I complimented Bruno Letizia for not resorting to cheesecake, but in Diety we enter a world where the women (and some of the men!) have puckered, pouting lips and an exposed navel. Of course, this is a style that has its followers, and my not liking it could simply be a matter of personal preference, rendering related complaints about the anatomy moot. But beyond this, there are issues here with basic composition and proportion that even I – as a relative dunce when it comes to picking out art errors – was able to spot. For example, in one panel we have big bad Lord Oris Ogden demanding his new underlings complete their mission or face dire consequences, and he is facing out looking at us, and the two guns for hire stand behind him, also looking out at us. This might look cool, but it makes little sense in the context that these characters are supposed to be engaged in conversation.
But I don’t want to be totally down on the art. Altstaetter manages to execute some pretty complex panel layouts with flair and dynamism here. And the colors of Brian Buccelatto and Derek Bellman really add a sense of depth and detail to the story.
I’m similarly torn on the writing. The story here is divided into three short sections, each told from the perspective of a different character and covering one narrative thread. The middle section shows that writer/artist Altsaetter and his co-writer Robert Napton have a good grasp of world-building, establishing a mythology and creating a sense of scope and danger. But the first and third segments that bookend it can’t help but feel a bit clunky, hampered by unconvincing teen dialogue that feels like as much of a throwback to the 90s as the art: do real people still say stuff like “I watch from on-high, scopin’ the chicks” or “Why are you trying to step to me?” But again, it could be a taste/experience thing. Maybe I’m getting old, and this is just what the cool kids talk like these days. If that’s the case, then the problem becomes simply that the story is about characters I can’t relate to.
Yes, there are some flaws here. But there’s more than enough good in this anthology to definitely make it worth checking out. You can download Digital Visions #4 (and all the other issues) FOR FREE – come on, how often do you get something for free? – from Wowio or Drive-Thru Comics. For more information, check out www.visionarycomics.com.