I should start this review out with a “thank you” to my friend Colin Bell, letterer of my comic And Then Emily Was Gone and writer of acclaimed webcomics Jonbot VS Martha and Detective SpaceCat. It was him who literally jammed a copy of LP into my hands and told me I had to read it, and it was him who lead the chorus of highly vocal praise for Theremin that has been filling my Twitter feed and piquing my curiosity for the title. I only knew two things about the comic, aside from the fact that people whose taste in comics I respect recommended it highly. Firstly, I knew it was a title from MonkeyBrain Comics, an upstart publisher who are very quickly marking themselves out for their library of finest-quality material, with the likes of Amelia Cole and Masks & Mobsters garnering cult acclaim, and me personally being won over by Skybreaker and Gabriel Hardman’s delightful Kinski. Secondly, it’s the new comic from Curt Pires, the writer who wowed me with LP: a highly inventive comic that in my review of it I talked about setting the bar for all other comics to come in the year ahead (it was the first comic I reviewed in 2013), and the title responsible for introducing me to the work of Ramon Villalobos, one of the most spectacular artistic talents to emerge in the last couple of years, and a comics-superstar-in-waiting. Those two points alone, without knowing anything about the actual plot or content of the comic, were enough to justify me giving it a try.
But if it was Curt Pires’ name that drew me in, it was the jawdropping art of Dalton Rose that first grabbed my attention once I started reading. His elongated figures with their clean, minimally-rendered faces and his vivid sense of motion remind me of equal parts Gabriel Ba and Marcos Martin, and the light, watercolour like colours he adds gives everything an animated vibe, resulting in a compellingly unusual visual flair throughout. This is widescreen comics, with the majority of this issue’s panels spanning the width of the page, giving everything an epic, sweeping feel – as well as being perfectly-attuned to an iPad held in landscape format! Credit here is also due to letterer Ryan Ferrier, who seems to have acquired a knack for placing his balloons and captions at the sweet spot in the panels that make them look even bigger!
But it’s in Leon Theremin’s journeys into the time stream – known here as The Red – that the visuals really take off. Pages 3-4 for me was the standout sequence of the book, where I went from enjoying the comic to thinking, “THIS IS FUCKING AWESOME!” Here, that clean, meticulously-crafted widescreen layout gives way to crazed psychadelia, first with a dizzying splash page that creates a sense of the characters leaping out of the comic panel and into some whacked-out headspace that exists beyond the borders of the comic page. Even the ambitious low-angle shot of three different characters plummeting from the sky that Rose attempts gives the page a 3-dimensional feel, like these guys have leapt out of the comic page and are hurtling towards us. This metatextual quality is heightened by Theremin’s narration remarking, “My life flashes by like panels in a comic book.” And it’s true! As we plummet through the time stream, the various portals to moments in Theremin’s history hovering around us float on the page like comic panels, existing simultaneously as a narrative flashback device for us and as physical artefacts in The Red that the characters are floating past on their downward journey. It’s audacious stuff, touching on Grant Morrison’s fascinating theories of the nature of time in comics and how every moment of a comic character’s life exists in time simltaneously waiting to be accessed at any point with the turn of a page. And it all culminates with Theremin leaping into one of the panels… and back into a conventional comic. All marvelously executed: Curt Pires sure has the most impeccable taste in artistic collaborators!
And what of Pires himself? Narratively, it’s interesting how this can be seen as a kind of spiritual cousin to LP. Both have music as a motif, with that book exploring a grim future of modern music and where it could be headed, and Theremin taking a sideways glance at one of the innovators of modern music as we know it today. As was the case with LP, Pires brings an elusive, opaque quality to the plotting of Theremin. Strange things are happening, but we don’t quite get the full answer as to why or how. We’re kinda just thrown in the thick of it and left to connect the dots. As would be expected in a story about time travel, this results in some leaps in chronology that proved a bit disorienting and confusing. When compared to, say, Comeback, which opened with a very straightforward, accessible, ground-level entry into its time travel technology and what its rules were, before getting progressively more insane as the narrative progressed, Theremin makes no such concessions, immediately going off the deep-end by launching us right into time-loops and paradoxes and altered histories without a clear answer to how it all connects just yet. It can be a bit frustrating if, as a reader, you need everything to be crystal-clear right away. But if, like me, you trust things to settle into its own strange logic as the narrative progresses and are happy to just let the weirdness of it all wash over you, the manic freeform energy of the plot is quite exhilarating.
With only 14 pages of story, I was left feeling like I wanted more once I got to the end of the first issue, especially with a narrative so gripping I soared through the pages that were here. However, I was more than compensated for the lack of comics pages with a veritable wealth of backmatter from Curt Pires, what amounts to an extended essay on the inspirations and influences that informed the creation of Theremin, as well as insight into the process of its production. Of particular interest is a behind-the-scenes look at the script for the aforementioned page 4, which gives us an impression of what elements Pires added and what elements Rose added.
As far as first issues go, Theremin is a home-run for all involved. It’s the best comic I’ve read from MonkeyBrain thus far, which given their impressive lineup is saying something. There are currently two issues of Theremin available. I know I shall be purchasing issue #2 post-haste after having my socks well and truly rocked by this thrilling first chapter!
Theremin #1 (as well as #2!) is currently available to buy from Comixology.