If video killed the radio star, then the Internet age snuffed out the comic anthology.
These collections may still wander the plains of the modern comics industry (DC and Marvel have a few popular, long-running titles, as do some indie groups). But the halcyon days, with a diverse range of titles propping up the business, have gone the way of radio soap operas. It’s the Web that offers access to a cornucopia of creators, allowing people to engage with (and even fund directly) their favorite writers and artists. It’s also a tool for seeking out new stories and creators in a way never fully possible before (if you can put in some leg work).
But as the company has since its inception, Fantagraphics is cutting its own path with the launch of the NOW series. With just one issue in the can, the publishing group may have already bucked trends to deliver a reinvigorating slice of comic media/history.
As with any preceding anthology, NOW‘s primary success comes from offering great stories by truly innovative and engaging talents. With 16 comics total (front and back covers included), NOW delivers a lush cross-section of indie comics, from the wildly experimental to more direct, mainstream offerings, and an equally diverse range of thematic arches (romance, space travel, nudity, God, Donald Trump’s ineptitude). There’s little dead weight across the book, which is great for a sense of pacing and essential to the company’s aim of creating an inexpensive portal for people to enter the comics realm. Issue one hums with a sense of freedom that undoubtedly drew people to the medium as wee youngsters.
That said, there are a few key stand-out stories. These aren’t just a delight to read, but also provide greater insight into the book itself and what Fantagraphics is trying to accomplish:
Eleanor Davis – “Hurt or F--k”
Some of Davis’ previous work has been marked by huge colors and really bold lines. But by stripping everything down to these bare-bones pencils, she lets the emotion shine in a way that transcends the simplicity of it all. “Hurt or F--k” isn’t the most direct narrative in volume one; it’s like a shot of literary Absinthe. However, it is the one that sticks in your teeth for days at a time, letting you pick at the sweetness of a not so simple but wholly uncomplicated love story (no matter how bitter that tale may end).
Noah Van Sciver – “Wall of Shame”
If Harvey Pekar and Chuck Klosterman wrote a comic, you’d get this poignant little piece from the man behind Blammo. In terms of pure outreach potential, “Wall of Shame” is NOW‘s most well-rounded offering, with a relatable tale of family and coming home again (spoiler: maybe don’t) presented in a warm, minimalist style – think MAD but more charming and endearing. Even without providing some grand lesson at the end, Van Sciver makes life’s endless tedium feel profoundly romantic in nature.
Kaela Graham – “Pretend We’re Orphans”
With little more than several shades of blue (and a pop of red), Graham creates a beautifully detailed fantasy world. Given the basic story and cutesy illustrations, it’d be easy to tag this as being the Pixy Stix equivalent of modern comics. In doing so, you’d miss out on the subtle but powerful use of emotion (it’s in the faces, yo) and the way this story jump-starts the oldest part of your imagination. Read this one under your blanket with an old flashlight.
Matt Sheehan and Malachi Ward – “Widening Horizon”
In just 10 pages, Sheehan and Ward manage to totally re-contextualize our species’ relationship with space travel. By fudging with history a little bit (China landed on the moon first, we’ve been on Mars since 1997), the pair create this romantic world where we’ve conquered the Heavens, tugging at those very heart strings that’ve kept people gazing perpetually skyward. But it’s not just wish-fulfillment: the story makes you consider American exceptionalism, race relations, the future of humanity, and our place in it all with breathtaking efficiency. And if it ain’t all just so darn gorgeous to boot.
Honorable mentions to Dash Shaw’s “Scorpio” and Sammy Harkham’s “I, Marlon.”
Ultimately, the true success of NOW has as much to do with the stories themselves as how the book is assembled. When the music industry first faced the scourge of the Internet, it fought for eyes and ears by relying on curation. By having an expert select and deliver a product, the likes of Spotify and Apple Music cut through the noise to become true tastemakers.
In the case of NOW, associate publisher Eric Reynolds not only has great taste, but has experience thanks to the Mome series. It’s his choices that’s resulted in a truly cohesive collection, with stories layered in ways that create a sense of movement and appropriate narrative interplay. Reynolds will also provide a sense of consistency for future volumes, giving readers something to follow along with as the series finds its identity and artistic preferences. If there’s a downside to the curation model, it’s a sense of stagnation that might occur regarding the stories NOW will eventually present. For now, there’s enough diversity to keep things interesting, and that ability to bound between art styles and ideas will be crucial to the book’s long-term longevity and overall relevance.
Still, I don’t exactly see NOW as the beginning of a new golden age for exciting anthologies. Not that it needs to hold the industry up as its predecessors. Instead, NOW delivers something that whets the appetite while providing a channel for great artists who may not rise above the crowded landscape. In that regards, this book has already proven to be a series to watch and an essential update to a longstanding comic tradition.