The Grand Return: It’s been over a year since I read a volume of NOW, the genuinely delightful anthology series published by Fantagraphics. Luckily, I only missed #7, and volume eight has been out a mere two months. Did I simply fall out of love with the series? No way — it’s still among my favorites of the last half-decade, as it’s become an effective way to highlight daring new artists. Yet am I glad I took a break? Sure, because after six consecutive issues, it was time to pause and return emboldened with new perspective. Now that I’ve come back to this weird and wonderful universe, I’m happy to report so much has changed — for better and worse.
Weirdness Wins: Right of the bat, things in NOW are much, much weirder than ever before. Case in point: the one-two punch of Theo Ellsworth’s “Psychic Bug Spy” and Sami Alwani’s “The Misfortunes of Virtue.” To describe these two would be like trying to summarize a fever dream experienced while tripping on bootleg LSD, but suffice to say, they’re certainly among the more abstract and bizarre offerings of the series so far. Is “weird” automatically a bad thing? Not at all — the latter is deeply compelling, and the artwork just explodes with rich layers of emotional color.
However, this new level of “weirdness” (or, more precisely, a far more daring take on archetypal forms and narratives) does mean that some of the more breezy qualities of earlier editions are gone. As a result, it may take more effort for people to appreciate what the series is trying to accomplish creatively. At the same time, I’d point to something like “Garden Boys” by Henry McCausland, which blends some of the more abstract structural choices with some truly gorgeous visuals (the flying robot scene is breathtaking in every way). It seems the series has found its niche, and in that vein it can present some fully targeted ideas and stories (which so happen to be deeply odd and form-less in their overarching approach).
The Grand Quilt: I’d said in reviews of previous editions that there’s a consistency within NOW that is among its most compelling qualities. It’s this dynamic that, even as each volume exists as its own proud beast, fosters a level of “connectivity” and familiarity between the stories. As things move further to the left (read, into a kooky artist’s loft in the pricey downtown of Weirdsville), this sense of identity, in a way, has only been enhanced. Take, for instance, “Red” by Zuzu and Noah Van Sciver’s “Saint Cole.” Both are indebted to a kind of minimalist European style, and from that mold they maintain a certain vibe and aesthetic even as they quickly run into some wildly different directions. But from that point of commonality, it feels like they’re part of a much larger, more nuanced story and not just two pieces of art laid atop one another.
A lot of that credit goes to series editor Eric Reynolds, who continues to find a way to pair stories that play with one another in some interesting and nuanced ways without taking away from their individuality. If there’s a downside to this increased consistency, it makes it feel as if the series caters to one specific kind of “vibe.” But then that cohesion was bound to happen, and it’s better to choose an identity than have one heaped on by readers and critics. Plus, weird > predictable.
On And On And On: In past editions of NOW, there was a lot of nuanced and genre-spanning pieces packed within each new offering. That’s not to say that volume #8 is somehow static — there’s a lot of diversity between the pieces, and each piece gets its time to shine as to play up to singular sense of storytelling and artistry. However, in reading through #8, I kept feeling the same pattern of predictability. For instance, I could somehow feel when a more over-sized, hugely colorful piece (Walt Holcombe’s “Cheminant Avec Emily”) would have to lead into something more sparse and experimental (Maggie Umber’s “The Intoxicated”). Or, how we had to “step down” between the neon hum of E.S. Glenn’s “The Gigs” and the more subtle tones of Veronika Muchitsch’s “I, Keira.” On the one hand, this does foster more familiarity and enhance the series and its connective potential. But there’s larger contextual issues at play here.
As a (mostly) devoted long-time reader, I felt the same sort of messages and ideas being translated again and again; this persistent sense of single-minded weirdness blended with a study in the profoundness of mundanity. So while Reynolds and company excel a their cohesive efforts, it just felt like too much intervention in trying to wring the most from each piece emotionally or creatively. We don’t need that as much with NOW, as these pieces do tend to speak for themselves if given the chance. I certainly let each piece do its work, but I couldn’t shake the sense that I was in some Matrix-esque situation — if the machines were art students or something. This volume managed to be both free and restrained, and that balance just felt like the world was undulating underneath a mostly strong series.
More and More: NOW #9 is due out sometime in mid-September, and it’s something that I’ll certainly have to pick up. If my time away and sudden re-emergence has taught me anything about this series, it’s that it’s so very often about the much larger process. Any concerns or even upsides may be swept away in the very next volume — replaced by other problem areas or shimmery bits. What makes this series worth our continued interest is its dedication to creativity, exploration, and emotionality. Even if we can’t enjoy a specific piece (or pieces), the next great story or emotional blow is just a page turn away.
I Love You, NOW: Here’s a random smattering of things I liked:
- Al Columbia’s “Isle of Enchantment” cover, which should be the basis for a new web series or Netflix show.
- Page 14, the middle of “The Misfortunes of Virtue,” which nearly melted my brain.
- How Tara Booth’s “Binge Eating” made me somehow feel deeply nostalgic.
- Page 94, aka the adorable and terrifying “climax” of “Saint Cole.”
- How “Intoxicated” made me taste cheap dark rum.
- The dope Kate & Anna McGarrigle cameo in “Cheminant Avec Emily.”
Also, the fact that I just now realized that Islands frontman Nick Thorburn has done most of the series’ front/back covers. A Sleep & a Forgetting is an amazing album!