I’ve said before that I enjoy anthologies. Certainly, most of the short doses of genre content often found in anthologies are…bad. But on the other hand, that makes the gems stand out all the more. And even if a story isn’t very good, if it’s so weird that it’s memorable, it’s done something right. Yet, the worst offenders in anthologies are the mediocre, forgettable shorts. Fortunately, forgettable entries don’t pop up too much in anthologies.
But somehow, with Stairway Anthology, this mostly sci-fi anthology put out by Image comics to showcase newer talent, is exceedingly generic and tepid.
On Image’s website, they describe Stairway Anthology as such:
Genetic manipulation, paradox, alternative histories, and much more are included in this 128-page anthology of hard science fiction and genre stories! From some of the best up-and-coming talent in comics comes a mind-bending look at what makes us human.Image Comics
What they don’t tell you is that these stories aren’t finished. Even the long-winded intro by Matt Hawkins where he retells his origin takes a sentence to say the creative teams on these stories will probably expand and/or finish their shorts somewhere else. So if you’re going into this thinking you’ll get any satisfaction from reading these…you won’t, not really, unless you don’t value endings.
The first story is A.I.N’T US, written by Christopher Preece with art by Balazs Valyogos. It’s about a lumberjack, man of the woods dad whose dog is killed in an A.I.-run New York City. From an artistic standpoint, it’s quite frustrating, since Valyogos undercuts dramatic moments with awkward compositions and panels that are either too small or too big in proportion to their importance (or lack of it). As for the story, the dialogue is on-the-nose and expositional, a key painful moment being: “I can’t believe they arrested Paw for shooting that drone after it killed Racky.” Yes, we just saw that visually and these characters both saw that, so…why?
Antarctica is the second story, and it’s about a woman who joins an arctic research facility to find her father. Luckily, the art by Alberto JA has a reserved, thick-brushed cartoony quality not unlike Valerio Schiti. Alas, because these stories aren’t holding themselves to wrap up, Antarctica cuts itself short in what feels like the first act of a larger story. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is juvenile and unrealistic, with line exchanges like:
Man: “We have a job to do.”
Woman: “Already? I have to pee.”
Yeah, with lines like that, I’m not sure this should be expanded.
Taking the prize for corniest title, Bee Afraid is a bizarrely anachronistic tale of a man girding himself in armor to fight…a bee. It spoils itself right in the title, so I’m confused why it tries to build itself up in mystery the whole time. Decent art from Eva Cabrera, although the real star is Kelly Fitzpatrick on colors, who elevates Cabrera’s simpler line-work.
Despite a bad title, Big Guns Stupid Rednecks has the most promising story of the bunch. Focusing on a cop (OK, maybe it hasn’t aged well already) tearing across a redneck landscape to find his missing brother, Austin Hamblin writes characters well enough that I was intrigued to see how the story would end by the twist. However, to really sell the mood and atmosphere, Hamblin might need to ditch Kurt Blecher and Donny Tran on art, because their work is too stiff and claustrophobic to truly sell the premise here.
Bounty got my attention with its gritty art by Andrea Mutti, which reminds me just a little bit of Daniel Warren Johnson. But the problems come from Carlos Giffoni’s script. Focusing on a soldier who’s performing executions to help his daughter, Bounty gives us no reason to like this guy other than the fact that he’s got a daughter we never see that he says he cares about. And with dialogue this rough, it’s even harder to care: “I know the dangers. But, f*ck, this is who I am.” Perhaps a more original sci-fi world would help sell this, but alas, we’re saddled with a Metal Gear Solid-lookin’ ripoff. And maybe I’m reading into this too much, but the story has gross undertones where our protagonist comes across like Chris Kyle and the aliens he kills with impunity seem like Iraqi people. Yikes.
Speaking of killing and shooting, Killshot tries to answer the hypothetical we’ve all come across: if you could go back in time, would you kill Hitler? I wish I could say this does something with the premise, but it ends just when you’d think it was starting, so it’s hard to comment further other than saying the art by Atilio Rojo is too stiff and tracer-like, and there’s very little logic or sense to the meager story as it exists now.
Pinkerton, written by Mark Schmidt and art by Donny Tran, is both the most mundane and baffling entry. The Pinkertons were a real “detective” agency (more like private army of ultra-bastards depending on who you ask) and this short tries to give them a “fun” origin story. How is this related to sci-fi or answer “what makes us human?” It doesn’t. Maybe I missed something, but this pro-cop nonsense illustrated with the vigor of those cheap children’s history comics isn’t worth figuring any possible nuances out.
On a more amusing note, Silence is a self-serious post-apocalyptic tale where music in Piano City has been outlawed. But our plucky heroine joins a resistance to stop the bad government guys! Sound familiar? I would agree, but what sets this apart are lines I’ll take to my grave, like: “Take out those bass-noted bastards!” As much as I’m ragging author Omar Spahi the art from Livio Ramondelli is a little better, although it looks like digital art from 2005 you’d find on DeviantArt (although to be fair, the color work isn’t bad).
Penultimately, Spirit of 666 is trying to be a riff on the corny likes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but in this case, the pilgrims are portrayed as cultists unleashing demon hordes upon these yonder shores. Exceedingly stupid, yes, but it spends too much time on snarky narration and only one page on demon gore, which is the only real enjoyment one could get from this silliness. Artist Christian Dibari has a talent for lovingly illustrating demons in all their grotesque wrinkles, but he slacks on everything else, namely any human characters or backgrounds.
Finally, we end on Temporal Intelligence Agency, which is about a woman who can go back in time and frame people for the benefit of the TIA. It really sucks that our female heroine is given nothing more here than playing the “sultry, seductress spy” stereotype. Atilio Rojo’s minimal art is acceptable for this streamlined story, it’s just a shame the color and composition work couldn’t pick up the pace.
Overall, Stairway Anthology is a prime example of why short stories, no matter how short, need endings. Granted, most of these shorts aren’t great to begin with, but reading ten stories without concrete endings is both migraine-inducing and numbingly tedious. Beyond the individual problems these stories have, there are key uniting factors that really reveal these are made by newer talent: over-reliance on narration, stereotypical characters, corny dialogue, and cliche plots that don’t subvert expectations. Anthologies can be a great sampling of the good and the bad, but Stairway Anthology is stuck in the middle. Hopefully the creative teams can use this as a stepping stone to improve their craft and their readers’ enjoyment.