Comics Time: The Aviary

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The Aviary

Jamie Tanner, writer/artist

AdHouse, June 2007

312 pages

$12.95

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I was challenged and intrigued by the idea of, and the ideas in, this debut graphic novel, comprising various interlocking minicomic and anthology strips. “The Aviary,” as we slowly come to realize, is a term for a strange, insular city peopled by various subconsciously resonant weirdos: an art-porn impresario who is also an anthropomorphized monkey, a sexy but viciously nasty receptionist, a limbless stand-up comedian, and so on. Popping up throughout is a blinking bird-headed doll/automaton called the Silent Bird-Man, alternately a symbol of reproachful authority and libidinous secrecy. Some clever shifts in the temporal order of the events being presented lead to a mobius-strip vibe reminiscent of one of David Lynch’s psychogenic fugue films; yes, it’s a shorthand way to connote depth and weirdness, but it’s an effective shorthand way to do that. On a script and story level, the project falls somewhere between Ed the Happy Clown and Asthma, not nearly as assured as either (easy anachronism is a sure-fire way to lose me, comics writers of America), but promising for how it plays with those tools.

The problem is the visuals. Tanner’s pen-and-ink line is reminiscent in some ways of Rick Geary’s–not least because of its old-timey affectations–but his overall sense of page design and panel framing lacks Geary’s inventiveness and storytelling brio. I think literally every single shot of every single character in the book is either head-on or in three-quarter profile, like they’re spending the whole book cheating to the audience. And they’re almost always shown in close-up or medium-shot–seriously, you’re as likely to see feet here as you are in a Michael Turner comic. The combined effect simultaneously makes the comic feel artificial and saps it of its energy. This is all compounded by an overuse of word balloons and figures that break the panel walls for no discernible reason, again making the images feel stagey. Meanwhile, the character designs blended together for me, making the already byzantine plot even more difficult to follow.

Overall, this is what you’d call a promising debut, but not in the blandly complimentary way that’s usually said–I really mean it’s noteworthy for the promise it demonstrates with regard to potential future works. What I’d like to see is Tanner throw this against the wall hard, to see what sticks, to see what’s broken, and to see how he can put something new, different, and better together with the pieces.

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