Comics Time: Inkweed

Inkweed

Chris Wright, writer/artist

Sparkplug, 2008

152 pages

$16

Buy it from Sparkplug

I didn’t want to like this comic. I didn’t even want to read it. There’s something…off-putting about that cover, a weird combination of Klasky-Csupo/Gary Baseman character design I never found that appealing and just a lot of brown, empty space. The interiors similarly failed to pull me in–lots of crosshatched backgrounds and clothing placed behind and draped around a cast of sub-Muppets. In order to keep myself sane, my usual criteria for whether I’d even read a comic at all is that I at least have to enjoy flipping through it, so I was sorely tempted to leave this on the shelf and would have done so but for the good things I half-remember hearing about it. Plus, it seemed like it’d be a quick read.

What I didn’t count on is the writing. Good Lord. I’m still not 100% sold on his art, but the Chris Wright stories collected here are sharp as a knife, just as incisive, just as likely to leave a wound. Most concern older people coming to terms, or failing to, with their failures: a painter who seems to have traded acclaim for ability, an astronomer who falls in unrequited love with his assistant, a witch who cultivates fine blends of pipe tobacco for an unappreciative Satan, a famous author whose equally gifted but resentful son comes between him and his young wife, another painter whose drinking gives him an outlet for his extravagant self-loathing and a cover for his fear of failure. I suppose these are all fairly well-trodden paths–you don’t have to have read Asterios Polyp recently to feel like you’ve gotten your fair share of stealth-autobio art about the struggles of artists. But Wright is distinguished by the swift and brutal way he deals with the themes. The ends of his stories tend to leave the characters staring down the abyss in matter-of-fact fashion–literally, in the case of the astronomer, who can only gaze once again into his telescope, and in the case of the famous painter, who must trade his blank canvases for the blankest canvas of all. Other stories end with no-nonsense cris de coeur: “What’s wrong with me?” asks the alcoholic painter; “FUCK!” yells a man whose confrontation with God over the heartache he feels has been abruptly cut short mid-sentence when God vanishes with a Nightcrawler-style BAMF. The lead-ups to these grand finales are unsparing as well, particularly the story about the father and son authors and the father’s wife–that one takes a swing-for-the-fences turn for the disturbing that still manages to preserve the humanity and agency of all the characters involved rather than reducing any of them to something for someone else to react to. Wright accomplishes that in part by pushing the most extreme reactions off-panel, just one of any number of extremely shrewd storytelling choices he makes in here.

And you know, the art does have stuff to recommend it after all. Populating his stories with dollar-store Fraggles may be off-putting at first glance, but it can keep the stories from getting too maudlin or too on-the-nose. It also strangely enhances the period feel of the material–watching these creatures roam around in 19th-century garb reminds me of half-remembered cartoons in which anthropomorphized animals acted out human conflicts in old-timey settings. But his strongest visual flourish is the way he can slowly zoom in and out of abstraction in the middle of his stories, focusing only on the patterns created panel to panel by hands, eyes, stars, candles, enabling our minds to make sense of the images as the characters similarly grapple with their thoughts and emotions. Wright eventually lets this get away from him a bit toward the back of the book in a series of abstracted one-page strips and illustrations–the strongest of these, a short and bitter near-poem about alcoholism, is also the most straightforward. But the way he works such sequences into his traditional short stories bespeaks confidence and skill. This is already one of the best-written comics I’ve read in quite some time–goodness knows where a few more years at the drawing table will take him.

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