Sunday, November 23, 2008

Back Matter re-runs #1 (THE LAST ISLAND)

With the recent overhaul of the Pulse, my initial run of "For Your Consideration" has been lost in the internet aether. So I thought I would go ahead and re-run those features here. But when I went trawling through my hard drive, I was reminded of the fact that the idea behind FYC - a not very original one of spotlighting a book or webcomic and including a short Q&A with the creator(s) - began as I was ending my association with Wesley Green's Independent Propaganda, which sadly is no longer running. But you should check out his new site Indy Comic News.

Anyway, these few pieces came from my first exposure to the great Small Press Expo and some of the great self-published books I found there. Four of them got published on IndyProp before the site took a long hiatus, and a fifth and sixth one that would have been published there eventually ended up as two of the early installments of For Your Consideration. But that's enough intro. Here's the initial entry in what I was calling "SPX Swag". I hope you enjoy.


This past October I attended my first Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland and was anxious to see the variety that would be on display among the self-publishers exhibiting. I’m happy to say I was not disappointed. The stories, the art styles, the genres, the formats – the wide range that was on evidence was amazing for me as a first-timer, and I came back with quite a few gems. This is the first in a series of reviews/interviews for books I picked up at SPX – some of the best indy/small press/mini-comics being produced today, a number of which are from Xeric grant recipients. These are the books you should be buying if you are a fan of artistic expression. And once you’ve finished the review continue on to a short interview with the creator of this book, Alex Cahill. I hope you all enjoy.

THE LAST ISLAND by Alex Cahill was one of the books that got me most excited after I made my way home and began reading. A wordless story with pages that flip up rather than left to right, this story, as Cahill puts it, is about two boys stuck on an island who don’t like each other. And at its most basic, this conflict is certainly the focal point of the tale. But as you read – and re-read – THE LAST ISLAND, it is obvious that this story is about a lot more than a children’s confrontation.

Cahill’s pacing is exceptional, slowly escalating the conflict between the two boys – one from the city, the other living on the island – as one turns the pages. Each believes their own lifestyle to be the most essential and to that end the city boy lassos his skyline and drags it to the “last island’s” coastline, invading the serenity the first boy craves. Having thrown down the gauntlet, the two now work toward the destruction of each other’s home, slicing trees and crumbling buildings as they attempt to prove the rightness of their cause.

And once the climax jumps out at the reader with that final turn of the page, the symbolic nature of the boys’ conflict becomes self-evident and elevates this story to a new level. This climax also fulfills two narrative duties that also enhance the story. First, it gives the reader a better understanding of what occurred on the previous pages. Secondly, it opens up even more questions to be answered by the audience, forcing them to return to page one and go back through the book again to discover the richer, more complex story that was awaiting them all the while.

In THE LAST ISLAND, Cahill touches on many themes, including that of a “necessity to work together” and the “animosity present among strangers.” This feat is particularly impressive considering the lack of dialogue or captions present within his story, which contains a total of four word balloons found on the last two pages. One of the more important themes encompassing this comic is the conflict between man and machine. This theme is epitomized by the two boys and their subsequent dispute. One of them, a blond boy, lives on the island and wears only a pair of shorts as he lays around all day in the sun, only leaving the warm sand for a swim in the ocean surrounding him. The other, a dark-haired boy in slacks and a shirt – cellphone to his ear as readers first encounter him – comes from the city and has little use for the four palm trees that dot the tiny isle. It is obvious this child will grow up to be a successful businessman someday. These boys’ ideals are at odds with one another and they go back and forth throughout the book attempting to outdo, and win out over, the other. But in the end Cahill eschews a tidy resolution to their quarrel and instead plays on his audience’s convictions, leaving any resolution up to their own imaginations. By doing this, Cahill forces readers to participate in the climax, imbuing it with a resonance the story might not have otherwise.

This is a very dreamlike story and Cahill’s art style perfectly fits this tale. His linework is clean and stylized, utilizing no crosshatching and a minimum of lines to achieve his effects. The settings, including the formalized clouds floating over the island and the basic skyline of the city, are iconic and allow the reader to step into the story in a way that might be impossible if he were fully rendering an actual skyline such as New York’s or San Francisco’s. Cahill’s style leans more toward that of Scott Morse or Frank Espinosa of ROCKETO fame, while also deftly evoking a full range of emotions in his characters. This emotive range is at the crux of why THE LAST ISLAND works so well, and is also why it is something to which people are able to relate. Because in the end, this is a story about human emotions and the struggles we all face on a daily basis.


INDEPENDENT PROPAGANDA: Why comics? What does this medium offer you as a storyteller that others might not?

ALEX CAHILL: Haha. I like that question. I feel like it's a little upside-down for me, though. There was never a moment when I considered doing the other storytelling media. I never chose comics as the best among them to do what I wanted. Comics are what I want to do. But to properly answer the question, my continuing fascination with comics lies in how they're a non-sensory storytelling experience. They don't move. They don't make noise. To me, comics aren't a physical experience; they're a mental experience, and I think the best ones are conscious of that. Comics offer mental pleasure, mental intrigue--with pictures. Nothing is more compelling to me than that. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly I want from them, but it changes as I learn more about making them.

INDYPROP: What was the genesis of THE LAST ISLAND?

A.C.: THE LAST ISLAND started as my attempt to work out conflicting elements of my own personality. It was this goofy story that was going to be some working-class guy's daydream about being alone and free from his problems. It changed into being about two characters, the two kids. Then it was supposed to become about their eventual cooperation, but I decided against that. It kept changing. I dreamed up a lot of other characters that never made it into the book. All I was ever clear about was about setting up the conflict bewteen the characters and then seeing if it went the way I projected. It never did.

INDYPROP: I read in an interview on Newsarama that you made up THE LAST ISLAND as you went along. With that in mind, in the early stages of creating this book, what were you hoping to accomplish with THE LAST ISLAND and did you succeed?

A.C.: All I wanted to accomplish was to ask a good question and not answer it. My ambitions were simple. I feel like the story never tries to be weighty or deep. It's just a modest way of asking a question about conflicting desires. I'm extremely proud of the book. I love that it looks like something it's not. I love that it manages to ask a coherent question when I was stumbling through the making of it. The first fifteen pages look exactly the way they did when there was still gonna be pirates and jetpacks and stuff. Without changing anything I'd already drawn, I changed direction a handful of times. I do feel like the book is a success. I lucked into so many good things while letting one image lead into the next, and the experience of reading it while I was drawing it led me at the end to feel as though I'd worked something out myself in creating the story. It's nonsense, but it's also autobiography in a silly-nonsense kinda way.

INDYPROP: Having done two wordless comics what would you say are the benefits and the drawbacks of doing comics without dialogue?

A.C.: I think the main drawback is also the main benefit, and it takes a certain kind of person to embrace it: you're never in control as the author. You try to guide people and you take it for granted that some things are totally obvious, but you never know how an image will be read. I've heard readings from people about these two books that are so different that it's startling that the readers were talking about the same works. You just can't know. That accessibility is always rewarding for me. Different takes from different people on the same collection of images betray, to me, a richness in those images, and it circulates the ownership of the whole work. It's hard for me to confront ambiguity in a work and consider it a weakness, and I would say that these books particularly aren't calibrated for ambiguity to cause anxiety in the reader. The books don't appear to prize definite and clear-cut sense. I love that. It makes some people squirm that these books don't tell you everything. Some people are uncomfortable with that and want to know what they're being asked or told, and that's fine. But I'm not one of those people.

INDYPROP: What projects are you working on now and when can readers expect to see them?

A.C.: It's been funny going around the country and doing conventions recently, promoting *The Last Island* and selling it along with *Something So Familiar,* because I've been working on The New Radio's new book since November of last year. Selling those two books gives me great pleasure, and I'll always love them, but at this point I'm almost done with the 100-page first part of *Poison the Cure* and I'm so excited to unveil it that it's hard to concentrate on these other two books that have been done for a year and two years. All I want to show people is how different *Poison* looks. It has words. The New Radio's co-founder Jad Ziade has written it and this guy knows what he's doing. It has action; it has drawing in it that gives me goosebumps. This book is gonna be our masthead for the next few years and I'm ready to share it. It will completely change what people think we are and it will appeal to a much bigger audience than artsy silent books do.

*Poison the Cure* is set in an indefinite future, and it's the story of a group of friends doing what they can to stop the political corruption that is going to destroy everything. There's robots, blasters, aliens, explosions--and Jad leads his reader on with the most compelling clues. It's great sci-fi; it's great storytelling--it's great comics. I'm a fan. It comes out in March of next year, but we're gonna try selling it only through our site at first to drum up a buzz before we put it in stores.

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