Friday, February 11, 2011

FYC replay: Borrowed Time from Oni Press

Here's a look at a book that I profiled in my Pulse column that, to my knowledge, has yet to be finished. Borrowed Time by Neal Shaffer and Joe Infurnari has a great "what if" premise, and I hope that it finally gets finished some day.

For Your Consideration: Borrowed Time
By Chris Beckett
The 411:
Borrowed Time
Written by Neal Shaffer
Art by Joe Infurnari
Black & White
Vol. I, 80 pages, $6.95
Vol. II, 64 pages, $5.95

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Life could not get much better for Taylor Devlin. His career as a journalist affords him the luxury of traveling the globe in search of a story. It also allows him to live in a very nice apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend. With her, he has come to understand true love and plans on asking her to marry him. Things are about as perfect as they can get.

His latest assignment takes him to the Bermuda Triangle. Hitching a ride on a cargo liner, Taylor intends to get some first-hand experience, per his client’s request, in order to “liven up” the piece he is writing for them. As he boards the ship and meets the Captain, Taylor is reassured that things should generally be uneventful.

But that night, Mother Nature takes umbrage with all the forecasters predicting calm skies and attacks the cargo liner, buffeting the ship and its crew with high winds and rough seas. Devlin is warned off by one of the crewmembers but rushes up top to witness the fury of the storm. Admonished by the Captain, he is told to return to his cabin. The crew needs to fight the storm and Devlin would only be in the way. But as Taylor turns, he is confronted by a huge wave barreling over the side of the ship. It crashes into the dazed man, knocks him to the deck, and leaves Devlin unconscious until morning.

When he awakes, Devlin finds he is now alone on the ship, nothing to console him but the few remaining bottles of whiskey. The liner aimlessly wanders the Atlantic for six days before a chopper finds Devlin and brings him back to Norfolk. Happy to be back on land and only a phone call away from his girlfriend, Devlin wonders at the destruction surrounding him at the airfield. The chopper pilot hints at some explanation, but goes no further than some cryptic statements. He does, however, send Devlin to a man who can help, though the explanation awaiting him is one he is ill prepared to hear.

As astounding as it may be, Taylor Devlin is now one of the Lost. Caught in some quantum conundrum, he may still reside in the same geographic area, but temporally he now rests ten seconds out of sync with the world he has left. As it is explained to him, there are rifts, or seams, in the fabric of time. It is through one of these rifts that Taylor Devlin has passed. From this, the obvious question to ask is: what if somebody wants to go back to what they left behind? Devlin is told that’s not possible.

But is it?

The Bermuda Triangle has provoked speculation for over a century. The site of multiple unexplained disappearances by marine and air vessels, the aura surrounding this area of the Atlantic has spurred explorers and investigators to create elaborate hypotheses in order to explain these vanishings. Though most of these anomalies have been found to be exaggerated or, in some cases, inaccurately reported, many of the disappearances still remain unexplained, and this patch of water off the southern United States coast continues to provide fodder for authors and talkers around the world.

Most of the tales surrounding the Triangle involve extraterrestrials, a suspension of the laws of physics, or some other supernatural circumstance. Though these might make for good yarns around a campfire, they are forgettable studies in over-the-top storytelling for the most part. Luckily, Neal Shaffer and Joe Infurnari choose not to go the sensationalistic route and ground Borrowed Time squarely in this world of ours. The interests of these creators lay more with the relationships between people and what happens when they are overcome by unbelievable circumstances.

It’s the humanity found within Borrowed Time that makes this such an enjoyable book. Shaffer isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions. What would someone do if they lost all they had and loved? How would they react if the person for whom they cared the most was only seconds away, but those seconds were multiplied across time and space so that being able to touch them, to be with them, to love them would be an impossibility? Through Taylor Devlin, readers’ reactions to these questions are mirrored in his actions. He has trouble accepting this fanciful tale, and refuses to believe he will never return home. And yet, on the other side, Devlin discovers new friends – though acquaintances may be a better description – and works to survive as best he can in a world that is as similar, and as foreign, as anything he’s ever encountered.

Shaffer taps into that basic human fear of being uprooted and set down into an alien existence. It is one to which any reader will be able to relate, and Shaffer’s humanization of this fantastic premise more readily allows his audience to empathize with Taylor Devlin than if he had been stolen to some otherworldly planet. By eschewing the easy route, Shaffer imbues his narrative with a richness that can often be lacking in a science fiction milieu and keeps readers anxious for what will happen next. Couple this with the mysteries that Shaffer has set up – how did these people end up here and how is it that “Butch” is able to traverse the divide when everyone believes it impossible – and one has an exciting tale in their hands.

The artwork from Joe Infurnari, a winner of Oni’s 2005 talent search, perfectly complements the story set forth by Shaffer. His style hearkens back to masters of the medium like John Romita Sr. and Curt Swan – clean, delicate lines without the overworked cross-hatching that was such a staple in the late eighties and early nineties. His figures are very real and the settings in which they live resemble the world outside our windows – at least when we find ourselves on this side of the divide.

Infurnari also contrasts the two worlds very well, portraying the “other world” as a run-down cluttered place where there is very little in the way of social services or public works. The setting mirrors the fractured emotional state of all those people now residing there. But thankfully, Infurnari does not overdo it, preferring to subtly incorporate the clutter and disrepair into this strange place. This tactful impression of an alien existence by Infurnari allows readers to more easily relate to this predicament, complementing Shaffer’s script beautifully and pulling readers into this story with Devlin. It is a wonderful merging of creative minds that should hopefully prove to be another success for Oni.

An Interview with SHAFFER:

THE PULSE: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

It wasn’t something that I originally set out to do. Rather, it grew out of my collaborations with Daniel Krall, who I worked with on our Oni Press series One Plus One. The more he and I worked together and talked, the more excited I got about comics. I just love the freedom of the medium. I love the fact that you can use quiet moments and give people a chance to linger on an emotion or a word and the story doesn’t keep marching like it would in a film. Nor does it leave everything up to the imagination like a novel. Comics are really a wonderfully unique way to tell a lot of different stories.

Kind of a rambling answer, I know, but it’s a good question. There’s not just one way to answer it.

THE PULSE: How many books will comprise Borrowed Time?

There will be a total of six parts, but they might not come out as six separate books. We’re talking about the release schedule with Oni right now.

THE PULSE: Do you have the entire series mapped out already or are you allowing some of it to write itself as you move through the script process?

I have much of the story mapped out, but I do leave a lot of room for discovery. Things constantly reveal themselves to me as I go. It’d be kind of silly to just ignore them, so I try to stay as loose as possible without completely losing my anchor.

THE PULSE: Pacing is an important talent when writing for comics and yet it’s something that really can’t be taught. That said, the pacing in these first two volumes of Borrowed Time has been masterfully handled. How are you approaching the pacing for these books, or are you even conscious of it?

Well, thanks first for the compliment. I really appreciate it.

To answer your question, I’m not really conscious of it. I mean I’m conscious of it in a very innate, visceral way, but I’m not precisely working on it. It’s one of those things, like a pitcher’s windup and delivery, that will start to fail if you get too conscious of it.

THE PULSE: What does Joe Infurnari bring to this series with his art and has he surprised you with anything – a panel, a page – that might have spurred you to take the story in a direction you may not have originally intended?

What doesn’t he bring? Joe’s an absolute monster and I’m terribly lucky to have him on the book. I don’t know that there’s been a specific instance where his art has pushed the story in one direction or another, but he does have all the leeway he wants to interpret the script as he sees it best. I couldn’t be happier with the results.

THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Right now all of my other projects exist outside of comics. I’m working on a screenplay, some sports writing, a cookbook, and trying to get into advertising and copywriting. But I do have some comics stuff hopefully coming down the pike, and I’ll make sure to let you know if/when they become official.

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