Sean Maher's Quality Control

Monday, July 25, 2005

Small Gods: I tore my mind on a jagged sky

Okay, so part two of my campaign to get you reading serial comics. Today, I’m talking about Small Gods.

This book launched last year, one of the early runners in Image Comics’ recent slew of new titles, and it’s my favorite among them.

The premise of the series is that heightened mental powers have been discovered and have become a part of the real world. One in every hundred people has enhanced abilities of one kind or another, and each of them has a story to be told.

It’s a strong high concept because it’s just specific enough to tie the series together thematically – the characters are faced with similar ethical issues of intimacy, trust, control, and power (and its abuse) – while leaving each arc free to tell its own story.

Writer Jason Rand is a talent to watch. His dialogue and characterization are both subtle and intense; he writes with a sharp knife, punching each sentence with rhythm and meaning, and it really helps pull off the mental "beat" you get from reading the best comics. The first arc dealt with a cop with abilities that threaten the sanctity of due process; he suppresses and denies them in an effort to stay a cop, so he can keep helping, keep saving people. Of course, this gets him into trouble and he has to make some tough decisions; a familiar cop drama setup, but what sets this apart is the main character’s self awareness. We’re used to seeing these kinds of characters painted as strident, unthinking representatives of one ethical standpoint or another – one guy believes Cops ARE The Law, another believes in Doing It By The Book, one of them shoots the other, we all go home. What I love about Rand’s work here is that no one character is seeing things from such a blanket perspective; every character thinks, responds to the plot with actual ideas and emotions, and it all feels very organic. Instead of just waiting for the action scenes, so you can find out which one of these guys is the baddest ass (though these scenes are provided as well), I really become invested in the characters’ lives. This also makes a number of sequences gut-churningly uncomfortable, which all such stories should be.

Rand is also no slouch when it comes to providing some excitement, and his action scenes always feel like they belong in the story and come at the right time.

And it’s in both regards that artist Juan Ferreyra really carries the tune. He matches the scripts almost perfectly, with visual pacing that suits the rhythm of the script and innovative physical cues to inform the dialogue. His women are sexy without being embarrassing – their facial expressions and character designs are just as specific and personal as the male characters. His action scenes - especially car chases - are detailed and breathlessly paced, balancing the realism of his style against the (often impressionistic) needs of the ass kicking.

So, it’s a great book, yes? Then, why is it worth buying in the serial format?

Because it’s structured that way. These guys aren’t working towards the trade, though the collection of the first arc reads just fine. Each issue is carefully crafted to include enough plot and character development to make it a satisfying, self-contained piece of the story, and almost every issue has some great action to keep the blood pumping. I’m reminded a bit of Peter Milligan’s Human Target series, which (when it was “on”) established its characters succinctly and effectively, put them in a fucked up situation, lit the match and watched the results, often in just 22 pages. Some series are just built perfectly for this format, and I think Small Gods is a great example of how to use serial comics.

So far nine issues of the main series have come out – a four-issue arc and a five-issue arc, each focusing on a different set of characters – with a one-shot special released two weeks ago that details the first meeting of these two disparate character groups. The special is a great value, with 27 pages of story for three bucks. It’s a fun story, and well worth the money, but I think a better introduction to the series would be the first trade paperback, Killing Grin. It collects the first four issues for just ten bucks, and it’ll pretty much catch you up to where you need to be to enjoy the Special. Issue #10, which comes out next month, will start a new arc with new characters and should be a great place to start, as well. Both Rand and Ferreyra are very active on the Small Gods messageboard, often posting preview images and cover sketches and such, so if you're interested in finding more material, that would be a good place to start.

If you're missing good crime noir and looking for something new - a series that puts its characters in uncompromising, no-win situations and passes no judgement on their response, that amps up the action every few pages to keep the pathos from weighing it all down, that functions on many different levels of entertainment - this is something you should be reading.


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