Friday, October 19, 2012

Flights of Fancy – Flight: Volume One

A panel from "Maiden Voyage" by Kazu Kibuishi (collected in Flight, Volume One)

One of the greatest joys of the web is that it provides unprecedented access to art. The range and scale of projects online grows daily, and artists who might otherwise have been unable or unwilling to start out in print now have new options. Some seem content to stay and play in the digital space, while others can build their online reputation into a means to rise in the print world. Such was the case for the artists and writers of Flight: Volume One. Editor Kazu Kibuishi has amassed a wide range of art styles, stories, and characters, if a slightly smaller range of quality. The volume showcases twenty-two young comic artists, all early in their careers in 2004 when it went to print. While 'flight' is not always explicitly featured in the stories, themes of childhood, adventure, and fantastical whimsy pervade each one.

As short stories, most comics in the volume left me hanging in some fashion. The stronger works had me wanting more, curious about the characters and their worlds; others felt a little bit less finished, more perplexing than thought-provoking. A select few felt elegantly complete, and these left me the most satisfied while still curious to see more.

In the first category were “Maiden Voyage” and “Copper”, drawn from Kibuishi's own webcomic (also called Copper) about the eponymous boy and his talking dog, Fred. The pair construct a plane and embark on an adventure across wild and fantastic countryside, with a human/animal partnership in the tradition of Calvin and Hobbes or Charlie Brown and Snoopy. This standalone story is representative of Kibuishi’s online work, which also tells of unconnected stories about the pair. With warm, muted tones, Kibuishi's art appears almost animated and familiar to anyone who's picked up his Amulet series of young adult comics. Friendly and appealing without being cutesy, “Copper” is an intriguing, if safe approach to the 'boy and his dog' trope. It was enough to send me in search of his webcomic, which has unfortunately been on hiatus since 2009. 

As if to contrast it with his own work, Kibuishi follows his entry in Flight with another young-boy-on-a-fantastic-adventure-with-animal-companions story: “Hugo Earheart” by Jake Parker. While readers may detect superficial similarities off the bat, Parker's work ramps up from the tranquil to the perilous faster, sending the title character on a delivery mission though the skies. Hugo and his companions feel a bit more fleshed out and his world a bit more expansive, although Parker’s art felt a bit juvenile after Kibuishi's polished entry. I would still have loved to see more from these characters, but if things like flying whales, talking pigs and sky pirates aren't your style, then Flight does include more sombre works, from Catia Chien's bleak one page entry “Fall” to Clio Chiang's supernatural fable “The Bowl.” Both wordless and satisfyingly self-contained, they command multiple readings to catch every detail of their unsettling narratives.

One of the standouts, in both visuals and narrative, is “Paper and String” by Jen Wang. A girl out kite flying bumps into an old high school acquaintance, the kind of person you've seen, occasionally, because they're popular or attractive or noisy or something, but don't really know. It turns out the two girls have a love of kites and art in common, and their simple chat on a windy day becomes a cleverly illustrated marvel. Paper cutouts, oil pastels, paints, old photos – several mediums appear practiced and elegant in Wang's hands, blending seamlessly into a scrapbook motif that both serves the story and delights the eye.

From Khang Le's "Outside My Window"

Another hauntingly beautiful entry comes from Khang Le, whose story “Outside My Window” somehow makes alien child abduction seem whimsical. Soothing pastels and light, sketchy lines create the peaceful atmosphere where young Donna awakens, with her mother nowhere to be found – but a slender metal giant stands outside her home. I can’t help but draw parallels with Hayao Miyazaki (of Spirited Away fame), between the visual style of the creature and the scenario of a young child falling into an uncanny other world. Yet Le puts a unique signature to it, with subtle choices of colour and typeface that seem carefully crafted for the comic medium. Each page comes together effectively, making this one of the volume's more complete works.

The remaining stories range from dark and moody to snappy and comical, and the volume concludes with a tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless slightly presumptuous epilogue by Scott McCloud. He touches on the key successes of the work through a fictionalized retrospective from the year 2054. I enjoyed McCloud’s works on comic art (Understanding Comics and Writing Comics) and this piece could have benefited from the comic book style used in those works; some visual humour might have softened the tone somewhat. As only text, I found McCloud’s review a shade more assertive than need be, his arguments overshadowed by arrogant claims of the artists’ supposed future successes. While he’s clearly going for an optimistic and complimentary summation, it came across as more heavy-handed than I suspect he intended, dulling some of the satisfaction I had from the works preceding it.

The series has now concluded with its eighth volume, released in 2011. Subsequent volumes see the return of many of these artists, though not all continue their tales from the original. Kibuishi also started a new series, Explorer, in early 2012. Collections like Flight bring the fancy free world of webcomics to the page with bright success. Not your gritty, grounded graphic novel, Volume One serves as a good intro to those who prefer their books the old fashioned way, but their stories a little more modern and magical.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently employed in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

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