In The Dark Ages: Ashes, Ashes and The Natural World #4

Posted by on December 6th, 2010 at 5:57 AM

Rob reviews the Bill Volk-edited anthology Ashes, Ashes and the fourth issue of The Natural World, by Damien Jay.

The Natural World #4, by Damien Jay.  Beyond his other virtues as a cartoonist, Damien Jay’s pages are simply beautiful to look at.  It’s not so much drawing pyrotechnics as much as it is page design, balance and his ability to make greyscale look appealing to the eye.  In a story that’s about the tedious and frequently dangerous of day-to-day existence in the dark ages, it’s interesting that Jay spent the first several pages of this issue to show, one panel & page at a time, the potential beauty of the forest setting.  When we are reintroduced to the fractured English of Walter, the idiot brother of the local village’s officer, the reader is immediately re-immersed in the nasty, brutal ugliness of this world.  Walter encounters a forest man he remembers from his youth, and the result is a very funny misunderstanding born out of Walter’s slurred speech.  Indeed, Jay turns this issue into an extended “who’s on first” routine as Shannon can’t quite understand what Walter’s saying most of the time, leading him to think Walter is possessed by gnomes.   The Natural World is a weird combination of social satire, historical fantasy, slapstick, bawdiness and magical fantasy.  The tight focus on two characters in this issue emphasized the humorous aspects of the story while never leaving behind the grim nature of this society.  Jay has been careful to show restraint in depicting the fantasy aspects of the series, doling out tiny bits and pieces as he keeps the focus on an expanding cast of characters.  This approach makes each individual issue a thoroughly satisfying read.

Ashes, Ashes, edited by Bill Volk.  This is “an anthology of comics about the black death”, which includes both public domain (and famous) drawings by Albinus, and strips by assorted cartoonists (including Center for Cartoon Studies folks like Bill Volk and Betsey Swardlick.  This is an odd anthology, with only three full-length stories along with some illustrations and a one-pager.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, because the anthology’s topic is a bit limited and the temptation for artists to go for something too on-the-nose was hard to resist.  Both Maggie Wittenberg and T.D. Ward, for example, contributed scribbly & dark stories about the desperate sacrifice of the individual in the inevitable face of death by plague.  The way Ward drew snow at least made his story more interesting to look at, dumping the reader into an environment as relentless as the disease itself.

The one-page strip by Nils Balls, a simple 12-panel grid, gets across the disease as a sort of warfare by nature on foolish mankind, as the plague conspires with rats to bring down man’s kigggbvngdom, all done in pantomime.  This is a highly effective, darkly amusing strip.  Swardlick’s usual silliness is on display with her one illustration about “the most metal illness of all…Black Death”.  The best story in the anthology is Volk’s own “The Left Hand Path/The Right Hand Path”, a clever and horrific story about a man desperately trying to save his daughter from the plague.  In the left-hand column of the page, he turns to black magic as a means to gain power over death, eventually turning to murder and worse while desperately trying to justify his actions.  In the right hand column, the man becomes so devoted to God that he turns to self-flagellation and complete abandonment of his old life in a frantic attempt to curry God’s favor.  Of course, both paths lead to the same result: death, though in each instance, the man feels he made the wrong choice.  This is by far the most grim and visceral story in the book, yet Volk’s cute (and almost superdeformed) character design adds a visual tension to the proceedings, and the clever design brings the story out of mere cliche’.

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