Minis Monday: Ophestios, 1890

Posted by on February 7th, 2011 at 1:00 PM

Joshua Rosen; B&W; 36 pp.; self-published; joshcantdraw “AT” Gmail

On the inside flap of the front cover of his comic, Joshua Rosen gives a brief prose sketch of the larger world of his story. He mentions a Northern Empire, an Imperial Palace, the Most Holy Synod and even the mythological underpinnings of its capital city, Ophestios. On the rear flap he allows for a fondness for “depressing Russian novels.”

Ophestios, 1890 offers a peephole into the Northern Empire particularly its culture and members of its social classes as creators and consumers of the arts. Its lens is that of the young protagonist, Iosif, a playwright on the avant-garde side of things. Surfacing after an unexplained absence, Iosif is making something of a re-imersion in the social if not artistic scenes of the city. The comic’s settings are bound by the preoccupations of the writer over the course of a single day: the theater for rehearsal, the club for boozing and mostly unwelcome schmoozing and finally the bed of a fresh acquaintance.

The first segment, on and behind the stage, is nicely engineered as introduction. The denouement, of chemical enhancement, assignation and aftermath, is even more cleverly constructed. A cinematic mix of punctuated panels depicts flitting under the influence, the perceptions while under the same and the visual correlatives of commingling and sobered awakening.

But the heart of the narrative takes shape at the club. Here the seeds of a more extensive drama are most assiduously planted. Several new characters appear, each adding to or contrasting with some concern of Iosif: Madame K, the chanteuse with a secret; hail-fellow-well-met Aleksey; former female interest Svetla; drunken boor Gennady with a drunken girl hanging off his arm; and the prosperous, self-satisfied embodiment of old guard sensibilities, Maksim. The director Viktor also does his turn, fleshing out the role of opportunistic and preoccupied artiste.

The others express their opinions and stake their positions with Iosif remaining aloof and uncommitted by choice and temperament. Nonetheless, several drinks in, he’s loudly, defensively holding forth on the sanctity of art as the purifying fire, as “What rips away the shroud behind which you cower you pustule, you PARASITE , you — you — ” He is accordingly reached only by the singer, her song, disclosure and potential, all of which accentuates the poignancy of evening’s end and morning’s dawning.

Iosif wears his heart on his sleeve as prominently as the comic displays its influences. If characters appear stock and easily identified, they are at least rich figures engagingly offered. It’s easy to imagine some them standing for matters and enunciating issues of interest to Rosen himself, in theory if not in practice.

In many ways Ophestios, 1890 is composed in a manner opposite from Jason Lute’s Berlin. There, a host of characters is painstakingly drawn in order, cumulatively, to provide human scale and dimension to the complex political and social flux at the time and in that place. Call it a bottom-up approach. Here, it is the familiarity of larger narratives that offers quick recognition and resonance for individual figures occupying niches, framing them in most intriguing lights, a top-down construction.

Barring something turning up in my sock drawer, Ophestios, 1890 is the final comic of last May’s harvest from the Maine Comics Arts Festival in Portland. It’s pleasant to contemplate that Rosen may have been adding to this narrative since then.

Images ©2009 Joshua Rosen

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