Thursday, October 25, 2007

Deceptively Simple

I've just returned from a few days at the Chateau Montebello to celebrate my first anniversary. I feel so unbelievably chilled out. It's amazing what three days in one of the biggest log cabins with a six sided, three story fireplace will do for your. I managed to read a whole bunch of stuff as it rained for most of our time there but chilling with my wife on an interior balcony or by a roaring wood fire really takes one towards what is actually important in life.

I took the title for this post from Randy Lander's review of this book on the now defunct and much mourned Fourth Rail.

Doug TenNapel’s Creature Tech is a story about the brilliant Dr. Ong who is working for the US government in a hidden underground base in small-town America. His job is to go through all the boxes in the research facility and find out what all the unexplained technology does. Their entrance is a large venus-flytrap that swallows them down to the lower levels. He decided this was a good career move when he dropped out of the seminary. The only down side to his job are the small-town locals. Then the ghost of Dr. Jameson, who replaced his left hand with the hand of the demon Hellcat to avoid going to Hell, returns to steal the real Shroud of Turin and unleashes a space slug that fights with the only competent local (who got the job because of the hiring stipulations) and kills Dr. Ong. Not to worry because the space-slug had this symbiote that attaches itself to Dr. Ong. Meanwhile Dr. Jameson raises himself from the dead and sets a whole bunch of demon cats on the loose to distract and dismember the locals while he searches out the giant space eel he called to Earth many years ago that he plans to resurrect with the shroud. At the same time Dr. Ong starts a romance with Katie who has a shrivelled up hand and a bum eye, has to deal with a church picnic that doesn’t like his freakish alien chestplate with extra mandible arms, as well as come to terms with a violent praying mantis hybrid bodyguard. The praying mantis hybrid gets fired for trying to kill Dr. Ong, who got peed on by a cat demon, and the mantis gets taken in by some gun-totin’ hillbillies. Oh yeah, Dr. Ong learns kung-fu when the symbiote watches a kung-fu movie and they all end up saving the day so Dr. Ong regains his faith in Christ.

Yeah, that last bit was sort of weird to me as well.

If you think this is a manic description, you should try reading the book. TenNapel is best known for Earthworm Jim, and a lot of the same hectically beautiful creation seen in that cartoon is also on display in Creature Tech. What I really like is his ability to simply introduce characters that shouldn’t really work together into a story that does manage to hold itself together. There is a lot of ideas from the full spectrum of ideas mashed together and somehow it remains consistently whole. There are aliens, science, religion, government plots, love stories, and random gun violence that seem like they should all be in separate genres or stories, but somehow with all this happening there is an inherent charm and appeal to the characters here.

That would be mostly due to his wonderful artwork. TenNapel is able to breathe a lot of life into these characters which isn’t surprising considering his animation background. The characters act for him whether they’re being thrown over tables, embarrassed in public, or riding a giant electric space eel while trying to destroy a small town. But it’s not just the characters that come to life, there are a lot of panels that really use silhouette and the black and white format to their fullest. There are a few panels that seem rushed or unfinished to me, but for each of those there are these wonderful action panels that allow TenNapel the artist to cut loose and really go for the action of the moment – be it Dr. Ong and Blue rushing to a graveyard on a motorcycle or some hillbillies shooting cat demons from their truck. What I love about TenNapel’s characters is that they manage to fit their world. There are cartoony characters but the protagonist has a bit of The Spirit about him, in that he’s sort of a simplified realistic whereas there are much more representative and abstract characters.

While I do think the story works in its own way, I also feel like I’m reading more of a first draft than a finished product. I love that we’ve got a single new story in the format it was intended for rather than a collection of individual issues. (Unless someone can correct me on that). The religion feels like it was an idea that was either the basis for conflict but got overshadowed by the resulting action, and therefore feels somewhat tacked on because of how the story developed or it was actually tacked on at some point. It feels really underdeveloped to me, and while I can see how it works it doesn’t really work with what is presented and could have easily been dropped altogether.

This book reminds me of silver age comics written for adults. There is a lot of action and a cartoony presentation but there is also a lot of violence and a bit of swearing. It’s sort of the best of both worlds in that respect. It doesn’t talk down or pretend to be something it isn’t – it is comic books for the modern audience, which is most likely older. I really do love the look of it, and if you like aliens kung-fu fighting demon cats or praying-mantis hybrids shooting shotguns and watching monster truck rallies then this is worth a look.

This comic is pretty awesome.

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