Heroes & Villains: “Rivers” & “Better Place”

Wednesday already? Good thing time doesn’t exist!

The lead up to me sitting down at my computer and writing this column usually consists of me trying to “break” the story and structure this whole thing in my mind before dumping it out on the page. Sometimes I get there, most of the time I do not. Today, in my dreadfully dull existence I was standing at my kitchen sink and peeling potatoes for tomorrow’s crockpot experiment. (Take one reasonably lean corned beef, potatoes, carrots, bottle of Guinness, some cabbage if you’re into that sort of thing, drop it all in there and hope for the best in eight hours). All I could think of was how Zen and the Art of Potato Peeling would be a good, albeit derivative, book title. I managed to peel all the potatoes without peeling off my fingertips so we’re in good shape.

That also means I have to write a column now.

Rivers
David Gaffney (W)
Dan Berry (A)
Top Shelf Productions

In a pleasing instance of coincidence, both of the books I’m looking at this week feature comics within comics and me writing about comics is now part of some wonderful meta-narrative. Or it’s just how I choose to spend my free time.

First up is Rivers by David Gaffney and Dan Berry. Hit me with that blurb:

Gideon is a lonely I.T. developer, obsessed by a comic book from childhood called Revenge of the Ghoulors, and secretly in love with his co-worker Lisa. Heidi works at home in her pajamas, makes a lot of soup, and wishes she had time for friends. Peter is a 56-year-old divorcee who delivers classic cars, has a built-in toaster, and thinks a lot about the past.

These three people seem unconnected, yet they share something — they each have the same recurring dream. And when a new web service is introduced that helps people share their dreams, what will happen when the three of them find out about each other? Just what is it that links these three lonely souls?

As someone who never stopped obsessing about comic books from my childhood, Rivers obviously spoke to me. It took me back to my own misspent youth where my pals and I would waste what little allowance we had on whatever multiple variant cover dreck Marvel was pushing that month. Rivers vividly took me back to that time in my life which gave me a nice connection with Gideon’s portion of the narrative.

The three primary characters of the book all lead fairly disparate lives and the overarching story is laid out much like a web or, better yet, a series of concentric circles all drawn from the same line. The closer you get to the center, the closer all the lines become until they’re almost indistinguishable. It’s no small feat attempting a story like this, everything has to balance just right or it doesn’t work at all. It’s a fine line between masterful storytelling and a sloppily made movie of the week.

Rivers wonderfully sticks the landing and everything connected in a satisfying way. I was also especially pleased with the side characters all being fleshed out and even though most got only a few pages each, they seemed fully realized characters in their own right.

Advance Alert!

Better Place
Duane Murray (W)
Shawn Daley (A)
Various (A)
Top Shelf Productions

Out October 5th from Top Shelf Productions (again with those guys!) is Better Place from Duane Murray and Shawn Daley. It’s always when I least expect it that I’ll get sent a book that really gets to me.

Here’s the blurb:

Better Place follows Dylan who just moved to a new house, with no friends, and a mother who doesn’t have time for him. Luckily, he has his grandad. Together, they are Red Rocket and Kid Cosmo, who save the universe every day with the pow-er of imagination! But one day, Dylan learns that his grandad is suddenly gone… to a “better place.” Now, Kid Cosmo will have to save the day, all by himself.

Crafted with layers of emotion and sympathetic characters, including some childlike adults and some awfully mature kids, this book is a celebration of vintage comic-book imagination and a harsh dose of reality crashing against that fantasy.

Part of my process for writing these columns is to go in as cold as possible when reading books which usually involves not reading any synopsis the PR folks send. In the case of Better Place I was not prepared for Dylan’s grandad to go to, well, a…better place. Murray and Daley painstakingly build up the character of Dylan’s grandfather all while paying extra close attention to the importance of their relationship. Simply put, their relationship is the foundation upon which the entire story is built.

Better Place perfectly encapsulates that odd period between being a kid and being a slightly older kid that realizes there’s more to the world. A lot of Better Place involves Dylan struggling to reconcile his own personal world view with how things can unfortunately be. Painful as that may be, Dylan never really seems to lose sight of who he really is.

As I mentioned up above there’s a comic within the comic in Better Place as well which was presented in stark contrast to the black and white of the rest of the book. Presented with vibrant reds the comic book sections are illustrated by some wonderful and surprising guest artists (which I won’t spoil here). Daley’s art anchors the main story, fantastically conveying the myriad of rich emotions Dylan, his grandfather, and mother all experience throughout the course of the story. I enjoyed the hell out of this book and there’s an excellent chance you will too.

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