Flight Two anthology
Image Comics, 2005, $24.95, 432pp
ISBN 1-58240-477-1
See also my review of Flight Three This review first appeared on Emerald City
Comics, it’s a funny old game, isn’t it? All those blokes in tights working off all that testosterone while women wearing small lace handkerchiefs look on and quiver. Except…it doesn’t have to be like that, and there have always been writers and artists out there who have embraced the genre whilst rejecting the superheroes. Writer Warren Ellis put it best in his Old Bastard’s Manifesto in 2000:

Fuck superheroes, frankly. The notion that these things dominate an entire genre is absurd. It's like every bookstore in the planet having ninety percent of its shelves filled by nurse novels. Imagine that. You want a new novel, but you have to wade through three hundred new books about romances in the wards before you can get at any other genre. A medium where the relationship of fiction about nurses outweighs mainstream literary fiction by a ratio of one hundred to one. Superhero comics are like bloody creeping fungus, and they smother everything else.

Of course, these days even the UK Guardian sometimes reviews the latest comics (or ‘graphic novels’ or ‘sequential art’ – call them what you want; personally I’m in favour of reclaiming the term ‘comics’ for respectable use) by Joe Sacco or Art Spiegelman, and especially Daniel Clowes. So it’s a shame that this anthology isn’t getting far more attention because it brings together short pieces of work by over 30 different artists and writers, all pitched at a certain level of sophistication that’s neither too abstract and difficult, as some of these collections can sometimes be; nor too childish and easily dismissed. In fact, probably the most striking thing about so many of the stories told here is that although they have a remarkably child-like sense of innocence about them, they’re quite adult stories. If the fairy tale motif is a little overused then it’s the fairy stories of Tim Burton.
Actually, scratch that, because many of these tales do ‘fairy story’ considerably better than Tim Burton has recently.

Take the first piece, Michael Gagné’s wordless ‘Inner Sanctum’, a cute mix of sf and fable with echoes of Alexandro Jodorowsky’s work. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here (unless you’ve never read anything in comics except, say Tintin or X-Men), but there’s real imagination at work, such that you don’t know what might happen next.
It wasn’t my usual cup of tea, I have to say, being a bit too cutesy; as an opener, though, it’s a good choice.

‘Solomon Fix’, the next piece, by Doug TenNapel, is a step to one side in terms of style and content: more Ren And Stimpy to Gagné’s sweet anime. It’s surreal, again like Gagné, but in a more traditionally Western comic book style – comic (ha-ha), rather than cosmic. And it’s fun to read, too, starting out vaguely mirth-worthy and occasionally rising to slapstick brilliance (the scene with the butter and the cuckoo clock…I’m chuckling even as I think about it), and once again defying anyone to guess what could happen next.

The six pages of ‘Jelly Fruit’, by Catia Chien, feel somewhat slight after the relatively wordy marathon (it’s 27 pages) of ‘Solomon Fix’, and this story, more than any other, looks and feels like it was written for children. However, the unhelpful cat is quite cute, and there’s a quick and clean happy ending which means this story slips by easily enough.

I don’t want to cover every single story in the book (there are 33!) so let’s just pick out a few favourites that bob, raft-like, above the already-high average water level, shall we?

Well, funnily enough, it’s the very next story, ‘The Little Robot’, by Jake Parker, that was one of my favourites. Once again this is apparently a children’s story, told with economy and simplicity that leads to a charming final panel that will make you stop and smile, even if just for a moment. Jake Parker could teach many people in the comics business a thing or two about pace and timing, I think. There’s still no great philosophical depth here, only a very sweet story to loosen the most rust-encrusted bolt amongst you.

The most stereotypically comic book story here, ‘Monster Slayers’ by Khang Le also deserves a mention. Set in a mythical Japan, there’s a lot of visual and written humour running alongside a fun plot about hard-up monster hunters for hire.

It may tell you more about me than about Neil Babra’s piece ‘The Golden Temple’ when I say that this did very little for me. I’ve noticed that this has been a favourite of others who’ve read Flight Two, but this tale of an Indian ex-pat returning to a culture and place he perceives as somewhat alien to his (naturalized Canadian) experience rather slid past my eyes without making much impression. Blame the lack of monster-hunters or cute cats, or perhaps that, to a certain extent, it felt unfinished (it is the second part of a story begun in Flight One).

Don Hertzfeldt’s ‘”Dance of the Sugar Plums” Or Last Month On Earth’ certainly looks unfinished in comparison to everything else in Flight Two, using stickmen in a basic monochrome two-by-six panel grid. There’s no connection between panels, nor much sense to be made of individual ones either. Fans of sleek, mainstream, continuity-obsessed, computer-collared comics might not like this, but acid casualty fans of Purple Ronnie or David Shrigley might. As will mad people. This little slice is crazy enough and sufficiently different to stand out here, although I’m really not sure I’d want to read a whole one.

We’ve had a cute cat, but even a feline-philiac like myself has to admit that Doug Holgate’s cosmo-canine ‘Laika’ is clearly top dog here. If this were a movie the words ‘based upon the life of the first dog in space’ would be legally obliged to appear in large letters, since we depart from the actual events of the real Laika’s five hours spent in orbit right after panel one. Then it turns into a Tex Avery cartoon in space, albeit with a sting in its tail. Wonderfully hilarious stuff that had me laughing out loud at the visual jokes that proliferate throughout.

Johanne Matte and Ghislain Barbe’s ‘Mousetrap’ is a not dissimilar piece that works almost as well (just without such a cute protagonist), and I have to mention ‘The Flying Bride’ by Giuseppe Ferrario - an utterly manic slapstick comedy done in homage to the silent movies, complete with onscreen dialogue (an irony in itself, since comics can only use onscreen dialogue).

Pirates: not exactly an evergreen subject for comics, but recently they’ve been undergoing something of a renaissance within the genre (think Scurvy Dogs or My Monkey’s Name Is Jennifer) and Flight Two was never really going to get away without splicing a main-brace and keel-hauling a mizzen-mast or two (ahem). Who’d have thought that the meanest marauder on all the seven seas would be a ten-year-old girl, however? Only Ben Hatke in ‘The Plank’, I’ll wager, and well done to him for bringing this piratical pre-teen to our attention in such colourful and occasionally hilarious style.

If you’re not already a comics fan (or perhaps, especially if you’re already a comics fan but have never even heard of Image Comics) then Flight Two is a superlative introduction to some of the dimly lit corners in such a bright and dynamic genre. I mean, good grief, there’s only one tale of superheroes in the entire collection (‘A Test for Cenri’ by Amy Kim Ganter), and even that’s more High Fantasy than high-flying, so even irascible old Warren Ellis should be reasonably pleased (there’s not a nurse in sight!). And if the subject matter never really does more than scratch the surface that’s more a limitation of the short form being showcased here and not necessarily of the genre itself. Indeed, it’s certainly the great strength of this anthology: no single style, story or subject ever stays long enough or reappears sufficiently often enough for the reader to get bored. And, hey, if your jaded pallet should become wearied of a particular story then just skip ahead five pages to the next completely different one.

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