As origin stories are often told and retold in as many series as publishers can muster, I remain struck by Grant Morrison's first issue of All-Star Superman. While Superman is a character that has existed in the popular consciousness for decades, all Morrison required to tell the character's origin was 1 page--on it, 4 wide panels with 4 succinct captions.
An even more impressive feat is to introduce us to the origins of the universe, the universe's largest threat, and the man who is out to stop that threat--and requiring only 1 more page to do so. Then, after the concise yet descriptive captions, the storytellers go one step further by telling us all we need to know about the book's sense of humor with the main character's first line: "Huh?"
The storytellers in question are Brian Churilla and Jeremy Shepherd, and the book is The Engineer: Konstrukt, a handsome hardcover collection from Archaia. The Engineer (a former cosmonaut) has been enlisted by three slithery, sinister cosmic harpies known as the "Witch Sisters." His mission: to retrieve the components that form the Konstrukt: a device that allows its bearer to shape reality as s/he sees fit. The stakes: it's the only thing in the universe that can stop the Lahar, an "immense sentient entity (that) feeds on the very fabric of space time" that will return the universe to the nothingness from which it sprang.
And yet, when dealing with such grand stakes, it does a story good to keep a strong sense of humor. With the aid of an anxious top-hat-wearing robot ally, mutant bats, gargantuan crab monsters, an angry village mob, an interdimensional pipe organ, and a positively inexplicable fetish for chickens, Churilla and Shepherd give us exactly the well executed absurdist humor that makes a story like this a sheer joy to read. The jokes are never out of place and are not born out of snark for snark's sake. Rather, they help forge our path through this strange, fantastic world.
As to the art (Churilla illustrates, Shepherd colors), I've seen others note stylistic similarities with Mignola, Oeming, and Powell, and these are all well-warranted comparisons. The panel construction creates well paced exposition, dramatic suspense, well staged action, and wry comedic timing, all with equal aplomb. There's also just the right amount of detail in every panel while maintaining a wonderfully expressive cartoony design. And the rich reds and vibrant blues rocket those panels right off each and every page.
But there's one more parallel I'd add to the list above, because when I read this book, I can't help but think of Kirby. I don't mean the artistic style here; instead, I'm referring to the book's overall sensibility. Even though this book has its roots in and references to many comics or sci-fi stories past, not for a second does it feel derivative or imitative. This is a book of bold, boundless fun, and that was Kirby's stock-in-trade. And, while there are a ton of fine comics in the marketplace, we can never have enough--and should never stop demanding--books of bold, boundless fun.
This is, on no uncertain terms, one of the best books you likely haven't read yet. This is the book that smart comic shops are recommending to their regulars. This is the book that deserves an even wider audience than that, and I sincerely hope it finds one.
Increasingly innovative publisher Archaia has certainly released this collection with that in mind. Coming in at over 130 pages, you'll find all three issues of the 1st volume, a hilarious backup story, bonus pinups (including one by Matt Wagner), a behind-the-scenes sketchbook section, all sandwiched in a lovely hardcover binding. All for a $9.95 cover price.
You now officially have no excuse not to purchase this book.
With any form of media--be it novels, comics, music, movies--the more you expose yourself to over time, the more you'll hunger for something to surprise you. The Engineer is one of those great surprises. I can't wait to see where these gents take us in the next volume, and I thank them for giving us this one.
Next time: A look at Jason Shiga's newest book, Meanwhile, which I believe is the first choose-your-own adventure comic, and is certainly one of the most formally elaborate comics ever created.