In the heady late-aughts days of Brandon Graham’s WordPress blog Royal Boiler, he’d freely post sketch pages, previews of upcoming work (typically King City panels), and personal work anecdotes — but he’d also act as a curator. Each post usually included a bunch of scans of comics he’d found in stores or somewhere online: old-school manga, bandes desinee, comics from the ’80s black-and-white indie boom, or whatever high-profile recent releases caught his eye, all with his own personal notes on what he liked about the character design or line weight or background detail. Like Scorsese in film and Questlove in music, it seems like Graham’s the kind of artist who seems as intent on preserving and advocating for his medium as he is in adding to it.
The first issue of Island has a goofy little intro piece by Graham, that semi-explains the origins of the new project he co-edits with Emma Ríos: a little lizard-esque self-caricature emerges from a photo collage of Graham’s own real-life mouth and is met with an offer from “the all-being that will grant you ultimate freedom to do whatever you wish with your time on this Earth!” The Graham-critter opts for helming a “Fortfortnightly (monthly)” comics magazine, a solid second option after having decided that first choice cannibalism is probably a bit much. It’s glib humor, a little dopey on the surface, but like all retold jokes, it really benefits from the original delivery — rapidfire dialogue, panel-to-panel timing, sly little gestures and ’50s-Mad reference upon callback upon in-joke marginalia.
It’s the obvious-yet-rewarding stuff that makes Graham’s work so engaging, but even with a significant chunk of Multiple Warheads world-building making an appearance in the middle of this issue, it’s not the sensibility that gives Island #1 its common thread. Instead, it’s the feeling, best expressed in the science-fiction-flavored works in this debut issue, that plunging into a sprawling and exotic (yet familiar-enough) world can hit hardest when you put the lore further in the background than the characters’ day-to-day lives. The three major fictional works in Island #1 look and operate in terms similar to ours—the presence of anthropomorphic animals or off-world mining colonies notwithstanding—and are just enigmatic enough that they make the reader wish they could go exploring this off-kilter city with their protagonist inhabitants.
Emma Ríos’s ID is the most promising story here, drawn in a naturalistic yet subtly unsettling style done in tones of red that keeps its dystopia in the background — at least until it literally crashes through the front door. The finer details are what demand the initial focus, especially in the fifteen-panel vignette at the outset of the story, zoomed in tight on characters’ expressions and body language. The unease each one of them carries is subtle but palpable, faraway stares darting around and anxious fingers worrying brows. The early chapters of the story set efficient scenes, small talk expertly unspooling into subtly conversational exposition and culminating in a series of slow-boiling emotional crests that get to the core of the story’s sci-fi trappings — particularly around the three main protagonists’ decisions to undergo body-swapping procedures. (One has gender dysphoria, one wants to escape his past, and one claims that her motivation is that she’s “bored to death”.) Where the story’s leading isn’t obvious yet, aside from a looming series of clashes between protesters and riot cops that point to a wider sense of peril. But it is intriguing, and seeing it flow from expressively blocked conversations to sweeping, dynamic moments of startling action — culminating in some astonishing bird’s-eye/worm’s-eye views of the city the characters pass through — only heightens the scope of a story with only three named characters.
At the other end of the scale, Ludroe’s “Dagger Proof Mummy” is pure stylized pulp action, a prelude to something that seems like it should be more vividly populated — in fact, the city in this particular comic is the most fascinating character. Brutalist concrete angles, disused freeways, and enigmatic graffiti from long-absent taggers dominate the landscape like the Tokyo-to of Jet Set Radio post-neutron bomb. The titular (and very literally named) vigilante, the on-edge knife-slinging cat-people, and the young woman skater at the center of the story traverse the city like its worn-down casualties. “This place used to have so much energy,” writes the skater in her journal, addressing a mysteriously vanished mentor. “Everything sucks now that you’re gone. The spots are all dead.” True in storyline, but ironically false in depiction — the spots themselves are drawn with distorted perspective that bends to fast-moving characters’ restless vanishing points, high-contrast spot blacks softened by monochrome gradients, straight-line hatching running down the walls like the textures of concrete poured into wooden casting forms. That the characters’ personalities haven’t been given the same fleshed-out treatment just yet isn’t the biggest knock if you look at it from the skater-culture perspective Ludroe’s coming from, where terrain itself can have an identity and the stage completes the presence of the player.
An installation of Multiple Warheads sits at the center of Island #1, and it works as something of a stand-alone piece even if you haven’t caught up with the characters and their absurdist setting. Graham’s created a preposterous fantasy world using elaborate puns as his building blocks — a shop called The Manticorner, conversation-muting silentils, a swamp-dwelling fox-taur that tries to drown characters in faux tar. Imagine Moebius’s work dosed by Pedro Bell, Sergio Aragones, and Akira Toriyama. It can get a bit overwhelming until it becomes clear that it’s best to read each Graham comic twice: first for the plot, then again for all the weird, busy little details. It eventually sinks in that even through this absurdist jokescape and its elaborate architecture of Russian nesting puns, the day-to-day life of shopping, doing odd jobs, and feeling adrift when your significant other’s away can fuel a very distinct sense of homesickness.
If Island were just a collection of comic stories, it’d be a decent start to something that could hopefully build on itself, a series of stylistic co-signs that point the way towards another way of doing comics in a mainstream-adjacent but still iconoclastic style. But there’s another sense of grounding here, in how the anthology highlights the ways comics can engage and affect creators in real life, how they can build community and expand aesthetics and philosophies. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s contribution, “Railbirds”, is a brief, Ríos-illustrated tribute essay on the impact of the late poet Maggie Estep on DeConnick’s own work and identity as a writer, and how their friendship — even during trips to the horse races — opened new possibilities and perspectives and taught her about how stories come together and how causality falls apart. And even if Marian Churchland’s contribution to this anthology is a cameo this time around, the way she sets the mood with two double-page spreads of painterly abstraction hinting at roiling seas expands the visual storytelling past traditional (or nontraditional) comics.
Graham appends the collection by sharing his characteristically inspiring views on the process of creating comics, leading off with a Fellini quote (from where else but Heavy Metal?)—”I have to recreate [Venice in a studio] because I have to put myself in it”—before explaining his own enthusiasm for grounding fantastical characters and worlds in grounded situations (“tactile things, eating, drinking or pooping – or just interacting with the objects around them”). There are bigger things in this world than just ourselves, and there are bigger worlds around the characters in all these stories, other concurrent stories that could be told on another plane of the landscape or somewhere behind the panel. The more that Island explores these multi-leveled stories, and the possibility-filled worlds they exist inside, the bigger it will feel.