Work aimed towards the highly desired demographic of “All Ages” usually follows the same marketing-friendly formulas and resorts to the same winking irony. In popular culture, Pixar is most likely to blame, but comics have jumped on board, full steam ahead (Challenge: Go to your local comic shop’s kid’s section and look for a single story that doesn’t expound saccharine harmony, fairness, and righteousness. Bonus points if you don’t puke cotton candy up on the current KaBOOM! releases.) That’s what makes Night Air by Ben Sears, even at a breezy 64 pages, such a gratifying read: The action’s unflagging, the plot’s unsentimental, and the jokes are genuinely funny.
Sears starts the book with Plus Man, a striped-shirt-and-goggles-wearing kid of indeterminate age, straight-up hustling some ugly-looking mugs and monsters at poker. He’s caught and, along with his floating robot sidekick Hank, they do what comes most naturally to all of us — they run away.
Luckily, there’s plenty of room in this world to scurry to because Sears draws meticulously designed architectural landscapes as vast as physical page limitations let them be. Thick, craggy stucco buildings are drawn in Sears’ swervy super-thin line and serve the dual role of multi-colored playground and imposing panel decoration. These detailed set pieces also help with pacing. As the characters gawk in awe at the buildings before them or climb wearily up a set of spooky stairs, it allows the reader to catch their own breathe and realign. In a short, breakneck speed romp of a story, it’s appreciated.
Not every page has these massive castles and boxy train stations though. Some panels have no background at all and this is where a lesser artist would surely have lost me. The shift from detailed construct to minimal flat color adorning the backdrop could be jarring, or worse, look haphazard and unfinished. An example would be the page below where the middle tier of panels have a shade of orange, green, and blue behind Plus Man and his robot. Then the following panel goes back to the ornamented cement. This technique is used by Sears throughout the book, and only done on close-ups, using these empty backgrounds to highlight his character acting chops. Through excellent body language, Sears can somehow express disparate affects like desperation, smugness, and enthusiasm on a main character whose eyes are completely covered and whose mouth is nothing but a millimeter-long line.
This command of gesture also leads to most of the comedy. Night Air features humor of all sorts — dry, observational, physical — all with the fourth wall firmly intact. Sears’ characters never come into our living rooms to give us an elbow nudge or knowing eye roll. No, they force the reader to go to them and enter a land full of thrifting reapers, self-doubting ghouls, and toilet gags. After getting some tips on how to score some alloys, exploring a haunted library, and befriending some sentient body parts, the only big twist in this comic is an invigorating one — it’s that the stakes are so low. Sears never leads us to believe that anyone’s in real intense danger, and with that comes relief and, more importantly, trust. We aren’t being manipulated by a seismic “everything’s going to change” claim. There are no games being played on the readers of Night Air because Sears has remarkably created a story devoid of all cynicism.
Near the end of the book, Plus Man uses explosives to free himself from a dungeon, but also subsequently blows up all the surrounding treasure. He matter-of-factly says, “I’m real bummed about all that, but it ended up being a fun night.” Fun is what Ben Sears self-assuredly created with Night Air and all without ceremoniously trying to make his book something capital-I Important. There are no lessons here. Just joy.
I’m nostalgic for things not beholden to nostalgia. I want to read adventure comics without the guilt of knowing that the original creators died flat broke and drowning in menacing legalese. I want to laugh at jokes that aren’t slathered in sanctimonious pandering. Frankly, I’m on the lookout for fun comics with no icky strings attached. So thank goodness for Night Air.