I’m a late-comer to Ryan Cecil Smith’s comics, so the Journal‘s readers will have to pardon me for having failed to master the faux emotional distancing required to examine the man’s work clinically. It’s all too fresh; I’m still flush with the excitement that comes from seeing something new for the first time, still unclenching after months of worrying that I might never get hold of whatever skill it is that helps comics reviewers find these holy gems of greatness that lurk amongst the sea of trivial mini-comics. I don’t mind playing catch-up–I’ve been doing it my whole reading life, and I’m old enough to have accepted that “trailblazing” isn’t an adjective a future stonemason will etch into my tombstone–but I’m still going to get excited when I come across the works of an unknown all by myself, and that’s what happened here.
Ryan Cecil Smith first came to my attention due to familiarity–not with him, but with Kazuo Umezu, whose story “Blood Baptism” had served as inspiration for an exercise in adaptation that Smith has published in two parts so far. That series, “Two Eyes of the Beautiful”, remains one of the most unnerving pieces of fan-art I’ve read–beyond the plot, Smith’s panels in and of themselves read like adaptations of Umezu’s tempo and pitch, copying the emotional noise that Umezu’s work resonates with, all while ignoring the obvious temptation to directly clone his cartooning. It’s an unusual exercise similar to the way a musician might work through a great cover song, while stopping long before becoming as uninspired as a bad cover band.
SF, Smith’s most recent self-published comic, opens with another adaptation, but in this case the source material was birthed in Dallas, not Japan. In a brief (too brief!) two pages, he adapts the opening minutes of Wolfenstein 3D, the watershed first-person shooter that for all intents and purposes defined my expectations of what video games could, should and were best at doing. Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m comfortable admitting that my only interest in a video game boils down to whether or not it plays like Wolfenstein and its brethren. All other ships, Madden included, will find my ports unwelcoming.
Smith’s interest in Wolfenstein doesn’t last beyond those first two glorious pages, but there’s a definite sense that the onward, always-attacking Christian Soldiers religion that saw BJ Blazkowicz (the game’s bloodthirsty Nazi-slaughtering protagonist) as its patron saint has infected SF’s cast of characters, especially Ace, this issue’s lead. A sharp dressed actioneer whose head resembles a less engorged version of Eric Fogel’s ’90s MTV cartoon victim-protagonist, Ace spends almost all of SF’s first issue on the attack–yanking clipboards off walls, knocking the wind out of the very people he’s protecting in the middle of a gun battle, sentencing and then carrying out the total annihilation of a couple of dumb wannabe space muggers, breaking the intergalactic speed limit the whole time. All of his behavior pales in comparison to the scene where he constructs an intricate (and apparently flawless) anthropomorphic hippo costume, all so that he can get close enough to a desk to create total mayhem.
If you’re asking why he doesn’t just use the disguise and walk through customs, you just missed the joke.
SF’s plot doesn’t shine through as clearly as its protagonists’ personalities, but if you’ll pardon a bit of interpretation, you’d be hard pressed to prove that plot is the point here. Self-published genre comics are a mug’s game–the audience for science fiction having all but abandoned comics for the higher level of frequency (and if we’re not being completely full of shit, the higher level of craft) that television and film streams directly to their homes. It would be a mistake to think Smith is unaware of that, and the comic’s physical construction itself would seem to point to a creator who is fully cognizant that he can’t compete against the Future Shocks of Tharg or the Metabarons of Jodorowsky on the level of visual bombast and explicit starborn machinery. Instead, he’s got the immediacy of the black-and-white newspaper stock, the emotional mechanics that self-publication’s beleaguered history always set to work in the reader’s mind, that vibrant awareness that this is space, committed to page with no focus group or barrier between audience and artist.
These probably aren’t the comics the many spend the days looking for. But for the some, SF (and the rest of Smith’s current output) will feel like Uncle Scrooge’s vault: a place of joy, worth drowning in.