So let’s grill some hash on the subject of The Secret Voice Volume One, a comic of my recent acquaintance by Zack Soto. It is published by Floating World Comics, and although I can’t remember if I’ve ever laid my hands on anything they’ve put together previous, I see from a few minutes browsing their website that they’re publishing Mat Brinkman now. Which, now that PictureBox is no more, gives me a place to spend my surplus income, should said income ever reappear from its long trip circumnavigating the globe in the company of an eccentric industrialist.
Seemingly a random string of associations - or is it??? It took me a while to get my arms around The Secret Voice. It was gnawing at me that I couldn’t quite make up my mind about it. I don’t mean in any kind of qualitative way, mind - it’s a good-to-great book that really needs a strong sequel. I say that because the book ends mid-conversation, with a group of characters getting ready to take a trip, which is ideally the kind of thing you’d only do if you were absolutely certain you’d be able to cash that check. Now, it’s certainly not as if the book doesn’t advertise its partiality - the Volume One is right there in the title, after all. But, inasmuch as I think I have a “grip” on what is actually going on here - and, it commanded my attention sufficient to make it through two readings, which is actually quite high praise - the story being set in motion is a pretty big one. These characters and their world are large, and just the bare bones of the skeleton outlined here point in the direction of at least a half-dozen more such volumes down the line.
All of which is to say - because I was actually sucked in (perhaps despite my better judgment!) - I want to see what happens to these guys, how goes the war against Wux Heng and his Smog Empire. The main dude, covered in bandages for most of the story (kind of like Negative Man, even down to the red jumpsuit), is Doctor Isaac Galapagos. He’s a member of the Red College, the center of magical knowledge and power on this world, who are also coordinating the resistance to Wux Heng.
But why, you may be asking, did it take me so long to get my sea legs with the book, so to speak? It doesn’t usually take me two full read-throughs to make up my mind on a story. But then it finally came to me, as I was loading the dishwasher, because that’s when my best thoughts percolate: what was itching at the back of my brain in re: The Secret Voice. It maybe wasn’t the book itself that was puzzling me, but that the book had tripped a chain of associations leading me back a decade and a half to Fort Thunder, which also should explain why I mentioned Mat Brinkman in the first paragraph.
That Fort Thunder seemed to strange at the time was partly a product of the 90s hangover the comics cognoscenti was suffering through. It was as much a question of genre as anything else. What else is Teratoid Heights but a fantasy comic? There’s a penurious, parsimonious tone to so much contemporary fantasy, even and especially fantasy in the supposed “mainstream” of the culture, and double especially fantasy originating anywhere near comics. So much fantasy in every field is simply embarrassed by what it is, unsure how it works, unwilling to place any dramatic heft on the levers of the fantastic. Like . . . you get the feeling sometimes (ok, a lot of the time) that the people who make some of our most popular and enduring fantasy entertainments don’t have a lot of respect for the genre. Because they begrudge the reader - or viewer, or audience - the fact that we want to see fun stuff like dragons and wizards and monsters. And you know the stories I’m talking about. They leave a sour taste in your mouth for having the temerity to actually want to see something, y’know, cool.
It’s that dang 90s hangover, man. Fort Thunder was ultimately a bunch of RISD kids getting high and drawing pictures of monsters hanging out in caves. And that’s what brought me back to The Secret Voice: the opening sequence is a leisurely tour of an underground warren of troll caves and subterranean rivers. The first six pages are almost wordless. There’s a freedom to that meandering which works to the book’s favor. How many fantasy stories do you pick up that begin with five minutes of expository infordump? The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies get away with it, but unless you are literally adapting Tolkien it’s never a good idea to abuse your audience’s patience before you’ve given them any reason to trust you. Far from an expository overload, the book eases into the story by exploring an environment. Somewhere between Brinkman and Brian Ralph, Soto allows imaginative page layout and atmosphere to carry the weight.
It’s a nice feeling, that, actually getting sucked into a story via tone and atmosphere, as opposed to sitting down with a book and receiving a homework assignment in the form of fictional genealogy and royal hagiography. The true appeal of The Secret Voice is not, as multiple readings reveal, that all that stuff isn’t there - y’know, fictional genealogy and royal hagiography - but that it doesn’t make a nuisance of itself, and, rather, is thin enough on the ground throughout the early passages as to be actually alluring. What a concept - actually wanting to know more than the author tells you! How ingenious.
If I’ve been a bit scant with details from the plot, it’s because the plot itself takes a while to get going, and much of Soto’s fun comes in slowly unwinding those connections. The aforementioned Doctor Galapagos is a battle wizard on a diplomatic mission to raise support for the war against Wux Heng. The book’s first sequence, an adventure in the depths with the cave trolls, is actually a bit of a feint. But it’s nonetheless a good way to introduce Doctor Galapagos to the reader - a powerful fellow with some serious problems. He’s got a secret wife and a talking bird familiar sidekick, so consequently a fair amount to recommend him.
What I like about 2019, if we can come full circle on this, is that a talented and imaginative cartoonist like Soto can just put out a good fantasy comic without it necessarily getting shoveled into one or more silos by virtue of its genre. It’s a thoughtful and imaginative work of fantasy that transmits on a frequency completely its own. Although I know how it is, life gets in the way, et al, I’ll be eager to see Volume Two cross my transom nonetheless.