Thomas Herpich is a member of the old Meathaus collective, and I’ve long admired his thin line and frequently crazy storytelling choices. His new book, White Clay, is the third entry of a trilogy that includes Cusp and Gongwanadon. Herpich is also an illustrator and has been doing storyboards for Adventure Time, which has certainly been a big plus for the show. That’s one reason why this is the first comic featuring his work since 2004, barring a few anthology entries here and there. In the interceding period, Herpich’s work has matured and become more restrained while still hitting on similar themes and imagery: fantasy worlds, grim journeys, bad choices, and characters battling against their fate.
The opening story, “Robinson Crusoe”, an adaptation of a parable by Kafka, is just a single page, and it’s really just three images: an archer, a bird’s wing, and a shadowy image of a bird, which speak to the comic’s theme of survival and escape. “Doppelganger” and “Pilgrim II” are linked stories that deal with identity and escape. In the first, a man on the run is with another man who is creating (for a price) a doppelganger that will sit in prison for him, but he wonders from a philosophical standpoint if what he’s doing is wrong. The second story concerns the same man breaking out of prison, trying to hunt down his doppelganger to kill him and reclaim his life. While talking to a wise man, the thought and then the creeping understanding dawns that he’s the doppelganger. It’s a story whose construction is flawless; it’s obvious that years of doing storyboards have made Herpich a more sophisticated storyteller.
“Mensch” and “The Wedding Cauldron” are examples of just how comfortable Herpich is working in a fantasy milieu, even if both go way beyond the scope of a typical fantasy story. “Mensch” is about a soldier in some ancient war who falls and is replaced by a different version of himself, a better version who had been the better nature of himself that he had long ignored. Once again, the idea that there’s a better version of one’s self that’s lurking out there, waiting to take over comes to the fore in this comic. The real kicker is that Herpich convinces the reader that this other self deserves to take over. “The Wedding Cauldron” is about a man discovering these impish little shape-changing creatures who perform mischief at a wedding he doesn’t really want to be attending. The melancholy fellow feels his spirits lifted by following them into the forest, even as the imps are terrified that he will kill them, especially since one of their disguises works so poorly. Once again, Herpich is interested in people hiding and literally changing their identities, only it’s from an outside perspective this time around.
“White Clay”, “Should I”, “Should II”, and “Jumping” all are alike in their more elliptical storytelling but also link to other stories. The eagle we see in “Robinson Crusoe” returns in “White Clay”, whose second-person narration makes the story feel like almost a kind of hypnosis–like the kind of hypnosis performed on a doppelganger, perhaps. The “Should” stories involve a similar kind of narrative, with the first showing a world falling apart and the second seemingly belonging to an omniscient being who can manipulate language itself. Herpich varies his line weight and style depending on the story. He goes from sketchy in “Robinson Crusoe” to heavily spotting blacks in “Doppelganger” to using lots of negative space in “Mensch” to a refined, illustrative open panel approach in “Pilgrim II”.
The repeated motifs of escape and identity create a beautiful rhythm and pace in this comic. Everything about this comic is so assured and underplayed, the mark of an artist who’s become confident and comfortable with his style. That confidence gives the book’s uncertain, shifting-sands narratives a haunting quality; Herpich is not interested in leading the reader by the hand, but his storytelling is so strong that one can’t help but notice the motifs and connections made between stories in the collection. It’s another beautiful, well-designed book published by Chris Pitzer’s AdHouse Books, a publishing concern that doesn’t get enough credit for the overall quality of its books, especially over the past five years.