Xombi #1

First and foremost, Xombi #1 is an object lesson in how modern mainstream comics can be good in almost every way, and still come out unsatisfying. There isn't much wrong with the book on paper. It's got a highly talented artist in Frazer Irving, and an underrated, rock-solid writer in John Rozum. It stars a character most readers are more or less unfamiliar with, which means its creators are working from the ground up rather than merely building new scaffolds around something. And it's a relaunch of a property that's never had a definitive, unmatchable run of issues but hasn't yet been beaten bloody with too many tries for one -- prime real estate in superhero comics.  The concept is even rather novel: not quite a superhero comic, it mines the same paranormal-investigator-with-uncanny-abilities vein that Mike Mignola's pulled so many riches from with Hellboy, chronicling a technologically enhanced slacker/scientist's collisions with the shuddery, psychedelic forces that lie beyond the pale.  In this issue, those forces manifest themselves as undead trick-or-treaters, malevolent light projections, and the shrunken-down inhabitants of dollhouse prisons. It's a bizarre reading of action comics that ends up with the hero not punching anything, but instead sticking a floor lamp into the air while covering his eyes — and the change of pace is quite refreshing.  Given the mainstream's current anemic state, it might be going too far to declare any new series' launch environment an auspicious one. But like I said, Xombi looks pretty good on paper.

It doesn't look too shabby between the covers, either, its pages heralding Irving's arrival at a fully formed version of the high-contrast, color-drenched photo-realism that's surfaced in his art recently. Black linework is used sparingly or not at all, popping up only in an outline here or a solid dark patch there, while swirling gradients of hot pink and silvery blue sculpt forms and dictate texture and contour. Irving's computer-drawn artwork is so fascinating in part because the sophistication of his digital tools has evolved as quickly as his actual drafting skill; technology that just a few years ago looked stretched to the limit by painting indistinct, smoky backgrounds and building simple, blocky forms can now drop glowing waves of color over the subtle curves and indentations of a perfect human figure, blanketing everything in naturalistic light patterns that come in unearthly hues.

Irving's art has become a seamless fusion of man and machine, and while this is represents a definite victory for craft (not to mention that it's extremely pretty to look at), there's something missing from the intricate, flawlessly rendered lighting and unerring deep focus of these panels. The element of friction, the awkwardness that came from Irving's imperfect incorporation of computer drawing into comics art has always been one of the most interesting aspects of his work—a silent current running through it, barely noticeable before it disappeared. The realistic subtlety Irving's capable of pulling from his software these days is certainly more impressive than the cruder work he was doing last decade, but I'm not sure it looks as good as the strange, abrupt version of Impressionism that his older comics were stuck to. Below, compare two Irving sequences of strange happenings in dark alleyways, the first from Xombi and the second from Robin #158, which is cover-dated March 2006 (that's the month one Jack Dorsey created Twitter, just so you have an idea of where the digital world was at the time):

There's no denying that the Xombi sequence is the work of a more accomplished artist. The linework is surer and has a greater dynamic range, the color manages naturalism and pop in one fell swoop, and the environment is fully realized, its every element highly detailed and perfectly consistent from frame to frame.  By comparison, the Robin sequence looks off-balance, amateur. That said, I see more graphic power in the suffocating golden soup Irving drowns his earlier work in, computer color spread so thick it goes past mere depiction and becomes a living presence in the panels, floating right alongside the characters, vying with them for attention.  And I can't help being drawn further in by deep blacks and handmade marks than I am by perfect digital shadowing and drapery. What once was rough and choppy and surprising is now polished and smooth. And regularized. Where Irving's art has gained illustrative grace, it's lost some of its unrestrained visual smack, the sense that not only did nothing else in hero comics look like this, nothing else was capable of looking this odd.

I highly doubt that Irving's evolution toward illustrative sophistication, his pushing of digital comics art from base weirdness into naturalistic elegance, is at all mandated. He's a consummate craftsman, and to be quite honest this kind of evolution doesn't happen unless an artist is really picking at something. But Irving's abandonment of what was perhaps a more interesting style for something more realistic and technologically advanced is a strong parallel to the way of things at the two big corporate comics companies, where line-wide advancement and digital marketing strategies are trumping content in the press releases these days.

It's also a good lens to view the rest of Xombi through: this is an interesting, well-made comic that doesn't quite know when to stop itself. Rozum deftly avoids the first-issue trap of over-explaining what's going on, opting instead for the Grant Morrison mode of flinging out high-concept ideas like confetti and hoping readers will be swept along by the sheer speed and energy of things. To a point, it's a successful approach. Xombi certainly feels more densely packed and exciting than the average DC pamphlet, but the non sequitur plotting (the villain catches "semicolon cancer" from a book!) and oddball quips (the hero makes sure to tell us he doesn't have to urinate!) end up obstructing the sense of forward narrative flow through their sheer volume alone. That's fine, I guess -- these things never have much forward motion to them anyway, not when the next adventure is always right around the corner -- and make no mistake, Xombi is more interesting as both a read and an aesthetic object than most of the rest of its genre at the moment.

It just feels... blocked, somehow. Unnecessary callbacks to past (and out-of-print) continuity slow things to a crawl a few pages in. The cliffhanger hits just as things are getting interesting, not at a climax or twist.  Brendan McCarthy drew a great cover, but it's a variant edition that most people won't even know exists. The computer lettering font clashes with Irving's art. There's one easy explanation for all these flaws: this is a monthly comic published by a huge company with a line-wide standard to maintain, and that means things like back-story referencing, regular 22-page installments no matter what, collector-exclusive cover art, letters that ignore the aesthetic potential of their own craft.

This comic could have been a lot better -- so could they all. It's easy enough to ignore the limitations if you're used to them, and the vast majority of this book's audience is. Personally, I think I'm a little too far gone to get much out of this kind of comic, but there's no denying that it's a cut above as a piece of commercial craftsmanship. It's laudable on that level, and if you've never engaged with anything but comics that are intended as product first and art second (or can just forget that you have for ten minutes), it's top-of-the-line stuff.  Basically, Xombi is what it is, and that only becomes a problem when you step back and take it as part of an entire medium rather than its genre alone. It's a troubling thing to condemn a comic for existing as a certain type of entertainment -- especially when its creators are obviously doing their damnedest to make something of actual value -- but when tropes preclude enjoyment, it's just as hard to figure out what else to do.


6 Responses to Xombi #1

  1. Paul Reeve says:

    I get the impression that you haven’t read the previous run of Xombi and are maybe judging it against your expectation of what it’s going to be, ie a superhero comic.

    I base this on you saying “a property that’s never had a definitive, unmatchable run of issues but hasn’t yet been beaten bloody with too many tries for one” – this seems a slightly strange thing to say about a comic that’s only had one run and one creative team (apart from maybe a different artist on a zero issue? – it’s been many years since I read it). For me, that was a definitive run and the new one will struggle to match it, despite Irving’s excellent art. (The original is well worth picking up if you can find it – takes a few issues to find its feet.)

    I don’t think Xombi was ever a superhero comic in any conventional sense (YMMV) and I don’t think you should judge it or condemn it as such. I think the valid criticism you make is with the format, but maybe that just means you would have been better off holding off on a review until it’s developed a little.

    Mind you, I have no doubt its cancellation will be announced in the next 2 or 3 months.



  2. David Fairbanks says:

    I find it interesting that your self-proclaimed venture into superhero comics is with Xombi, of all things. I don't really want to argue with you, but a lot of your points have simple rebuttals to them:

    Irving's art- My first exposure to Irving was in the Klarion The Witch Boy mini for Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers (2005). The only significant differences I can see in his work between then and now is an increase in background detail and that Irving seems to be drawing more detailed/unique faces (the exception being that Xombi looks eerily like Dr. Hurt in at least one or two panels). We still have panels dominated by color schemes almost as much as they are by linework. You chose to highlight a piece from when he worked on Robin, but looking at Klarion and Gutsville, that Robin issue doesn't seem representative (and your praise for it seemed to be that it was… messy?). I get the whole "craft is the enemy" thing. I read The Cute Manifesto and agree with much of it, but I feel like you're pretty off the mark on Irving's progress as an artist.

    I don't really know how to address your issue with the callbacks. I didn't notice them. I assume they are the bits of backstory we get in the beginning, but considering that I knew nothing about Xombi before reading this book, I read them and thought "okay, this could be important for later." For all I knew, they were foreshadowing and groundwork for things to come. It's entirely possible that everything mentioned occurred in the previous Xombi series, but there's no way of knowing that from the current issue.

    Your disappointment with the cliffhanger seems to stem from the creative team doing their job. They had a story they wanted to tell in more than 1 issue. They made it so that you wanted to read more (unless, for some reason, your interest died because you were told you'd have to wait 4 weeks to satisfy your curiosity). Your complaint lies with the distribution method (because the monthly comic book is not a *genre* any more than the newspaper strip is). It is a method that is dying, but there is not a comfortable transition rate between monthlies and graphic novels.

    If you want to attack genre conventions, you might want to read a book that's actually in the superhero genre (your comparison to Hellboy, a supernatural adventure comic, felt far more appropriate). If you dislike story limitations due to the method of distribution, well, maybe you should write about that. Instead, what you're doing is saying that this book is somehow not good enough, and then allow yourself to ignore people who disagree by saying that the intended audience is ignoring the limitations. I'm aware of the limitations of the monthly distribution method, I just don't let them inhibit my ability to enjoy a story.

  3. mattseneca says:

    @ Paul – read a few issues a while back. They didn't move me. "Definitive" was the wrong word to use, since a title's single run is obviously also the definitive one, no matter its quality. I think folks can figure out what I mean by that, though — a classic, telegraphing run of issues that cements the character in the popular (or at least the superhero comics-reading) consciousness. And if Xombi, a book about a man with extranormal abilities having adventures and fighting evil, isn't a superhero comic, then I don't know what it is.

    @David – thanks for your thoughts. I'm not gonna get nitpicky rebutting you, but re Irving's art, I don't think Craft is the enemy at all. Far from it. But I do think that the way Irving's color spotting has moved from flat blocks and abstract digital texturing into photorealistic shadowing takes something away from the total effect.

    Hellboy is a superhero comic.

  4. nick marino says:

    Interesting observations about the comic… I don't agree that it was blocked, but I think you raise some good points about ways it could be stronger. BUT with that said, I think those ways would almost certainly have to involve different creative sensibilities behind it. And in that regard, I think any book could be better with the advent of different creative sensibilities behind the wheel…

  5. s_hirsch says:

    Hi Matt,

    Nice review.

    I'm not entirely with you on your characterization of Irving's art here. It has evolved and perhaps tightened in certain ways, but I don't think "photorealistic shadowing" or "naturalism" are among those ways. I'm seeing the same "flat blocks" and "abstract digital texturing" in Xombi as in B&R or Klarion, or the Robin sample you provide. Look at those yellow buildings in Xombi's alley sequence – one flat block of yellow without any kind of photorealistic or naturalistic shading or depth at all. The real difference is the minimal linework delineating outlines within that block. That green/black stairway-seahorse door sequence is also far from naturalism – that lighting, and especially the framing in the second panel, are straight out of Dr. Caligari's Cabinet.

    The reference to German Expressionism/silent horror film leads to the issue of the art's context. By stepping back and considering Irving's work here as a component of a unified Irving oeuvre, you're leaving out the uniqueness of the context he works in – his job is illustrating other people's stories; there's a tension between the integrity of his work and the demands of the particular project he's working on – a project that's not really his idea.

    I share your attraction to what seems to be a kind of weird, rough, let-the-seams-show, Photoshop art brut strain in contemporary comics art (recent McCarthy and Chaykin come to mind alongside Irving), and maybe one reason Irving on Xombi doesn't seem as strikingly odd or weird as usual is because of the nature of the project…maybe the weirdness is most refreshingly jarring when it shows up in a classic, straight superhero book like Robin, whereas here it's a fitting component of a project that's meant to be weird, and so rendered less unfamiliar or defamilarizing due to the context. Also, doesn't that Robin section you show look like Richard Corben?

    I'm not sure how this might affect your argument, but Irving also seems to be getting more playful and experimental with panels and layout in Xombi – I'm particularly thinking of the bit in the apartment near the beginning where he's going through the kitchen.

  6. s_hirsch says:

    Another, more general comment:

    As you point out, the conflict between commercial concerns (often crass and cynical, on the verge of insulting)/genre conventions/tropes on the one hand and singular artistic vision/creative integrity/originality on the other can frustrate, thwart, and otherwise grind away one's interest in and enjoyment of superhero/adventure/big2 comics, and this is especially true when you're following the career of an admired writer or artist.

    But on the other hand this conflict can be pretty interesting – there's a lot to think about in the often frustrating or disappointing but occasionally – surprisingly – wonderful ways that the media conglomerate and the individual artist accommodate one another, negotiating this tension and putting something out into the world.

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