Benjamin Schipper was a name unknown to me until I came across Joe Death and the Graven Image in the Dark Horse section of the Previews catalog, but his cartooning's charm was immediate. The moment the book truly made sense for me, though, came some time after I read the book, when I learned that this published version is at the very least the third time that Schipper rewrote and redrew this story to completion, having been working on it—self-publishing iterations and parts thereof, each stylized within the same milieu but using different approaches and dialects—since about 2017.
For one, it made an extra-narrative part of the book much more obvious: the book concludes on a letter from the author, extolling the virtues and importance of independent cartooning while also, more sincerely and blatantly than one is perhaps used to, asking readers to keep supporting these independent creators and resist the charms of the conveyor belt of corporate narrative. It's a letter I feel admittedly conflicted about; it's the sort of entreaty with whose systemically-phrased surface I agree, but whose underlying intent appears to be more personally-aimed. It's as though Schipper synonymizes himself with the entirety of the system he exists within, even though his work is in no way esoteric in style, designed such as it is through its influences to garner an immediate appeal. But I find myself harboring more sympathy for this double message than I would expect from myself. It's hard to read Joe Death and the Graven Image and not see an incomplete story and an incomplete creator, a cartoonist on the cusp of achieving a fuller understanding of his artistic identity. His letter reflects not just an entirely-valid fear for one's income, but something, I am tempted to say, more existential: an anxious plea for a chance to catch up with himself.
Mike Mignola's influence, as is often the case, looms large over Joe Death, right down to the "unearthly beast attempting moral ascent" protagonist from whose past emerges an implied nature-or-nurture arc. The two artists seem to be similarly compelled by the pulpy rendition of folklore - indeed, the fundamental overlap between pulp and folklore, being quick-and-easy modes of narrative communication. Where Mignola's springboard is the action hero subset of pulp, Schipper opts for a post-western aesthetic, setting his story in a historically-arrested desert world, signifying an American west in a world that does not appear to have an America. Populating this world with various species and classes, Schipper excels at allowing their dynamics and tensions to emerge through interaction, allowing himself an escape from awkward exposition, though at some points his tendency to excite himself result in the buckling of his own narrative. Schipper gets lost in his own detours and only partially knows how to regain his initial footing - and, much as it is enjoyable to see a creator get that much of a kick out of the world they built, it leaves the reader at least momentarily disoriented. By the time late in the story that our titular Joe saves the baby whose abduction served as the plot's kickstart, the reader takes a moment to remember: huh, yeah, there was a baby in all of this, some time ago, and they are the object of our protagonist's mission, tangled within rows of encounters and confrontations. Excitement, such as it is, becomes the enemy of its own urgency; Schipper attempts the organic unveiling of backstory, but loads his story with so much back that he loses sight of its front, causing both to lose some of their potency.
Artistically, Schipper plays a game of influence and influenced, the sort of pleasurably-familiar artist whose work lends itself to comparison while making it clear that comparison is only a form of reduction, neither conducive nor accurate in any real way. The fundament of his line bears a faint tremor, from which emerges a long row of descriptors to which we might liken his work: his command of the geometry of rich shadows brings Mignola to mind (complete with Stewartesque coloring, rich and evocative with an understated flatness, although Schipper appears more amenable to the occasional gradient), with the rest of his environmental skills tending toward a craggy flatness that recalls Artyom Trakhanov, another successor to Mignola who has managed rather entirely to diverge into an independent existence, alchemically integrating, among others, the hyper-angular two-dimensionality of Mick McMahon and the nigh-fatamorganic shimmer of Sergio Toppi. The characters that populate Schipper's world, however, are far less geometrical: an underlying slinking rubber hose anatomy possessed of sliced-pie eyes and a defined lank to their features, rendered with a much more simplified articulation of details, scratching lines setting Joe Death apart from overt pastiche. I can keep on with this stylistic cataloging, but I don't care to miss the forest for any trees, visually appealing as those may be; most impressive is not the breadth of Schipper's aesthetic intents, but the fact that he manages a visual cohesion with all of his moving parts, finding identity where some might find incongruity.
Far be it from me to declare an author as seeing himself in his protagonist, but it is clear that Joe Death and the Graven Image, as a project, bears more significance to its creator than the purely textual; it is a vessel for pulp-minded self-articulation, at a time when creative self-realization—for its own sake and as its own means and end independent of corporate IP grip—is regarded more and more as an indulgence and an act of anti-commerce. (Even within Schipper's own home publisher; I don't think I would be out of pocket in noting that Star Wars is more "important" to the payroll than Usagi Yojimbo, even though I certainly prefer the latter on just about any test of artistic merit.) I'm not sure that Benjamin Schipper has entirely found his internal balance, as a craftsman, but he certainly shows signs of having clear destinations in mind, needing only to find the right path. If finding your footing on your own terms is an indulgence, I hope he is afforded some more opportunities to indulge. Selfishly I know that, at the very least, I'll have one hell of a pleasant time watching.