That wet flapping sound you hear is my chickens coming home to roost. For years now I have maintained that most comic books just aren’t dense enough. Comics can do a lot of things and breezy action is only one of them - I like a page that invites the reader to linger and gawk a while. If that kind of page appeals to you as well then I suppose you should probably look into acquiring a copy of Roofstompers. A humbling experience for the jaundiced reader.
So perhaps we require a moment’s digression on the subject of pressure? We measure pressure in terms of Pascals - named of course for Blaise Pascal, mathematical doyenne of the seventeenth century. Right now you and I and every person we know, more or less, is experiencing life at the sensation of 101.325 kPa - that’s as measured in kilopascals, or if you prefer, 1 atmosphere. Where does this lead us? Well, we’ve been measuring comics in terms of kilopascals for decades now, whether we have realized it or not. The moment the first comic book was ever described in terms of “decompression” an implicit scale was created to measure the degrees of pressure to which narrative progression is subjected. What qualifies as 1 atm for comics? Batman? That’s not really a joke, I don’t think. Batman was a good enough economic indicator for Diamond for all those years, it makes as much sense as that to posit Batman as more or less the mean in terms of narrative density. It rarely goes too far out on the limb either way.
To speak as clinically as possible: however many events happen in your average issue of Batman, as well as the pace with which these events unfold, is more or less the number and velocity of events that can be expected to transpire in any mainstream or mainstream-adjacent comic book at that moment in time. It’s the mean, on most months smack in the middle of the bell curve for narrative density. On one extreme, to the left of that same chart you see much of Bryan Hitch and that school of attenuated narrative density, accompanied by writers content not to obscure the art, and on the other side you find comics often written by British folks who were trained to tell four or five stories in the space of our one. I’m a fool, in that I think putting fewer words on the page is cheating. It is however certainly possible to go too far in the opposite direction: the text issue of Morrison’s Batman had to be thrown out of our sample group, all copies were burnt, a recall was issued. (The Comics Journal would never, ever recommend setting any comic book on fire - that’s a young man’s game, and we’re none of us so young as we once were, nor all of us so men.)
Alright, alright - yuks aside, get to the point, what are we talking about here? Well, pick up your average issue of Batman and measure your Pascals - if Batman represents the surface of the earth on which we walk, where do we place Roofstompers on this line? Many fathoms, probably. 10 atmospheres, at least, which is what, like, 339 feet deep beneath the ol’ wine dark? Check my math in the comments, kids. I’m functionally innumerate! The book seems to have been pressed and repressed over and over again, such that only seventeen pages encompass what many - most? - creators would consider a significant epic. The first few times through these seventeen pages I felt every bit the diver in my pressurized suit, brushing silt off the glass of my helmet every three steps and losing a portion of my body weight in sweat.
Exaggeration, perhaps, but only just. I must admit I found it a mildly frustrating process, even as the question remains as to whether or not it was ultimately fruitful frustration. I’d argue that it is. Coming in more or less cold meant that for better or for worse I was left to my own devices even just to figure out what genre the piece was. Which I will stress was most likely the creators’ intention. Going in clean was preferable in that the frustrating process of piecing together confusing events in a piecemeal fashion across multiple iterations is a literal corollary to the movement of the protagonist.
The process of unfolding the story resembles nothing so much as opening a can of snakes. It’s a dense package. Crack open the lid and it all spools out like intestines. To wit: to what genre does the piece even belong? Take the pages out of order and any one of them could stand in for a different slice of the pie - it’s about a doctor, but not really about medicine; it’s about a trip to the woods and an encounter with a bear, but it’s not really a nature story; it’s about hunting, it’s about kidnapping, it’s about horror, and science fiction - time travel, or alternate worlds? Perhaps it’s really a metaphor for being stuck in an endless self destructive cycle.
So: an impressive piece of work, all things considered. The artist is Ian MacEwan - please, I’m absolutely certain he’s heard every Atonement joke imaginable, the Journal would never stoop so low. None of that middlebrow critic-baiting literary fiction for us, no. We will remain virtuous. We’re talking real art here, the kind that includes an absolutely intense degree of crosshatching. Oh goodness, so much crosshatching. It’s really good, you guys. He does his own colors, if you’re wondering how it is that the story manages to communicate such intricate line work without sacrificing the impact of color. I would very much like to see the black & white pages, and that’s only a compliment to the artist. The finished product looks remarkable. I was struck by MacEwan’s use of wide swaths of bright pastels in lieu of hyperdefined gradients, an effect similar to what you might have expected from a Baxter paper DC book in the late 80s, occasionally garish and impressionistic. Think Tatjana Wood or Robbie Busch. Accept no substitutes, computer recoloring is strictly for the birds!
The important thing here is not just that the drawing is pretty, though pretty it certainly is, but that it communicates quite a bit with a great deal of alacrity. A lot of information needs to be conveyed over the course of these mere seventeen pages, after all. Remember how I said I came in clean to the story? The story doesn’t have a splash page per se, and yours truly received the comic as a set of jpgs in a folder - I know, way to kill the romance of reviewing comic books. It's the product not of one person but three - not just drawn by MacEwan, but written by Alex Paknadel and with letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. It struck me at the moment I saw the credits that, without even having formed the conscious thought, I had the notion that this comic book could only have been made by a single set of hands. The words and the pictures work so well together and communicate so much, and with such extraordinary density, that it rather boggles the mind to imagine how all these disparate elements could ever have existed as separate threads. They were sewn together with tremendous effort that is simply invisible on the page. It doesn’t read labored but surely in genesis it must have been, and that’s good work. Was the script twice as long as the comic?
These guys are good and this is virtuoso work. But what about Roofstompers itself? I’ve described what the comic is but I haven’t really discussed what it’s about. A doctor loses a patient in a particularly demoralizing accident and goes to the country to clear her head. She gets fucked up by a bear and taken in by a kindly old couple - or, seemingly kindly. Things are hinky from the drop. I don’t want to deprive you of the fun of figuring out for yourself, more than what I’ve already said, because that’s the point of the story. Much of the spirit of it however was lost for me in the process of unraveling that narrative. The effect for me was not unlike that of Last Year at Marienbad - your first instinct is to dissect, to figure out, but the process of doing so is vitiating to the work itself. It works best at the level of half-comprehension, more or less where the protagonist herself resides for much of its running time. Not really a puzzle, but near enough that it’s easy to get distracted along the way - either intentionally ambiguous in places or I’m a dumb-dumb. Don’t discount the latter!
These gentlemen are on the cusp. Glancing at their resumes they’ve been on positive trajectories for some time, but Roofstompers announces greater ambition. Yes, indeed, they’re ready for the big times - an X-Men spin-off, perhaps?