Some “good comics” are the kind you appreciate coldly, for the craft or cleverness on display, but some -- less common, unfortunately -- are so hot they pull you in and resist the critical eye as you read them, their artistry loud or urgent enough to shuck off its identity as lines on paper and simply communicate. The first oversized, color-splattered issue of Michel Fiffe’s Zegas is one of those glorious few, a comic that goes from the first panel to the last without even hinting at the idea of slowing down, a brush-inked rush that twists through four short, vaguely connected stories, running out of paper more than ending. The atom bomb force that Fiffe brings to his art is visible on each level, from masterfully composed spreads through perfectly framed panels down to beautifully blown-out individual lines. But just as impressive is how considered the comic is, how well every element of it hangs together when held up to the light.
Main character Emily Zegas opens the book by telling us, “I realized the apocalypse wasn’t a romantic concept.” She makes a good point, but we’re forced to take it with the gargantuan grain of salt that the accompanying picture provides: hand-painted waves of ochre and magenta swirl majestically over a flooding cityscape, masses of tiny featureless human figures gesture skyward, and the heavens split with beams of brilliant rose-colored light. It’s about the most romantic rendering of the apocalypse imaginable, not to mention a bold declaration of visual purpose. Whatever else it may be, Zegas is a comic that refuses to look like anything else. Fiffe’s nasty, torrential brushwork owes something to Bill Sienkiewicz, the dense bursts of fine line that writhe in the corners of his panels have more than a little of Otomo about them, and his color palette brings Moebius to mind, but Zegas is significantly more than pastiche. Like Paul Pope and Brandon Graham before him, Fiffe warps and welds the influences of the medium’s ‘80s sci-fi masters into an original construction, one infused with more than enough of an individual voice to make it feel new and exciting.
The techy dystopia of Zegas is full of modern design sense and unprecedented approaches to motion and sequence, not to mention a flair for observational drawing that nails down a perfect picture of New York City as it is right this second, without ever losing its aspect of high fantasy. Bold, glowingly colored backgrounds set off the stark black and white of the characters’ hyperkinetic movements through Fiffe’s wonderfully jumbled layouts, occasionally bleeding into the action to set off a shift in tone or a moment of dramatic tension. Conventions of sequencing are thrown out the window and replaced with a bold sense of open space and continuous motion that belongs somewhere between graffiti tags and Ralph Bakshi animation. Every picture is composed for maximum impact, clanging into the eyes with incredible force, but beneath it all is drawing that never looses its grip on genuine beauty, each line set down with a cool, liquid grace.
The writing is much the same -- after blasting out the overwhelming burst of the opening pages’ apocalypse scene, Fiffe’s main concern seems to be depicting “life as it is” in a crowded, futuristic metropolis. Imagine the Maggie of Jaime Hernandez’s early, sci-fi inflected Love & Rockets stories pressed into service as one of the fashion conscious extras populating Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and you’re on the right track. Emily pulls human warmth from her rote interactions with a street vendor, gets fired from her job designing robots for a kid’s movie, and chases a trippily designed robot through an arcade after he steals her last five bucks. Meanwhile her brother Boston’s face puffs up “like a nut sac” after he inadvertently samples his girlfriend's drugs, and somewhere else the mentally unhinged are gibbering about “colting the rare old whale” and landlords argue with their buildings’ superintendents. Life, even underneath the key-lime skies of Zegas, wheezes forward in a Dadaistic rush as per usual. And then when the comic’s over and it isn’t half enough you go back and open it again and remember that the apocalypse is coming in all its unromantic glory…
Fiffe has crafted a gem, a comic whose every line of dialogue and ink is both refined and bursting with enthusiasm. More importantly, though, he’s captured a legitimate rarity, the shiver and clench of comics set to doing something that’s never quite been asked of them before. It’s highly formalist and it’s also a total mess, pop genre comics and cutting edge artsy stuff too. It’s good.