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Gene Ha and Dark Horse deliver more magic with Mae

Mae #1
Mae #1

Dark Horse Presents is certainly not an unknown quantity in the comic-book industry. Having featured talents like Moebius, Paul Pope, and Mike Allred, DHP has served as the launchpad for stories like Concrete and Sin City, so it’s no surprise to see something new and exciting from a skilled creator. With Mae #1 (Dark Horse), Gene Ha delves into writing his first original content comic, after years of contributing remarkable art to a wide swath of different stories. Ha is responsible for everything in this issue from the script to the letters, and this is clearly a labor of love in the best way possible.

The story revolves around a young woman, Mae, who appears to have been left behind by most of the people in her life. Stuck in an isolated community as her peers go to college, she serves as a dutiful caregiver to her ill father as well as to the family business. Her older sister Abbie, long missing, returns in this first issue telling impossible stories that Mae struggles not to ridicule, even as evidence of Abbie’s truthfulness mounts. It’s a story that will feel familiar to people who have read The Chronicles Of Narnia or any of L. Frank Baum’s books about Oz: The childhood desire to escape to a far-off land is universal. Mae also has similarities to Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan’s Birthright, though the tone is different enough to indicate Mae and Abbie will have a more functional and protective relationship than Mikey and Brennan’s.

With multiple Eisner Awards on his shelf, it’s not a surprise that what really makes Mae shine is Ha’s art. Though his linework is distinct and fluid, Ha pays close attention to shading—and in particular the way that shadows impact his panels—far more than in most comics. It’s ambitious and remarkable, with light sources and reflections carefully considered and taken advantage of. It leaves each page looking more like parts have been rendered in 3-D rather than drawn flat, and it’s a completely singular look. Ha leaves many of the minor characters almost literally faceless by backlighting them, making them vague and insubstantial in comparison to Abbie, Mae, and her friend Dahlia. The book is a visual joy, fun to flip through and completely different from almost everything else out there right now. There are several nerdy Easter eggs hidden throughout the book for eagle-eyed readers to enjoy.

What’s really striking is that all of the main characters are young women. Even in books starring female characters, it’s rare for basically all of the page space to be dedicated to women, which makes Mae remarkable in just how well it focuses on them and their stories, making them distinct from one another. Mae and Dahlia are unapologetically dorky, and all three clearly have strong emotional ties and responses, leaving them feeling fully fleshed-out and individual in a compelling way. [Caitlin Rosberg]

The latest in Youth In Decline’s quarterly series of monographs, Frontier #12 (Youth In Decline) by Kelly Kwang is a whirlwind blend of drawn comics and meta-fictional art objects. Featuring photography, enamel pins, pin-ups, and concocted illustrations, a narrative of friendship on the internet takes shape right under the surface. Set within a “World Of Warcraft meets Mass Effect”-type video game, the comic is composed of trinkets related to the game, loading screens, select screens, and the fabulous landscape of a desktop busy with windows and icons. This narrative is obliquely elucidated, however, and, were it to have a physical shape, it would resemble the infinite stairs of M.C. Escher. It winds and unwinds, hiding behind itself. In fact, it’s more accurate to describe the comic as a poem than as a conventional narrative. It’s composed of the familiar components of a story, but they are arranged as a sequence of puzzling metaphors, Burroughsian non sequiturs, and strange imagery from a world that sort of resembles our own.

Cohering this diverse array of paraphernalia is Kwang’s skills as an illustrator, and, given vibrant life through minute details, her world is rich and densely textured. Her technical skills are obvious, and without the competency to actually render her inventive imaginings, it’s unclear if Frontier #12 would even be readable. Kwang, however, manages to stick the landing. The comic brings together role-playing-game character-stats screens, rendered in an angular and inky style, and pin-ups of figures silhouetted by the lush texture of graphite smoothed into shadows. Each constituent is, in itself, a gorgeous artifact—a line of beautiful, poetic language that may be quoted aloud and appreciated on its own—but they interlock to form a gestalt. And together, they create a context, shaping and fleshing out persons, relationships, worlds, and cyberspaces.

But the most striking component of Frontier #12 is the way its aesthetic reflects back on its subject matter. Kwang’s story is one of two characters connecting deeply through shared digital experiences and platforms, but her lines revel in texture and tactility, and it reveals (or deceptively and effectively approximates) more old-fashioned means of poiesis. Her penciled-in blacks and grays unevenly applied and shaded in from every direction, Kwang gleefully offers imprecise lines, and her attempted straight lines waver and wobble. Her pencils smudge and smear, and her labor leaves traces of its presence in her hatching and cross-hatching. Even her black-and-white photography, and the objects she’s photographed, reveal the beautiful flaws of being handcrafted—slight imprecisions, the marks of experimentation and hands at work.

Beautiful in this way, Kwang fills her issue of Frontier with personality, richness, humanness; and it serves as an antidote to the stale rigidity of more widely read comics. This contrasts heavily to the cold, calculated simulation her comic circumlocutes, but it potently undermines the humane relationship that catalyzes the whole thing. Formally, it celebrates the felicitous modes of modern communication, and it shares their deeply experiential requirements of usage. But it avoids the spectacle’s vampiric, homogenizing tentacles—thriving with its soul intact. [Shea Hennum]