What happens when a couple of stoner buddies, with an assist from their possibly-visionary older homeless “third wheel” sidekick, stumble across the machinations of an ancient cult devoted to summoning up some supernatural bird-creature or other, and then find themselves unable to stop their not-quite-dastardly plan?
I’ve never asked myself that multi-faceted question, but apparently Iowa City-based cartoonist Samuel D. Benson has, and he answers it over the course of 50 magazine-sized pages in his latest self-published opus, A Different Sky. The answer? Not much. But this one’s much more about the journey than it is the (non-) resolution.
Massive props where they’re due : Benson absolutely draws the living shit out of every panel. Vaguely Joshua Cotter-esque cross-hatching and barely-constrained linework take up every scintilla of real estate — yet nothing either looks or feels over-rendered or otherwise too “busy” for its own good. This is art that reins in its frenetic energy just enough to tell a story, and to do so expressively and absolutely uniquely, with the physical environs of the unnamed town the “action” occurs in playing just as large a role in the visual narrative as do the characters themselves. There are no short-cuts employed here, no time-saving bits of artistic trickery. Benson fills up your eyes as surely as he fills up his pages.
That ethos carries over to the scripting, as well, densely-packed word balloons employed in service of a complex, if meandering, plot admirably ambitious in its scope and loaded with as much un-subtle commentary on the culture of aimless “20-somethings” as it is with supernatural mystery and pleasingly intense foreboding.
All of which is to say that there’s a whole lot going on here — conceptually, spatially, formally. Benson’s earlier efforts (one of which is pictured below for purposes of demonstrating his artistic versatility) have clearly provided enough by way of wind under his sails to convince him that he can handle a “big” story, and this one certainly fits that bill. This is a comic that bites off quite a bit — but can it possibly chew such a loaded mouth-full?
That probably depends on your perspective. From where I’m sitting — and tune out now, please, if “spoilers” piss you off — the idea that once the big bad bird shows up, nothing really changes apart from the fact that there’s now a noisy, ugly creature flying, squawking, and shitting from way up in the sky is perfectly in line with Benson’s “every day is just another day, so fuck it, just do what you gotta do to get by” outlook, but I can easily see, and am even mildly sympathetic toward, the disappointment some readers may feel in regards to such a let’s-not-even-call-it-a-conclusion. It’s curious, admittedly, to end such a convoluted, swerving, subplot-laden narrative on a note of “oh well, guess that was that,” but frankly, a more tidy and traditional wrap-up would have felt false on its face. This? Crazy and fantastical as it is, it still makes a kind of “sense” within the larger framework of the social milieu this comic is set against and within.
I dunno. It’s a wacky, weird, at times even wonderful book, but it’s one that plays by its own set of rules, and it never slows down enough to acknowledge how many tropes it’s not only subverting, but downright obliterating. Some may find that alienating in and of itself, while others are likely to find it exciting. I number among the latter, so this comic not only worked for me, it really worked for me.
And with a price tag of only $8, there’s not much reason to forego taking a gamble on this and seeing whether or not it works for you, as well. I’ll be very curious to see what Benson does next, as he seems to be one of those cartoonists who’s “putting it all together” in terms of establishing his own singular way of making comics. There’s probably a long-form graphic novel on the horizon from him, and if you take a flyer on this book, a few years down the road you’ll be able to say that you knew all about Samuel D. Benson well before he became the next big deal.
You can order A Different Sky directly from Samuel D. Benson at https://longgonecomix.bigcartel.com/product/a-different-sky
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