Everything, All At Once : Winston Gambro’s “Overflow”

I’ll give Chicago cartoonist Winston Gambro credit : he seems to really believe in his newest project, Overflow. After first serializing all 118 pages of it online, he self-published it as a trade paperback, and appears determined to get it in the hands of critics — even critics like myself, for whom dystopian genre sci-fi such as this is, let’s just say, well outside the usual wheelhouse and/or comfort zone. Mind you, it’s not that I actively dislike comics of this nature that are both rooted in, and attempting their level best to emulate, mainstream “indie” sensibilities — it’s more the case that I’m not entirely sure I’m qualified to determine whether or not this is a good representative example of what it’s hoping to both be and achieve.

That being said, I certainly used to read a fair amount of Vertigo/Image/Dark Horse etc. stuff, and still peruse their wares on occasion (okay, not Vertigo’s, since they no longer exist), so it’s not like I’m a complete fish out of water here — and it’s defintely not Gambro’s fault in any way, shape, or form that the story he’s telling is the kind of thing that might have piqued my interest, say, 10-15 years ago (if not more), but is far less likely to capture my attention in the here and now. The question then becomes not so much “did I like this book?,” as it is “do I think the people that like this sort of thing would like this book?” Please tell me you’re following my logic here.

The problem I’m running into, though, is that even that heavily-qualified question is one I’m finding difficult to answer simply because I can’t help but think Gambro’s ambitions outpace his abilities at this early stage of his career. Nothing he’s setting out to do with Overflow is especially original, but that’s no sin — few things well and truly are these days, so I don’t take exception to the fact that he’s chosen to wear his influences (mostly cinematic, and ranging from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop to Michael Mann’s Blackhat to The Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy) so clearly upon his sleeve. Hell, I’ll even give him points for being so upfront about it. But there’s a fairly wide gulf that exists between proving you understand the ins and outs of various tropes and actually doing something interesting with them, and that’s where I’m sorry to report this book comes up short. Gambro’s moxie is admirable, but that’s only gonna take you so far.

Fortunately, he’s got enough skill as a writer to take himself a bit further still. The plot here is a fairly straightforward affair when you strip away the superfluous : cop-turned-PI Ava Lee sets out to prove her soldier brother’s innocence after his supposed firing at Russian troops heats the Cold War right back up again, subsequently stumbles into a web of intrigue courtesy of a group of super-hackers out to manipulate world events to their own ends, and along the way comes to question not only the hows and whys of what this insidious cabal is doing, but whether or not she should even bother blowing the whistle on them at all. The world, ya see, is a pretty fucked up place, and letting the whole shithouse go up in flames isn’t necessarily the worst idea depending on your mood.

I’m personally drawn to characters with misanthropic points of view, so that’s cool, and not only is most of Gambro’s dialogue a couple levels above serviceable when he’s not getting too expository, it’s still serviceable enough when he is. What’s missing from it all, though, is the always-difficult-to-quantify spark of inspiration that separates the remarkable from the merely competent. Gambro’s trying to do a whole lot here : to ask salient questions about our dependence on technology, the concentration of wealth and power in society, the loss of the natural world, militarized foreign policy, the toxicity of online culture, the fluidity of concepts such as identity in digital spaces, and that’s great — trouble is, they’re not ideas that are explored so much as overtly commented upon, and not necessarily with any degree of subtlety. For the record, I’m in general agreement with the points of view he’s espousing, but constructing a narrative around a laundry-list of socio-economic grievances, no matter how valid they may be, is a tricky business for anyone. There are times when Gambro gets the balance right, but other times when the story is either stopped in tracks, or even temporarily subsumed, by the points he’s trying to make with it.

Still, as I said, this is a cartoonist clearly passionate about his work, and if he can learn to focus that passion into story that’s a bit more within his grasp, eventually he very well could produce a more successful version of the kind of broad and expansive genre epic he’s so clearly yearning to create — I simply suggest, as a matter of pure practicality, that he get a real handle on his craft first and go from there. And that, unfortunately, brings me to the point where I’ve really gotta be an asshole for a minute —

Simply stated, Gambro’s art needs some work. It wasn’t until I read through the process pages he includes at the back of the book that I even realized this was drawn by hand, so closely does its look approximate that of a digital illustration app or program of one sort or another. It’s not that it lacks clear intent — again, the cinematic influence here is noted and even appreciated as Gambro positions his characters in space as a director would and offers interesting metaphorical “camera angles” and “establishing shots” aplenty — but there’s a rudimentary quality to his figure illustrations, facial expressions, and (especially) colors that belies a lack of proficiency in the fundamentals. As storyboard illustrations, these would probably be just fine — as comic panels, they range from looking haphazardly-executed at best to downright visually off-putting at worst. I take no pleasure in saying that, but I do have to call it like I see it — and what I see in Overflow is a cartoonist who really wants to make a great, big, important sci-fi comic, but doesn’t necessarily know how to yet.

I really do hope he sticks with it, though, and I’m more than curious to see what he does in the future — if he re-examines the foundations of his craft, and builds up from there brick by brick, anything’s possible. Assuming that the human races even survives, of course.

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Overflow is available for $20.00 from Winston Gambro’s website at https://winstongambro.gumroad.com/l/Overflow

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

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