There’s an old rule in storytelling : write (or, in the case of a comic, write and draw) what you know — and then tinker around with it at the margins just a bit. After all, you want what you’re writing (or, again, writing and drawing) to be at least marginally more interesting than “real” life, right?
That’s the theory, at any rate, and it’s served many a novelist (or, in this case, a cartoonist — I know, I know, I need to stop with this shit already) well over the years, the latest being Isaac Moylan, who parlays his intimate knowledge of the arts “scene” and the city of New York into an unassumingly absorbing tale and throws in a dash of the supernatural for good measure in his new self-published graphic novel, The Maspeth Witch. Just authentic enough to ring true, just fantastical enough to keep you turning the pages, for a full-length debut (Moylan’s apparently dabbled here and there in short-form comics but makes his living in freelance commercial illustration) it’s a surprisingly assured work that knows both how to maintain a reader’s attention and how to make sure what flaws it does have don’t in any way appreciably detract from the (sorry to be crass, but) finished product.
By way of brief (and deliberately truncated so as to avoid “spoilers”) synopsis, our protagonist here, grounded-but-nominally-ambitious young(-ish) artist Miriam is preparing for her “big break” gallery show when an act of casual cruelty toward a cat engenders a chain reaction of events that quickly turns the lives of her and her husband, Moshe, into — well, a “living hell” might be putting it strongly, but then again, by the time all is said and done, maybe it’s not. Suffice to say, both the title of this review and the title of the book itself make complete sense — I’m just being an asshole and not giving you full context for them in the here and now. Mama didn’t raise no snitches and all that, but you’re a smart person — you can probably figure it out. I mean, everybody knows what any self-respecting witch’s “familiar” animal of choice is, right?
The big “plus” here, as one would expect given his background, is Moylan’s richly detailed art. His people look like real people, both when it comes to their faces and their bodies, and the attention he pays to the so-called “little things” really pays off : he draws buildings, backgrounds, and environments really well. Normally I’m not a huge fan of photo-referencing, but I’ll give him a pass for leaning on it here because he utilizes it as an enhancement in his work, rather than making it the backbone of it, and that’s a crucial distinction because it means good, old-fashioned, freehand illustration is still what he most relies on for his visual storytelling — as any real artist damn well should, at least in this admittedly cantankerous old-timer’s opinion.
Where Moylan could stand to hone his craft a bit more, though, is in the area of narrative fluidity. While most of his dialogue is reasonably crisp and authentic, and his main characters are genuinely likable (and still relatable even when they’re not), he has a tendency to use exposition as a crutch, both when he’s setting the stage initially and when he wants to move things along, and sometimes that can break up his story’s natural rhythm. To his credit, he always gets his footing back in fairly short order, but there is an art to hitting precise story “beats” in organic (or at least seemingly organic) fashion that Moylan is still learning. No harm or shame in that, of course, but prospective readers should be prepared to make allowances for a bit of “clunkiness” to rear its head from time to time within what is, all told, an otherwise enjoyable and well-crafted comic.
If I had to pinpoint Moylan’s greatest strength, in a word I’d say it’s his composition. He’s got an eye for truly cinematic “camera angles” and his sense of perspective is incredibly firm and even a bit on the playful side — which tells me that he knows what he’s inherently good at and isn’t afraid to get creative with it. As time moves on and he becomes more comfortable with the fundamental differences between drawing and cartooning, I have a feeling we may find he’s got a truly great comic or graphic novel in him. Until then, this book serves to announce the arrival of an intriguing new talent who’s the “chops” to go far, and it’s a fun, compelling, and interesting yarn, to boot. I’ll be keeping an eye out for what Moylan does next, and in the meantime I would be surprised at all to find myself re-reading this a time or two.
The Maspeth Witch is available for $15 from Isaac Moylan’s website at https://isaacmoylan.net/maspethwitch
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