Monday, July 07, 2008

Water Baby
by Ross Campbell
156 pages, black and white, paperback, $9.99

Ross Campbell has established a very distinctive style, not just in how he renders things, but in tone, themes, and those little elements that make a writer's work recognizable. There are hot girls in tiny, punky outfits (often dirty and ragged), but the hot girls have different body types and do unhot things like pick their noses. There are some really creepy visuals. The settings are always kinda rednecky and lowdown. There's a nihilistic vibe. Some of the same bands are referenced that are referenced in Wet Moon, but i don't know if they're real, or he's just using the same made up bands.

Brody is a teenage (?age not given?) surfer in Florida. She has lots of tattoos and skull-themed swimwear. A shark attacks her and takes her left leg. The rest of the book is obliquely about how she recovers from this. Well, not all of it is oblique. Some of it is directly about the physical recovery. It's the psychological stuff that is appropriately oblique. This takes the form of Brody's relationship with a worthless leech of a guy whom i wouldn't mind to have seen shot named Jake. I'm not sure how well that part of it worked. It performed its narrative task, but it didn't feel significant. Getting shed of this bum didn't feel like an emblem of Brody conquering her injury as much as her finally ceasing to be an embarrassing pushover.

The plot is straightforward, but has a loose flow. The second half of the book is a road trip, and that always lends itself to a jangly, episodic, meditative form or story, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The purpose is to give the characters room to reveal themselves to the reader in a casual, organic way. You know who they are through dialog, mannerisms, and those sorts of character work. There are no info dumps or exposition-disguised-as-dialog. This is how Campbell's series Wet Moon works, too. The best moments in that series are when Cleo obsesses and when Trilby dorks out or gets disproportionately offended by the least significant slights.

Unexpectedly, Water Baby is darker than Wet Moon, even though WM is very gothic (in both the Southern Gothic and Siouxsie Sioux sense), has more drooling rednecks, physical oddities, and decay. But WM does have bright spots like Trilby's manicness and a sense that the characters are moving and having a bit of fun along the way. In Water Baby, there are fewer bright spots. Brody and Louisa are friends, but we don't know how much they really care about each other. Brody is moving forward by the end of the story, but it's slow, and the nature of her moving forward involves getting tougher, harder. She starts off cynical and sarcastic, so getting harder doesn't make her more sympathetic.

Where her vulnerable side comes through, and this is pretty effective the more i think about it, is in the dream sequences where her trauma about the shark attack manifests itself in various bizarre, horrific images. In these scenes, her anxieties play themselves out via dream logic, and in the moments before she falls asleep and after she wakes up, we see the same emotions in her body language.

Campbell is a major talent, IMO. His pages look incredible. He marries beauty and grotesquerie not only in the horror elements, but in the mundane (i.e., hot chicks picking their noses). His shapes are amazing. The balance of detail and expressiveness is just right. His interest in the macabre and in unconventional beauty will likely keep him outside the mainstream of direct market comics, but could easily garner him a sizable following outside of it.