SEAN MURPHY'S "OFF ROAD"
My first impression of Sean Murphy's work was, sadly, not positive. It came from Dark Horse's "Crush" mini-series, of the short-lived Rocket Comics line. The negative reaction came mostly because I read it at the same time as I read "Dead@17" (now with Image Comics) and couldn't help but let the similarities between the two diminish both.
In retrospect, I wonder if drawing for a corporate-owned comic didn't hold Murphy back more than I could have guessed. His next major work was his original graphic novel, "Off Road," and it's a terrific piece of storytelling with fantastic art. If all you know of Murphy's work is his current gig, "Joe the Barbarian," I implore you to look this volume up. It's an entertaining and well-drawn book that's worth the $11.95 cover price.
Published in 2005 through Oni Press, "Road Trip" looks to be the reworking of a comic strip that Murphy had done during his time in art school. It's the story of three long-time friends who go off-roading in a Jeep Wrangler, only to get stuck in the mud and then fight a lot. It's the latter part that sells the book. This isn't a book about driving off-road and having a grand adventure. It's about the relationships between these three twenty-somethings and how the events of the purchase and usage of this Jeep drive them to the edge, to have conversations they wouldn't otherwise have, and to come to meaningful conclusions about their lives in a compressed period of time. The off-roading is a visual hook for Murphy to show off his artistic skills and to keep from having a boring book of talking heads fighting for 100 pages.
Trent, the lead character, is a starving comic book artist type, whose latest girlfriend has just left him, slamming a door in his face. Trent's friend Greg just got a new Jeep. Greg is a richer, preppier boy to Trent's black fingernail goth artist persona, with a personality to match. His Daddy bought him the new Jeep, and Trent's mission in life is to get Greg to dirty it up and take it into the mud as it was meant to be. Along the way, they pick up their friend, Brad, whose father is abusive towards him. On top of all of that, there's a party the three are planning to attend that night, thrown by the woman Trent couldn't let go -- his high school crush, Leona. She's the bad seed Trent continues to find himself returning to, for no good reason at all.
The camaraderie between the three rings true to me. They're three immature men who squabble over silly stuff, are often the results of the way they were brought up, and who use pop culture references as shortcuts in their conversation. (Mostly, it's Mr. T.) They goad each other on with silly taunts. They can say the meanest things to each other and reply with equally mean things. They make stupid mistakes that they often know are silly, yet still can't help themselves. And, as the book mentions in a well-placed caption box, they get dumber the deeper they get.
Yep, they're twenty-somethings with stunted emotional growth. Or, you know: men.
The third act feels a bit melodramatic, but Murphy balances that out in two major ways. First, he sets up the major event earlier in the story, so that when it occurs, you know immediately who's to blame and how it happened. And, second, the main characters' reactions are true to their personalities, and don't wallow in second-guessing. They just do, not think.
Murphy's art bears its most striking resemblance to Stuart Immonen's, particularly from Immonen's "NextWave" time. It's angular, cartoony, animated and stylistic, without being over the top and overbearing. I love this type of stuff more than I actually ever get to see it. It's rare, the artist that can pull this off. But Murphy shows off more skills than just that, as he switches up styles in bit parts of the book, whether it be a charcoal pencil for shading, white out splatter or defining areas of a character's face with shadows instead of harsh lines.
The most impressive part of the book, though, is how Murphy lays out his pages to depict the movement of the Jeep through the forest. It's an amazing combination of angles, motion, and panel shapes. Based on this book alone with a Jeep speeding through an off-road adventure, I'd pay to see Murphy draw a car chase comic. He can switch it up from worm's eye view to bird's eye view without losing the reader, and he makes panel shapes that help him tell the story of where the Jeep is going and via which route. It's very strong storytelling.
Every once in a while, Murphy varies a page up out of the blue, with a simple negative-space composition paired with the fewest lines possible, or a dramatic up-angle closeup of a character surrounded by a sea of black ink. There's experimentation there on the page, with the kind of work that would almost seem too whimsical in a more insanely detailed short form superhero comic of 22 pages. I think that's the greatest thing about the graphic novel format, that the creator gets a chance to tell his or her story in any way he or she wants. If the story calls for a series of double-page spreads, then so be it. If it suddenly needs 16 panels to a page or seemingly random splash pages that roughly approximate chapter headings, then it will be done. It doesn't happen often, but it does help to break up the pace of the story, and works very easily on the eyes. (There's even a Frank Miller-like silhouetted page of the Jeep being lifted up that made me laugh out loud, most likely inappropriately.)
Murphy also has an exemplary use of inking skills in this book that only adds to the style. He varies his line widths to separate layers in the art, to dimensionalize the individual layers, and to maintain his style without losing it under a powerful inker on his own agenda. It gives the book its style, and a close viewing of the techniques he uses will only increase your appreciation for the final look.
The book is hand-lettered by Murphy and it's a bit rough at times, though not without its charm. All the word balloons are rectangles with circular ends. The letters themselves are not consistent, either in form or in spacing. But the glories of hand-lettering are still present, such as the way Murphy draws the letters bigger during a screaming fit, or more bouncy to indicate a teasing tone of voice. His sound effects also blend neatly into the art, using bold and often blocky lettering to their best. It's not the slickest thing you'll ever see, but that's also a big part of what makes it interesting to consider. There's more to say here about the lettering than you'll see in 90% of the cookie cutter jobs done at most of the major comics titles. It's organic and it's unique and it's expressive. I like it.
The book is a thick, chunky 125 pages or so in Oni's slighty-smaller-than-standard-comic size, and CBR once hosted a 50 page preview of it. (Not sure that preview survived the transition to the new CBR, sadly.) For Murphy's storytelling skills and pen-and-ink skills, it's worth a read.
You can buy the book today -- somewhere. Used. It's out of print. It's not available at OniPress.com anymore. Amazon has it used only, and it'll be more expensive than cover price after shipping charges. So check your local comics shop and let the hunting begin. Sure would be easier if it were available digitally, wouldn't it? I mean, wouldn't it be great if I could give you a link right now and you could go pay your ten bucks via PayPal and download it to your computer? And with the smaller page size in the original printing, it's the perfect format for an iPad or other tablet device. (Not that there are any other worthy tablet devices at the moment, mind you, but I don't want to be accused of being a shill for a product I don't own, so I thought I'd throw that in there.)
What, you thought I had forgotten about digital comics this week?
Shorter this week due to the holiday, Pipeline returns next week for the fuller version of commentary and review.
Lots more photography to be had over on my blogs, with more carnival and zoo pictures at AugieShoots.com and some photographic tips at VariousandSundry.com. I post my iPhone photography at AugieShoots.tumblr.com when there's something cool to show.