When Jason Little's "Shutterbug Follies" came out in 2002, it should have been Little's leap into the comic book big time. Instead, it was part of Doubleday's ill-fated graphic novel line that was shut down almost immediately upon arrival, and a book that's part of a dead imprint is slated for publishing limbo at best.
I'm glad that Little and his heroine Bee are getting a second chance now, courtesy Dark Horse and "Motel Art Improvement Service." Don't worry if you never read "Shutterbug Follies" (although by the time you're done here, you'll probably want to); all you really need to know is that Bee is a dangerous combination of smart and slightly nosy. Here, she's starting out on a cross-country bike ride, but an accident strands her in a motel and that's where she meets a most unusual staffer. The next thing you know, "Motel Art Improvement Service" has turned into a story involving defacement of hotel art, a recreational drug ring, and a possible romance.
"Motel Art Improvement Service" is silly and funny and suspenseful, all bound up into one. Little is careful to make Bee both likable and also imperfect; she makes some bad decisions along the way, and her curiosity gets her into trouble as much as it saves her. She's a great protagonist, though; you want to see her succeed from start to finish. Cyrus is a good counter for Bee, because at first he seems to be a fun and interesting person. The further the book goes along, the more I found myself irritated by Cyrus. "Bee can do better," was the thought that kept running through my head, and watching their relationship go up and down kept me interested throughout the book.
Little's art pops off the page, with bright colors and an iconic, clean look. The landscape format of the comic gives Little room to move across the page, bringing to mind Sunday newspaper comic strips. At the same time, though, Little still plays with layouts, not sticking with just two rows of rectangular panels. My favorite part of the art in "Motel Art Improvement Service" has got to be over the top expressions of PFC Johnson as he goes nuclear over the missing drugs. He's simultaneously menacing and funny, and it's just the right balance that we see throughout the book. It's dramatic, it's funny, it's the whole package.
"Motel Art Improvement Service" is a welcome return for Little to the graphic novel world. Hopefully it won't be quite so long a wait next time. Just be warned that once you're done, you'll probably also want to read "Shutterbug Follies." Don't worry: it's great, too.