Drawing Criticism

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


by Andi Watson
336 black & white pages (168 pages each volume)
Published 2004/2005 by Oni Press
ISBN: 1-929998-86-4 and 1-929998-87-2

Andi Watson has made a name for himself by being one of the few creators in the area of modern romance comics. In his newest two-volume work, he attempts to bring that talent into a new territory: that subgenre of super-hero comics pioneered by Kurt Busiek (Marvels) and Brain Bendis (Powers) where the ordinary co-exist with the extraordinary. Unfortunately, as charming and as well-drawn as this tale is, it lacks a sense of balance and cohesiveness, resulting in an unsatisfying and frustrating story.

Love Fights begins (and ultimately ends) as the story of two people who meet and are attracted to each other, against the backdrop of a city with superhuman protectors. The opening scene when they meet on the subway is extremely charming, as they both try to live their lives despite the chaos of men in tights duking it out around them. This is complicated by their professions. Jack is a comic book artist, “documenting” the adventures of a hero known as the “Flamer,” while Nora is an aspiring journalist seeking information on the Flamer for a sleazy tabloid. After their first encounter, various other sub-plots weave themselves in and out of the picture, including problems with Jack’s co-workers and Nora’s relationship with her boss. Finally, the story culminates in the resolution to the mystery of the Flamer.

The result is a patchwork. This is the first time since Skeleton Key (Slave Labor Graphics) that Watson’s romance plots have had to share space with other elements on equal footing and the result is incomplete and stifling. The scenes with Jack and Nora are often followed by radical shifts in tone and theme. When the story does return to the couple, the transition is so awkward that the emotional momentum is vacant. On the same note, Nora’s relationship with her boss starts out interesting enough, but is never developed. It degrades into a simple “I must please the one who cannot be pleased” motivation for Nora. Even worse, Nora is the most one-dimensional female Watson has ever written. Her character never seems to develop, particularly in her scenes with Jack. She just becomes another supporting character framing his personality, despite their apparent equal status as protagonists. Still, their scenes together are enjoyable and play to Watson’s strengths as a romance comic writer.

On the other hand, Watson has a lot of other ideas that he wants to fit into the book, and this is where the story begins to peel apart at the seams. One set of sub-plots serves merely to move the story forward. Making them tolerable is that they are some of the little attention given to Nora’s personality. But then there’s Guthrie the cat, aka Future Feline -- a thoroughly unlikable character who is made worse by the fact that his every act is designed to disrupt the momentum of the plot and narrative. The cat functions as an irritating annoyance that throws the reader out of the story. It is one of the contrived tricks that showcases Watson’s inability to manipulate multiple plotlines.

Meanwhile, other sub-plots involve Jack’s career, but further add to the imbalance of the story. At their best, these scenes further color Jack’s personality, but more often than not, they serve to distract from the main narrative. One example is, in the build-up to the climax of the story, Jack’s co-worker is arrested. While this shows another side of Jack, it derails the momentum of the main plot and is ill-timed. On top of that, many of these sub-plots serve as commentaries on the comic book industry. The result is a failed fusion of foreign themes into the central conflict of the story. Unlike Busiek and Bendis, Watson is unsuccessful at having elements of interpersonal relationships and super-hero deconstructionism co-exist peacefully. Love Fights feels like many stories awkwardly crowded together, each part undermining the others.

One of the disparate elements that is enjoyable on its own is Nora and Jack’s investigation into the scandal of the Flamer’s illegitimate child. This is a great pulp mystery that provides an over-arching structure for the story, even if it often requires a pesky cat to keep it from concluding too soon. But eventually this plotline is given a contrived ending, apparently another reference the conventions of comic book stories. But because this context is separate from the central conflict of the story, the ending merely feels hacked out.

Watson’s art is gorgeously simplistic. His ability to create meaningful facial expressions on attractive characters with just a few lines gives the story the necessary immediacy and fluidity. His use of shading draws the eye to the flow of the art while his variety of textures keeps the reader interested. The designs in this story are a bit art deco, perhaps reflecting the retro-future aspect of super-heroes, but the focus is always on the characters. Still, the art can’t prevent the jarring awkwardness of the Flamer standing in Jack’s apartment. Many scenes like this just clash without any resonance.

In some ways, Love Fights is difficult to dislike, because it gives the reader moments where both the character interactions and the art are beautiful to behold. But these moments are few, and what remains is a series of disjointed themes trying desperately to function as a whole story. This book has a lot of interesting ideas, but they were sewn together into a story with too little craft. The end result is a work that is stifled and uncomfortable.


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