Thursday, February 12, 2009

Spike's "Templar, Arizona"

Reviewing Templar, Arizona feels like a bit of a cheat, since every time I mention to a comics person (as opposed to a webcomics person) that I read webcomics, their eyes light up and they ask, "Do you read Templar, Arizona?" Seriously.

And to answer your next question: yes, it is that good.

Templar launched in 2005, but Charlie "Spike" Troutman claims she's been developing the series since she was ten years old, and it shows. Placed in a slightly askew alternate universe (think more Salman Rushdie than Harry Turtledove), Templar is set in the eponymous fictional town, known for its rich and outlandish subcultures, including Pastimes, who act and dress like rejects from a Jane Austen movie, Sincerists, militant subscribers to honesty in all things, and Nile Revivalists, ethnic Egyptians who have reclaimed the religion and culture of their pre-Ptolmic ancestors. It's also a universe fit for those seeking truly sybaritic pleasures. Xenophage, a controversial Templar restaurant, serves only the most endagered and adorable animals. Pornography and small arms can be purchased behind the same storefront. And a popular show features a local socialite op-edding au naturale.

Our guide through the city is Ben Kowalski, a shy and secretive young writer who has just escaped a restrictive existence in Yakima, Washington, for the thrills of this strange city. And Ben's guides through the city are his boarding house neighbors: Reagan, a lewd and physically imposing shop clerk who's less woman than force of nature; Scipio, a kind-hearted bodyguard who dreams of a life beyond bouncing rowdy fanboys; and Gene, a dopey rocker with sticky fingers and a willful daughter.

Not a plot-driven comic, Templar instead features a series of slice-of-life vignettes, usually featuring Ben or one of his neighbors. Fortunately, life in Templar is never dull, and Ben is always getting dragged halfway across town at Reagan's whim, inadvertantly abetting an archist's post-riot escape, or landing face-to-face with psychotic neighbors and survival cultists. And, when the camera isn't on Ben, we get a more intimate look at other aspects of Templar culture, such as what happens when you try to get cute on a Sincerist, how high-born girls compete to show they're down with the underclasses, and how disappointed Nilists are in their less observant offspring.

Spike knows her world intimately, and each of her subcultures has its own rules, aesthetic, and language. And, unlike some writers who feel the need to prove to you how detailed their worlds are through exposition, Spike simple throws us in and lets Templar watch over us. Like Ben, we are simply along for the ride, tourists in a foreign land where we don't have a guidebook and don't quite speak the language. And the characters speak fluently with one another without concern for their unseen audience. This might be intimidating and frustrating to new readers, but it makes the experience that much richer for those who decide to stick around. There's also a wicked sense of humor running through the pages, in the form of sight gags, social critiques, and subtle, multilayered jokes. For example, it's not enough that the guy called "Sunny" is the most dour character in the book; he also has to be named for Ra, the Egyptian sun god.

Even if Templar's lack of an instruction manual gives you a headache, the art alone is worth the price of admission. Spike renders all the wonderful weirdness of the city in beautiful gray tones (and later sepias) and distinstinctive, ultra-clean lines, and her art is constantly improving. She's also an utter master of character design. Reagan oozes sexuality despite (or perhaps because of) her impressive girth. Ben's classic nice guy looks and neatly indeterminate age let us believe the way he flies under everyone's radar. And the respective personalities of King Street's rich girls, trying-too-hard Curio and preternaturally hip Tuesday, are captured in their hairstyles, choice of attire, and the way they carry themselves. It's just one more way Spike immerses us in her universe.

Templar is an absolute must-visit. You may not want to live there, but don't be surprised if you find yourself wishing that the real world contained clay bars, Chimera sodas, copy books, and takeout lunches from the Sassy Cavy.

Templar, Arizona updates Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and is available in print, both online and in many a comic book store. Just be warned, it's very much rated NSFW for mild nudity, less mild language, and references to all manner of Rule 34-enforcing fetishes.

[Templar, Arizona]

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