I've found myself desperately in need of some mental distraction this past week, so it was a godsend when Evan Dahm's Overside Tales popped up in my queue.
Dahm has set two stories in the Overside -- the top side of a disk-shaped planet (the planet also has an Underside, which is largely a mystery to Oversiders) -- the completed, full-color Rice Boy and the in-progress, black-and-white Order of Tales.
Rice Boy is a nigh 500-page surreal epic that paints Overland as a postmodern Wonderland, filled with strange creatures, small magicks, and dangerous lands. The tale opens on The One Electronic and his companion Calabash, a pair of hard-drinking errand boys working for an entity who might be God. T-O-E and Calabash operate under an unusual contract: their employer grants them immortality so long as they seek out the fulfiller of a mostly-forgotten prophesy. But they have grown weary of their immortality and disillusioned after their most recent pick for fulfiller, the frog prince Spatch, transformed his father's prosperous and inclusive kingdom into a xenophobic theocracy, ready to go to war with any who dare question the messianic nature of his genetic line. Spatch, like every other fulfiller they have chosen over 3000 years, proved a fake, but now that he has died, a new fulfiller must be chosen.
Abandoned by Calabash, T-O-E finds Rice Boy, an armless, legless creature who lives an uncomplicated rural existence, and asks him to be the fulfiller and learn more about the prophesy. Rice Boy initially refuses, doubting both the veracity of the prophesy and his ability to fulfill it, but eventually he takes up the quest in his own peculiar, understated way. From there, Rice Boy becomes a passive agent in his own story, batted from one leg of his journey to the next, less protagonist than catalyst. But along the way, we meet a host of colorful characters including a frog girl with a pair of magical talking cowboy boots, an assassin with a flying mechanical eye, a creature nailed to the earth who feeds off loneliness, a polite chap who resembles Jiminy Cricket crossed with a peapod and a traffic light, and a microscopic race that holds the key to the prophesy in their language.
Character design is a clear strength of Rice Boy. At first, the assemblage of wonderfully weird creatures sitting at the bar or walking the streets of the same city seems an indication that Dahm lacks impulse control, but later it's clear that this is meant to signal cosmopolitanism. When we venture deeper into the territory of Overside, we see how carefully Dahm matches his visual cues with the roles his characters play. Each critter, in addition to being fine eye candy, conveys a sense of reassurance, horror, unease, wisdom, or the alien, allowing us to recognize these bizarre creations as readily as if they were characters out of Grimm. That Rice Boy himself is the simplest of these characters -- lacking arms, legs, or even pupils -- is a stroke of genius, forcing readers to project emotions onto the blank slate of his body and forging a connection between reader and protagonist. And T-O-E (who, despite being a overcoat-wearing Machine-Man, is blissfully free of steampunk clunkiness) possesses a similar quality; his face is a black-and-white screen that televises his expressions as stills from movies and old cartoons. Although the relationship between these characters and the action of the comic is frequently clear -- a cartoon battle playing out over a real-life duel, a closeup of Frankenstein's monster when speaking of a deceased tyrant -- they also function as a bit of a Rorschach test, leaving us to interpret the expressions for ourselves.
Rice Boy is a largely impressionistic comic, less about storytelling than offering a feast for the eyes and warping the traditional medieval trappings of high fantasy into something truly innovative and weird. As such, Dahm doesn't always follow traditional storytelling conventions. We get a flashback to T-O-E's childhood that less addresses the main story than exacerbates the overall sense of tragedy and shows even the long-lived T-O-E is vulnerable to ignorance and irony. Granted, sometimes there are stumbles in this approach; the pacing is a bit off, and the chapters dealing with Rice Boy's adventures in the Linking City and Underside could have benefited from some slowing down and drawing out. And, with a series that focuses so much on the nature of fate and free will, it would be nice to meditate a bit on whether the numerous drive-by side characters are remotely in control of their own destinies (though we get hints of that with Gerund, a shy fellow on a reluctant quest for vengeance). But it's such a pleasure to watch Dahm shape the clay of his strange little world that any skips in the storytelling are utterly forgivable.
Order of Tales is, in many ways, Rice Boy's polar opposite. Where Rice Boy is rough, simple lines and technicolor, Order of Tales is finely detailed in black and white. Where Rice Boy is a roller coaster, Order of Tales is a slowly unfolding epic. Even the Overlanders who populate Order of Tales are a bit more subdued, gently anthropomorphized lizards, birds, and fish, who give Dahm's more unusual sentients space to breathe, lending them greater impact when they do appear.
Set a century before the events of Rice Boy, Order of Tales follows Koark, whose father is a member of a respected but dwindling order of story-collectors. Following a tragedy in his youth, Koark is charged with learning a long-forgotten story, the eventually knowledge of which will have profound consequences on Overside. One fateful night, Koark strikes up a conversation with none other than The One Electronic (his television face now blank), who sets Koark on an errand related to the story, assuring him that it will lead to greater stories. Naturally, said errand does not go as planned, and Koark finds that, beyond merely telling stories, he may have to become the hero of one.
Order of Tales is an interesting effort, perhaps more ambitious than Rice Boy even as it uses a more traditional structure. Whereas fate leads Rice Boy around by his nonexistent nose, Koark is adrift; he has to make decisions without the benefit of a mentor, a clear set of instructions, or a firm moral code. Although he isn't an emotional blank slate in the way Rice Boy is a physical one, Koark is still in many ways the petulant child we see in the first few pages of the comic. His sole interest is to see his quest completed, and he seems largely indifferent to the war and suffering that plague Overside. Even when T-O-E reveals that elements of the tale he seeks are true, Koark remains stubbornly interested in the story and the story alone. But as he is confronted with murderers and slavers and besieged nations, he finds he must become involved in their stories rather than merely collecting them, acting from instinct where his simplified archetypes of his stories fail. This is perhaps clearest when Koark rescues a metaphorical princess, believing she holds the key to the story, and finds her scared, confused, and uncertain whether being rescued is in her best interest. It's an honest reaction, and Koark must come up with an equally honest response to convince her to remain with him. The question is, of course, whether these actions and choices will add up to a heroic, or at least compelling, character.
Of course, I have no doubt that Dahm has plenty of exciting and mindwarping adventures up his sleeve, and we're getting a much richer picture of some the species spotted throughout Rice Boy. But Order of Tales will live or die on the strength of its central characters and Dahm's ability to make us care about them. If he succeeds, Order of Tales could prove even more powerful than Rice Boy. If he fails, at least it will be interesting to watch.