WEIRD WESTERN BIRD WATCHING
Last week I talked about Kickstarter and going beyond one’s normal zone looking for comic creators. It’s a slippery slope. Kickstarter seems to have created its own social media community. Case in point, from following Eric Mengel, I got turned onto Jason “J.R.” Beirens and his book BIRDSTACKING TOME ONE: GRAYHAT on Kickstarter.
GRAYHAT is about as far from OCHO as could be. Beirens subtitles the book “A Weird Western”, and that well foretells the book, as issue one is a weird western through and through. Our protagonist, we shall have to wait see how heroic he turns out to be in the end, despite his fondness for underdog talking rodents, Grayhat is cut from the Shane mold, a man of few words, a murky past, and an obvious talent for finding messes. No horse, rather a miraculous bison named Bea, is his transport of choice, his wagon driving steed. This isn’t a weird western like the old DC comic WEIRD WESTERN TALES with El Diablo and Cinnamon and Jonah Hex in their largely realistic worlds. Beirens populates Grayhat’s world with talking animals and magicians bent on vengeance. Strange bird-like magicians who seem to have stepped out of a Robert E Howard Kull story, or perhaps an early issue of Dave Sim’s CEREBUS.
The first issue is a bit of a paradox, both spare and yet lush. The pencils are deceptively simple, and blending with the colors prove to be an indulgent book to leaf through and admire the art. Beirens acknowledges the influence of Mœbius on his work, and while his work definitely gives an aura of late-70s issues of HEAVY METAL, he really shows his own deft pencil style. Combined with the palette, it’s an evocative book. The different hues of green create a forestscape that is inviting, threatening, and completely enveloping. The reader is easily drawn into this fantastic world. It’s not Blueberry. It’s not Jonah Hex. It’s Grayhat. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the use of sound effects and their placement in helping to create this mood as well. From the first page, when the sound effects crawl across the back of the rodent Neda, and the repeated effects dripping from one animal to the next in the opening pages perfectly drops us into Grayhat’s world before we meet him, before even a word is spoken. It’s an excellent use of what the comic form can do expressively. It’s that mix of words and images, words as images, a simple amplification of the art, and it works so very very well.
Beirens masterful art isn’t the only selling point of GRAYHAT though. The writing, while also deceptively spare, sets up this world of magic and deep history. Again, it struck me as being very reminiscent of the early, adventure-oriented issues of CEREBUS with its hints of odd religions and an esoteric background. It’s an interesting reverse of that conceit where rather than an aardvark out of place in the human world, we have an all-too-human gunslinger out of place in a world of talking animals, where human-sized birds are magicians, and the mice are better at cards than man apparently. The dialogue of the latter half of the book neatly fills in the characterization of Grayhat, setting up his easygoing, and yet moral, nature. I’d ride shotgun with Grayhat and Bea, although I don’t know if I would play cards with Neda. The biggest takeaway is a whetted appetite that makes the reader want to follow along on the next stage of Grayhat’s journey with his new companions, and his very odd magical transport, sort of a western HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE.
The last few pages of the book are filled with Beirens musings on the book. Character designs. Re-drawn pages. It’s an interesting, and involving, look into the creative process. And yes, it explains Bea. It makes the book that much more intimate, seeing the work behind it.
Beirens has a Kickstarter going for Issue Two going now. It has about a week left in it. Check it out. And check out his blog at http://birdstacking.tumblr.com/ for further discussions of his art and of GRAYHAT. It’s a well-maintained artist blog. On a final note, the end of Issue One teases the next Birdstacking project, a legal noir piece. Sign me up for that one now!