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The Kid Firechief
posted October 29, 2004
Fantagraphics, $12.95, 96 Pages, 2004
150975962 (ISBN), MAR042565 (Diamond)
There was a time approximately six or seven years ago that I was certain Steven Weissman was the Next Big Thing. The Left Coast cartoonist, then in the Bay Area and now in Los Angeles, offered skill to burn. He had a unique flair for character design, reminiscent of classic kids cartoonists without being reverential. Weissman's narratives displayed a classic sense of flow, whereby character types bumped up against one another several times with escalating consequences before falling back to the floor too dazed to try again. He even had a proclivity for turns of dialogue that settled into the brain for far longer than the stories in which they appeared.
Although Weissman has continued to put out any number of high-quality little books, of which The Kid Firechief
is the latest, first rank-dom (such as it is) seems slightly out of reach now. Some of this may be due to the fact that Weissman's art hasn't progressed significantly since those early self-published issues, or at least not in its general appearance. This indicates that he was a fully realized talent onto which some of us may have placed expectations of growth. A more compelling reason is that despite the kiddie-classic overtures Weissman is a highly select taste with two competing impulses battling it out in his work.
Much of what works best about the stories in Kid Firechief
are those moments in which the narratives loosen up and flow with an almost giddy, bouncy sense of timing, like the moments of sublime action that sometimes took over the Our Gang
films. There's an extended sequence where Kid Firechief and Nosey Rosie Cheeks are rescued from captivity that moves with confident loopiness. Characters take time out to pose and make jokes, they shout one-liners back and forth, and babies leap through the window and practice kung-fu to protect their management contract. These moments are far and few between, and it took me a couple of times through the book to appreciate the scene because of the idiosyncratic way in which Weissman brings about certain effects. Some of the best dialogue work, for example, comes in asides that don't make it into the panel - no matter the reward, it's hard to read those things if you're accustomed to moving your eyeballs from balloon to balloon.
Weissman's ragged way of rendering faces makes it difficult to focus on his characters. Without the hat and coat, I couldn't pick Kid Firechief Olaf Oedwards out of a lineup. An issue of the self-published Yikes!
where Weissman used spot color may have been memorable simply because it slowed the eye down and gave added weight to figures, weight that doesn't come through in this nicely-toned, "flame colored" work.
Another interesting conflict found specifically in Kid Firechief is that the stories are no great shakes on the surface of it - Kid Firechief going back in time to find his parents and stop them from being tragically killed is a narrative thread that taks too much time to develop, and the result is played too straight for my tastes. It's still hard to find anything to complain about when a cartoonist introduces a bear that flies a helicopter in as funny and offhanded a way as Weissman manages in a forest fire sequence, or when he nails down facets of the weird nature of kids that survive into adulthood mostly unchanged. If alt-comics "stardom" eludes Steven Weissman because of the creative choices he makes, his legacy of odd, affecting works may be all the better for it.