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The Lost Colony, Vol. 3
posted December 15, 2008


Creator: Grady Klein
Publishing Information: First Second, softcover, 152 pages, October 2008, $18.95
Ordering Numbers: 9781596430990 (ISBN13), 1596430990 (ISBN10)

I have no idea if the First Second line is considered a success, either within comics or book publishing, but I like many of their books and respect several of their efforts. I think you can judge a publisher by the dearest, most beautiful and romantic shot they take at making a hit out of a comic that baffles most people. Fantagraphics has published books by such worthy cartoonists as Paul Ollswang for whom an audience much larger than the cast of a musical revue is difficult to imagine. Drawn and Quarterly has published collections by Claire Briggs in addition to those from Frank King. IDW released a giant edition of William Messner-Loebs' Journey in a format traditionally used to repackage old issues of Marvel Team-Up. Buenaventura Press and Picturebox practically live in that space between genius and madness. I love all of those entities a little bit more for these forays, and look with suspicion and something bordering on contempt for everyone that doesn't have at least one such volume on their backlist. Comics publishing is too Quixotic an enterprise in general for anyone to pass entirely on windmills.

First Second's wonderful and perhaps semi-hopeless project is Grady Klein and his Lost Colony books. Klein's work is not only set in a closed community in America's not too distant, rigidly multi-cultural yet divided past, it's designed in a way that you have to process new ways of storytelling to figure out what's going on. It's a strategy that reminds me of children's book more than it does comics. In children's books there are any number of styles and approaches on display that seem to fly in the face of focus groups and customized presentations. In comics, popular styles dominated to the point that many fans can distinguish a Jim Mooney from a Ross Andru at 100 paces.

Klein doesn't color like anyone else; he layers his work in a way that every single gradation in hue feels like its own physical reality, a distinct, tactile thing that's somehow wormed its way between you and the figure. Klein also creates complicated page designs with rigid, inky barriers between panels. If the standard panel divides instruct us to make a series of standard leaps that takes us from one moment and into another, Klein's thick lines are temporary blackouts. When I pop open one of the three Lost Colony works, I feel like I'm reading some other universe's After School Special, where a talented artist was able to take something that might have been a simple civics lesson in cartoon form and change it into this odd mediation on community and heritage and truth-telling. I'm not exactly sure how he does it.

In volume three, we seems to have moved solidly into the main thrust of the series' story, as Birdy is forced to negotiate some tricky family, community and interpersonal territory without her usual touchstones. Reducing the support system is a pretty time-honored way to throw the spotlight on a character's internal struggles as a mirror for the external battles they're fighting; as Birdy's a child, it also heightens tension. You get worried for her more than you might be concerned for an adult facing the same circumstances.

The book remains significantly in conflict with itself. It's a symphony of major movements played in minor keys. We're told that Birdy's mother is beautiful and was largely desired as a youth -- I don't see this in the art. The repulsive preacher Buck Swagger feels like he walked in from a different book, a much more broadly played one, which is a shame given the comparatively odd and offbeat nature of the other characters and the wonderful way Klein depicts his hair, girth and smell. Other than maybe Birdy or Louis, the dead grandfather receives the volume's most significant character insight, in a flashback that serves as the book's emotional climax. A flashback motif told in a light pink somehow fails to be as visually potent as the regular, panel-to-panel coloring. A potentially interesting split between Louis and Birdy becomes healed over by a glowing rock issue I was unaware existed anywhere near the root of their conflict. The whole book is like this! I find it charming, but, you know, I get these books from the publishers and it's part of my job to read them. I remain convinced that the people out there that might enjoy Klein's mad circus of offbeat effects enough they'd buy and consume every book, those people won't be able to find it at all.