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Billy Boy: The Sick Little Kid #1
posted April 3, 2003
I've tried a hundred different ways to start this review, and none of them seem to work, so let's just come out and say it: Wow, this stuff looks like Al Columbia's. Cartoonist Frank Forte is either really taken with the whispered-about, alt-comix legend in the making, or he has the exact same artistic and narrative role models. The latter is a definite possibility: a number of artists drink deeply from the same well as Columbia, and the Asylum comics line advertised in the back pages of this first issue seems to consist almost entirely of twisted interpretations of well-known cartoon aesthetics. Besides, Columbia's comics are less about the originality of their vision than the startling clarity of their realization -- no alternative cartoonist makes better use of placing familiar modes of expression into disturbing new contexts, all the more distressing because his use often seems more apt than the original.
Illegitimate artistic progeny or long-lost cartooning cousin, Frank Forte obviously and expectedly fails to match Columbia's breathtaking follow-through, that extra, otherworldly quality that makes cartoonists stare at original Pim and Francie pages and wonder how the hell they're done. I'm not even certain this is an artistic achievement one can work towards -- it may be that you either have it or you don't -- but more work couldn't hurt. Forte falls well short not just of the heights of Columbia's work but of making compelling comics, period. Nothing in Billy Boy #1 is memorable on its own account.
Still, if comics like Billy Boy are a temporary destination for the cartoonist, there's some encouragement to be had in terms of the skills being developed. Forte's mix of floating-on-the-surface visuals and aggressive shading could someday offer charms of their own, and the lush landscapes used as backgrounds in the second story are promisingly expressive. If he chooses to step sideways into modes of storytelling he can better claim as his own, Forte will have already developed some of the basic skills with which to map out his own unique visual landscape. The writing has even further to go, but age, experience, and a more idiosyncratic storytelling style could help there, too. But first, Forte will have to decide for himself how far he wants to continue in his current direction. I'm afraid right now Billy Boy is the comic book equivalent to Diet Dr. Thunder, and that only gets flatter with time.