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The Vagabonds #1
posted January 24, 2004
Alternative Comics, $2.95
Josh Neufeld has all the tools to become a top-tier alternative comics cartoonist, if not the kind readers anticipate with hand-rubbing glee then definitely a frequent third or fourth purchase for the irregular comics shopper. Neufeld draws clearly, utilizing a sturdy, straightforward style with the range to document anything from abstract principles to specific details observed abroad. His writing voice is smart and unobtrusive, drawing from an acute political awareness tempered by an appealingly skeptical view of his own ability to process information. Best of all, he can move between humorous and serious story segments with seamless aplomb. Neufeld eschews the excesses of formal play and works around shortcomings in craft so that he never embarrasses himself. Were he a basketball player, Neufeld would be the guard with the solid jump shot who knows not to dribble with his left hand, the team captain that leads the squad in minutes and efficient point production, a square-jawed potential star.
Despite the cartoonist's growing skill, the first issue of The Vagabonds projects weary blandness more than it reveals a sure hand. Some of this can be blamed on dubious narrative strategies. The leadoff story, "Tribal Rituals, Part I: On a Mission," features an encounter with American missionaries told with a pace that would need to quicken to be called languid; yet the themes explored are summary in nature. The result is something that feels at once light on the details and cursorily manipulative. Similarly, the cartoonist's autobiographical 9/11 story, "Song for September 11th," mines a few quirky details about Neufeld's day but chooses to play these particulars against the lyrics of Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York," a push for significance and pathos that falls really, really flat. For someone who is such a fine caretaker of his own talent, Neufeld does a surprisingly poor job nurturing the stories assembled here. If that ability ever clicks into place, if the shorts become more sharply poignant and the longer travelogues shift out of pithy point making and into a showcase for accrued detail and wry observation or some other more natural and rewarding direction, this could quickly become the best series in the Alternative line.