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July 25, 2007

CR Review: The Architect


Creators: Mike Baron, Andie Tong
Publishing Information: Big Head Press, comic book, 80 pages, 2007, $9.95
Ordering Numbers: 9780974381442

The Architect puts a lie to one ongoing piece of conventional wisdom: that small presses should be forgiven lousy production values because they're small. In a sense, this book from Big Head Press is at least in the ball park with standard mainstream comics efforts: color, sturdy paper, and a cover of professional-enough standing that should cause second glances from its intended audience when placed on the comics shelf. It's nice to be reminded that a publisher can contribute something to the making comics beyond good intentions, a childhood desire to be involved in the comics industry and a vague desire to become a movie producer. That this story was first serialized on the Internet makes its slick look now that it's on paper even more of a rare thing. If nothing else, the overall appearance is an advertisement for the publisher that should go over well with future creators.

imageUnfortunately, the comic itself is as ordinary as any black and white comic on lousy paper, name your year. The Architect is a horror story drawing on elements of Frank Lloyd Wright's life, or at least the Wright we tend to see through the prism of fiction like Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. The borrowing proves clumsy; the figure at the story's center is even named Roark. I sometimes get a sense when I read comics from writers currently over 50 that they depend too much on a facile, broad take on non-mainstream culture that doesn't play as well as they think it does in our current cultural atmosphere of deep junk passions and an Internet that allows us to fake them. It's not cool or interesting for someone just to be doing a comic with Lloyd Wright's life and legacy as a springboard, not anymore, not the same way it might have once been amusing for Baron to bring Elvis's downward spiral into Nexus for little or no reason. Something of value has to be done with these references for us to appreciate their use.

Mike Baron and Andie Tong do a workmanlike job from a craft perspective, but The Architect never feels like anything other than a job. In fact, the mid-1990s DC mainstream look to Tong's art -- muscular and angular figures, mostly dropped or spare backgrounds, a dollop of manga influence -- blends with Baron's early 1980s-style anthology storytelling quirks (at one point the female lead actually vows to fight for her man) to create what's almost a summary statement on a certain kind of C-minus American comic book. It never for one second stops being a comic, if that makes any sense. It never loses the artificial feel that we're being marched through a story that's going to give us certain elements of soap opera and the fantastic. Unoriginal ones at that.

Tong and Baron each seem to embody tried and trues ways of working. Once upon a time, those modes fought for respect. That struggle and its flashes of passion is sorely missing from The Architect. The irony becomes obvious in that this is a book devoted in part to the notion of making excellent things that are one of a kind. It's also about a giant fungus, more memorable in its brief appearance -- even in its limited way -- than the ideas which ostensibly drive the graphic novel in its entirety.

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