Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Great Unknown #1 (of 5)

Image Comics, 22 pages, $ 3.50

Writer and artist: Duncan Rouleau
Letterer: Francis Takenaga

You never quite know what to expect from Duncan Rouleau. Ten years ago, the American writer/artist co-created M. Rex with Joe Kelly, an off-kilter sci-fi series of which only two issues saw the light of day. Among his most recent projects are a Metal Men series for DC Comics and a creator-owned graphic novel titled The Nightmarist, both of which Mr. Rouleau wrote and drew himself, and neither of which I’m familiar with. Based on the strength of The Great Unknown, though, I’m interested.

Zach, the protagonist of the series, is the archetypal underachiever: He lives in his parents’ garage, is regularly hauled out of trouble by his younger brother and is considered—by himself, mostly—to be “smarter than this.” Zach is an inventor with thousands of ideas filed away, but whenever he’s sure to have come up with the next big thing, someone at the home-shopping channel beats him to the punch. Just when his family is about to throw in the towel, any loser’s wettest dream becomes a reality for Zach: Somebody shows up and tells him that he’s “been robbed of his life,” and that It’s All Meant to Be Different for him.

It’s a great set-up that suggests Mr. Rouleau has thought things through. I’ve basically told you the plot of the first issue, but that’s not dramatic, because the “what”—and, again, it’s a perfectly good “what,” in this case—is less important than the “how.” Stylistically, Mr. Rouleau’s work demonstrates solid, dynamic craftsmanship with a tendency toward the quirky that he seems to be fully aware of, and which he seems fully capable of reigning in when required. Both the story and the artwork in The Great Unknown are quirky and at times disorienting, but none of that seems accidental, and it doesn’t come at the expense of clarity.

Zach, now, is a bit of a twit whose misery seems largely of his own making, at this stage in the story, so the potential for empathy appears rather narrow. And yet, it works, because the story doesn’t condemn Zach. We see his perspective, which is that he knows he’s kind of pathetic, but sincerely believes that, next time, he’s going to succeed with one of his inventions—right until he fails again. Additionally, there are glimpses suggesting that he really is no less than a genius, so I’m going to presume that the story is about to provide more insight on what led to Zach’s situation in an upcoming issue.

The comic isn’t perfect, certainly. It looks like Mr. Rouleau could have scrapped the first three pages, for instance, without losing anything. Instead, one or two more sincere character moments couldn’t have hurt. And having the prose checked by a copy editor would have been a good idea, too: Punctuation is our friend, because it helps the reader to tune into the pacing and rhythm of our writing, really. So if you’re a comics creator who hasn’t mastered that part of the job yet, do yourself and your audience a favor and have your work checked by someone who has.

Those quibbles aside, though, this is a solid start. The Great Unknown is an eccentric comic, but also a sturdy and well-conceived one, with a clearly defined protagonist and genuine urgency—and Mr. Rouleau’s writing and art have a great deal of energy and appeal. I’m curious where this is going.

Grade: B+

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