Mudman #2

The second issue of Paul Grist's excellent Image series, Mudman, seems to exist mostly so that the holes of the first issue, intriguing though they were, might be plugged. Reading it on its own, is, accordingly, a little frustrating; I'm not sure if this way of telling Mudman's origin story, first from the perspective of hero Owen Craig and then again from the perspective of the bank robbers who set in motion the creation of our hero, separated by covers and two months of actual time, is an effective narrative technique. In fact, here it seems like Grist is committing the great sin of comics writing, a sin that he wrote he was trying to avoid in the introduction to the series' first issue, namely, writing for the trade. This part of the story, certainly, is going to read better in a collected edition than it does here, simply because, in order for the story to make sense, a relatively intimate knowledge of what has come before (that is, before in our frame of reference, but concurrently to the events of the first issue) is necessary.

Having read that issue a few times (because it was one of the best single comics of 2011), knowledge isn't really an issue here the way it can be sometimes; my recall on this one seems to be pretty good. That said, it shouldn't be an issue at all; a link in the chain of a serial story is a good, strong, link only when it depends on a basic understanding of what went on, not the ability to exactly review the timeline at any given moment. Because this issue occupies the same timeframe as the last issue, with certain parts lining up so that the two issues make a whole, neither issue actually hangs together on it own, at least plot-wise. I was sort of willing to forgive this last issue, because I thought Grist was doing something formally clever, but it's pretty clear here that, even if he is intentionally mirroring the way comics come together in the construction of his plot, it doesn't really work, at least not here.

Still, Mudman is still an excellent comic book, precisely because this issue, like the last issue, is a masterpiece of the form. If the series so far doesn't appear to quite have the hang of serial storytelling, what it does do well is show that Grist is a master comicsmith, someone who really understands what it is that makes comics (as a medium fundamentally different from other mediums that have a tendency towards serials, say, television or blockbuster movie franchises) tick. There are two, opposite, reasons for this mastery. The first, the more obvious one, is that Grist has an intuitive way of representing sensory input that we usually understand as non-visual in a visual way, particularly subtle things like emphasis in speech. He does the big, bold, BLAMs and so on in an incredibly user friendly way too, but it's the little things, like the increasing line weights on each letter in a climactic use of "SHUT UP," that really shows how good Grist is.

The less obvious evidence of his mastery, though, is how good he is at working with what isn't there, namely, how excellently Grist uses the gutter, how innovative and well-used the interplay between the panels and the absence (that is, the infinity) that exists in the between is. I've dealt with this before, so I'm not going to gush too much about it now, except to say that Mudman is how a comic should be laid out, with a view towards both an aesthetic appeal and a narrative one. The art is similarly consistently brilliant, although Grist has a little trouble with perspective and relative size, a trouble that seems to have to do with his otherwise excellent understanding of negative space.

Mudman, although not a perfect comic book by any means, is a great one, maybe one of the few great ones around right now, and it is this way precisely because it is flawed, precisely because Paul Grist is trying something new and interesting and risky. In some ways, the book is a cautionary tale, a reminder that comics, unlike the visual fine arts, has to have a good working relationship, the appropriate balance, between form and content. Still, although formalism and abstraction are by no means new to the medium, they are new to the populist version of it at the base of what Image Comics (and, by extension, most of the American comics industry) does, and what Grist is doing is gutsy and worth purchasing, particularly if we hope to see more medium bending work like this in the future, from Grist or anyone else.

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