Warp Zone #1-2
Ted Lange IV: Literally Everything
Amongst us critics, a favorite go-to for criticizing a piece of art we don't like is to claim it's style over substance, as though it is overcompensating for a lack of significant meaning (plot, themes, character development, etc.) with superficial visuals or writing. Now that I think about it, this criticism is totally bogus. The problem is that style is so important to an art's substance. It gives it a unique look that distinguishes itself. Just think how the genre of film noir is able to differentiate itself from other crime thrillers with its unique approach to lighting and camera angles that give a darker, psychological aesthetic to the world.
Finally, style being more important than plot and characters is not always a bad thing. There seems to be ideas floating around how they're supposed to do certain things in order to be satisfying. However, if the approach taken, despite not fitting into standard expectations, works then it works and shouldn't lessen a piece of art's value.
(This point makes me a total hypocrite because I recently judged a comic on a similar basis. What can I say? I'm imperfect and constantly changing my opinion.)
Focusing on the presentation of style over other elements can still make for interesting art. In fact, if you analyze something that at first appears to be focused on style, you'll actually see that those elements are more fleshed out than you think. For Warp Zone, by Ted Lange IV, the comic's style proves to be the substance behind it and is a fun, interesting read for it.
Starting off with the covers, both are fantastic in their surreal, urban art style with glowing colors and the grungy character design of Mungo. He looks imperfect and with shot perspective, but also kinetic and upbeat. The otherworldly scenery around him is just as fascinating. There isn't much in terms of symbolism or metaphor, but they do catch your attention, which is the most important aspect of cover art.
While both have a similar aesthetic, I found different things to like about each cover. In #1, I enjoy the portal opening, descending into a twistin'-turnin' path like Alice in Wonderland. For #2, I like the dominance of purple. It's like a metallic foil cover from the 90s. Oh God. Did I just compliment the 90s?!
(chucks self into river)
The only problem is that Mungo is the sole figure in both. He's a cool-looking dude, but it would be nice to see other characters and actual settings showcased in the issue so that the reader can anticipate what will unfold in the story. As important as looking good is, comic covers should also advertise the content however vaguely. It usually motivates a potential reader more to buy your book. Or maybe not. Fuck expectations, right?
Opening up #1, the reader is presented in this scene:
In this very simple opening, Ted Lange IV demonstrates the remarkableness of his comic, how his focus on art over story lends to a unique style of comics storytelling.
It all starts with the art. The best way I can describe it is an urban and surreal scifi funk. It's like an indie hip-hop album cover or if Fat Albert and his friends took a bunch of LSD then blasted off into space. Colors are garish and settings tend to be grungy looking, sometimes too much to the point of looking flat, such as this building.
Fortunately, most of the time the combination works to make the urban settings have a bright and upbeat shine to them. At a basic level, it's a nice way to show the beauty of a setting that's traditionally considered ugly. Then, shit gets crazy when Mungo steps through a warp zone.
Suddenly, readers gaze in awe at scenes of endless light-filled cosmos and strange alien worlds right out of a Japanese video game. In fact, take a look at this:
Did that cat man just portal through Super Mario tubes? I mean, what is that even? I don't know, but damn if it ain't fucking awesome! To have scenes change from an urban landscape to surreal sci-fi settings is eye-catching and a whole lot of fun because the reader never knows where Mungo will end up next. However, you might argue that such a transition could be jarring and hard to grasp. I can see that at a certain level, but the good thing is that Lange's art is as flawlessly kinetic as it is pretty.
My favorite comics are the ones where the sequential arrangements seem animated despite being a series of still images. Most comics fail to do this. It can be because of too much lettering, the art is stiff, panel arrangement is bad, or movement isn't decompressed well. This is not a problem for Ted Lange. His art, while grungy, is simple, loose and never feels stiff. His panel arrangements allow for step-by-step decompression to be executed expertly.
The result is sequential movement in Warp Zone that is never too little or too much. It avoids either being a choppy mess or so stretched out that you're groaning for the next scene. Just like a certain little bear's porridge stolen from a greedy girl, it's just right.
I have to compliment Lange for how he fits the lettering into this flow. It helps that there isn't much dialogue. Characters hardly say more than a sentence in each speech bubble. Sometimes, one part of a character's dialogue will be in one panel, and then it'll be in the next as they move. It keeps the flow going while giving the necessary exposition and character development the comic needs.
I especially love how the narration is done. Most of it is in white letters, and there's something about them that adds to the story flow unique from what the dialogue offers. I think that it's dramatic tension. Look at this scene:
The white letters in descending order here build up tension, anticipating the reader for when Mungo crosses over from the mundane world to the fantastic surrealism of the Warp Zone and the reader is wowed by the transition. The lettering along with everything else in the art creates an amazing, kinetic reading experience that keeps you on your toes and waiting for the next big thing.
The art is only half of this reading experience. The other half is the writing. It's minimalist with little in terms of exposition and dialogue. I find this approach fascinating because of my mixed feelings toward it where I can see both the positives and negatives to this approach.
On one hand, the minimalist story compliments the art, giving it the barest of foundations to guide the readers from Point A to Point B and witnessing the fantastic scenes. Information is given here and there, but it never creates a complete picture. This isn't to say that the reader is left in confusion. Reading the book does require taking notes to keep up with the characters and what's going on, why are they doing these things and what does that mean for the fictional world at large. Those who don't want to do so much work might find this infuriating, but I think it's nice to have a series that challenges you to concentrate and put the pieces together to make that complete picture.
On the other hand, a minimalist approach can muddle characters. The main cast of Warp Zone are each uniquely designed individuals. There's Mungo with his signature hoodie that makes him look like a space-jumping Spider Gwen, Jack Elsewhere with his 70s urban style, the unforgettably pink Penelope Rockmore, and Calico Jones who appears to be the estranged cousin of Cheshire Cat that became a tweaker after a night out with Jesse Pinkman.
The most interesting character I found was Penelope Rockmore because of her weight. In issue #1, she's average, but in issue #2, she is chubby. I don't know what prompted this design change, but it's great and I hope Lange keeps it, especially since Penelope seems perfectly comfortable in her skin and radiates sensual beauty. You don't see plus-size people given that privilege in most comics, and having it is good for positive representation that reminds people you can be any size you want and still be sexy.
If you haven't noticed, I've only been able to compliment the characters based on their visuals. That's because their personalities are forgettable. It isn't because of blandness, but the story's minimalism detracts from complex psychology. The only character that made any impression was Calico Jones who is comically angry. In this case of visuals being more important than story, it backfires. For readers intrigued by complex characters, Warp Zone will disappoint. It should be fine with readers that don't mind though.
The only other issue I have with Warp Zone's minimalist plot is the single-issue format. Back when I reviewed From Under Mountains for PopOptiq, I wrote how I thought the minimalist storytelling did not work for a monthly fantasy comic. I'm wondering the same here with Warp Zone even though it's not as complex as the former title. Certainly, in a longer graphic novel form minimalism can work, but is it as effective in monthly comics? When the wait between an issue can be anywhere from a month to one year, I think that one easily forgets a lot about the story. Hell, I read issues #1-2 consecutively and still forgot. For now, I'm going to hold judgment until Warp Zone concludes and see just how effective its minimalism was.
Warp Zone is an upbeat scifi comic with surreal and kinetic art and an anything goes attitude. Some might find the minimalist plot a hindrance, but even then the comic is still a hellauva lotta fun to read and should prove entertaining for those that like their comics funky and unpredictable.
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