Altered Realities is something unusual in contemporary comics, an anthology title: the first issue contains the first episodes of two continuing series, plus one complete story, in three different genres, drawn by three different artists but all written by publisher Sal Cipriano. The visual differences between the three elements are emphasised by the use of three different typefaces on the contents page, which is quite effective, but also by the fact that the three artists all do their own lettering, none of them with outstanding skill. A specialist letterer could bring a unity to the book and improve its appearance in a way that is only apparently trivial.
Funny Little Voices is the shortest and most complex of the three strips. The theme is mainstream "adolescent angst with superpowers" stuff, but with an indirect narrative approach which, intentionally or unintentionally, makes the story more ambiguous, and so more interesting. It begins with a page of intensive exposition (four deaths!) that had me checking the contents page to make quite sure this was the first episode. Teenaged Mikey is on the run from the mayhem caused by the "funny little voices" inside his head. This attempt to blame the terrible things that happen around him on the voices only he can hear is surely a classic symptom of schizophrenia: but the voices make themselves visible, in the form of a cluster of demonic Spawn masks, so perhaps they do have an objective reality. The voices, or Naums, are accompanied by their former advisor, The Unknown, and their Nemesis, Kale. Mikey stands alone against this crowd, his family having been wiped out by the voices, his only ally a reporter he does not entirely trust. I would feel more sympathetic if he seemed distressed by this, but he is pretty cold towards his family, admitting to loving only one of the four people who died (by implication, his [ex-]girlfriend, rather than his parents or his "asshole brother"). So are we supposed to sympathise with this teenager on the run (from the police, from the voices in his head, from the voices' enemy and quite possibly from the reporter who claims to be his friend)? Or does the suspense come from waiting for Mikey to be revealed as the homicidal maniac he appears to be? And is this uncertainty a skillful piece of manipulation, or the cost of plunging into the narrative in midstream, without giving the reader a chance to build any rapport with the hero?
Visually, too, Funny Little Voices is the most appealing of the three stories. Sal Cipriano produces nice cartoony artwork, which, despite a heavy reliance on tricksy perspectives and sudden close-ups, gives a liveliness to the obligatory chase sequence. And Mikey, when his bizarre powers are not manifesting, has a plausible adolescent awkwardness.
Brian Cardello's artwork for Bruisa provides a complete stylistic contrast: a mixture of heavy black outlines and scratchy lines. At its best, in a view of the city at night, for example, this gives a kind of dirty realism, not original but quite effective, but the people he draws are ugly without being lifelike. The writer, too, must bear some responsibility for the woodenness of the characters; Bruisa is the least successful of the three strips, the familiar story of the boxer who finds himself unable to obey his boss's instruction to throw a fight, and whose mentor is too weak to help him. Although the publisher's blurb describes this story as a crime-drama, its values are reminiscent of Frank Miller's Daredevil and its depiction of Matt Murdoch's boyhood in Hell's Kitchen.
Finally, Temporary Hero, a "sci-fi-super-hero-twilight-zonish tale" is a slick genre piece. The sf standby of the "ordinary astronaut" transfigured into a hero by his encounter with space aliens is replayed, but with an ironic twist ending substituted for epic grandeur and "sense of wonder." Writer Sal Cipriano and artist Marco DiLeonardo perform their tasks competently, but without finding anything to say that has not been said many times before. The end result has the period feel of an EC Comics short.
The best thing about Altered Realities is that it exists at all, that the team have managed to put their magazine together and to get it onto the market. And I'm flattered that they asked me to review it, especially as it must be clear from these pages that I am not their typical target audience - in two respects. Firstly, their stories are designed to appeal to young, even adolescent, males, probably with a taste for violent action - not to middle-aged women who have read it all before. (And I hope the comics find that audience and flourish). Secondly, I'm a words person, a narrative junkie, and the book is image driven. Writing in his rôle as publisher, Sal Cipriano says outright that his aim was to "create a vehicle" for artists to "strut their stuff" and that his task as writer was simply to facilitate this: which makes it ironic that it should be Cipriano who comes up with the most striking visuals of the collection!
This review deals only with the first issue of Altered Realities. A second is promised, and should involve more writers, a move to exploit the flexibility of the anthology format which is entirely welcome.
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