Penny Palabras: Season 1 by James B. Willard & Patrick K. Beavers

This comic follows an unsettled girl being tormented by the Straw Man, a nightmarish creature that’s slowly working to drive her insane and eat her soul. The only friend she has is a peculiar librarian, and Penny’s world is a hostile place full of ghosts, mysteries, and despair. It’s an interesting premise for a comic, but it doesn’t live up to its full potential. The presentation of the setting, the absence of useful information, and Penny’s constant introspection prevented the comic from drawing me into its world.

The themes and the set up intrigued me, and I think the artist did a fantastic job drawing up monsters that communicated an entire personality just in the way they looked. The first episode drew me in, and I was primed to enjoy a disturbing mystery. I think there’s a lot of potential here, and both the writer and artist demonstrated that they have a good idea of how to put together a comic. That said, the issues mentioned above held me back from really enjoying myself.

The problem with the presentation of the setting is that the reader never sees how the world could be. There’s no glimpse of an ideal world, not prelude in which Penny has a normal life. From the get go, everything is strange, off. But, it’s only strange in the context of the world we live in compared to that of the comic. Without any contrast in the comic itself, everything that happens seems to be part of the natural order of things. When the entire world is strange and appears to have always been that way, it quickly becomes a new normal and prevents anything from standing out.

I think the comic would have been much better served if the first episode was in color, in a normal world we’re accustomed to. A chance for the reader to see Penny happy, to bask in banality. Sharp lines in the art, where everything is clear and defined, where it has its place. Then, the Straw Man could have appeared, the colors shifted to black and white, and the blurry art style could have replaced clean lines.

Without any of this, with the strange world rapidly becoming normal to the reader, a lot of the tension and horror gets sapped out of the comic. There’s no fear of the unknown and very little tension. That leaves the comic grey and dreary, rather than unsettling.

The second issue with the comic is that it gives the reader almost no helpful information about the world and how it works. Penny offers a morsel here and there, but for the most part the reader just has to accept the world as strange on its face. There are plenty of mysteries kicking around, but not much way for the reader to start figuring them out. The world seemed rich and full of interesting tidbits, but I never felt like I could really get my hands on any of them.

I think my biggest problem was the fact that everything in the world simply is, and there’s very little why given. The Straw Man is after Penny. Why? Because he is. Penny can see ghosts. Why? Because she can. I could go on, but you get the point. There are some explanations, but they’re usually delivered as lectures, such as the one concerning how time works for ghosts.

Additionally, when the comic does present a mystery and then explain it later, the explanation is usually anticlimactic or unsatisfactory. The reason Penny’s father is a broken drunk, the reason the library catches on fire, the librarian’s identity, none of these had a resolution that really struck me.

Penny herself is an introspective person, so most of the dialogue in the comic is her thinking to herself. It really doesn’t work for me. In a comic I look to the art, and what the characters say and do, more than what they think, to communicate the story to me. A navel-gazing loner just doesn’t make for engaging reading in this particular medium. I felt this entire thing would have worked better as a short story than it did as a comic, at least in the way the writer presented it to me.

In the end, I felt like I was following a drifter in a strange world. There were some nice postcards, but nothing there that made me want to return. It’s a shame, because the artwork set the tone quite well, and the story itself had a lot of potential. And to be clear, this comic certainly wasn’t bad. Even though it didn’t engage me, it also didn’t bore me. I really do think it has potential to become something unsettling. The first scene with a devil in it was the best in the entire season, so I know the writer and artist have the talent to pull it off. But as it stands right now, I give it a 3/5.

If you want to check it out, you can pick up the first issue from Amazon here.

The Anonymous City by Benjamin S. Farmer

Writing a meditation on mental illness isn’t easy, and it’s not a subject an author can lightly dispose of with an afternoon’s work. In this case, the story and writing does a good job of attuning the reader’s mind to the oppressive uncertainty and madness that afflicts the main character. As a tool for nurturing empathy in the reader, this book is a success. As a work of fiction, however, this novel has severe shortcomings. The story is awkwardly paced and there’s not one iota of levity to be found. As a result, the book is difficult and exhausting to read.

At its best, the book pulled me in with its grim tone and the main character, Alex’s, fading grip on reality. The author does a great job of conveying how Alex feels by keeping the reader confused as to what’s real for a good portion of the book. Towards the end, there’s a particularly clever bit where it turns out one of the most significant moments in her adult life was a cruel prank that, because she believed it to be real, pushed her into an inescapable spiral.

The author also shows how different people try to help Alex and fail miserably. The character who comes the closest doesn’t really enter her life until late in the game, and by then he’s about as ineffectual as his good intentions. I left the book with a sense that Alex was always going to have a difficult time dealing with the issues she had, but a parade of misguided people that failed to properly help her greatly exacerbated her issues.

Either they wouldn’t listen, refused to look head on at the full scope of her illness, or tried to fall into it with her in false sympathy instead of buckling down for the long haul it would take to work things out. The tragedy is Alex seems like she could have made it if just one or two people had done the right thing at the right time in her life. So, as I’ve said, the book is an interesting meditation on mental illness.

Unfortunately, the pacing is completely off. The entire first portion of the book is set in a different world, however real it may be, than the bulk of the book. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but the author lingered there for too long. The book is seven hundred pages on an e-reader, and it took until past page 100 before it really engaged me. The rest of the book was better, but it should have been shorter than it was. By how much, I can’t say, but there was a lot of fat where the author kept conveying messages that he’d already successfully communicated to the reader.

The pacing and length became quite problematic as the book wore on because there was never any relief for the reader. There was never a sweet moment, a bit of humor, a breath of fresh air, only longing, despair, and suffering. Although this effectively put the reader in Alex’s mindset and allowed for a great deal of empathy, it also made it exceptionally hard to read the book. It took me two weeks longer than I expected because I would have to spend several days working myself up to read just a hundred pages of it. Each time I did, I felt gutted and drained afterward.

Let’s be clear: in this sort of book, you want to do that to your reader. But doing it for the entire novel, without relief, weakens the narrative. It would be not only appropriate but necessary if this was a short story because you have to use every sentence to make a single point in one. In a novel, however, moments of levity are necessary to keep the reader going. It’s not so much about mirroring reality as it using the appropriate mechanics to make a book readable. It’s the same reason Shakespeare put the drunk in Macbeth, or the gravediggers in Hamlet. There is a somewhat positive, hopeful note at the very end, but there needed to be something prior to the last page.

I’m giving this novel the rating I am because it made me think, it hung with me whenever I put it down, and it disturbed me. That’s not to say it was a good book. It wasn’t. But it wasn’t bad either, and any time a book gets inside my head like this one did it’s a sign the author has real talent. I give it a 3/5.

You can pick up a copy from Amazon here.