I've got quite a backlog of comics sitting on my coffee table right now. I thought I'd review a few independent-type single issue comics (by which I mean "not graphic novels"), some of which are not especially recent. "Not recent" as in "I might review Crickets #1." I haven't ruled out including some scans for later reviews, but it's too late to do that tonight. Sorry. I'll start with the most recently purchased of the lot: Niger #1 by Leila Marzocchi, the latest addition to Fantagraphic/Coconino's Ignatz series. I think.
I can't say I was previously familiar with Marzocchi, but Lambiek says she's been working in comics for 20 years, including a stint with Kodansha! There's hardly a trace of manga influence in Niger, however. Fantagraphics' copy refers to her "dense woodcut style," but that's actually a little misleading. "Woodcut style" usually brings to mind enormous pools of black broken by bold, jagged white lines; Marzocchi's lines are much finer, much more subtle than those in the archetypical woodcut print. They almost appear to be made with etching tools, though the overall appearance does resemble a reduction print. Niger features three tones of red, ranging from a medium burgundy to a very pale pink. (If you've seen pictures of the cover online, please note that the actual printed version only features a single shade of red. At least my copy does.) Marzocchi's characters are frequently set against a solid black background; as a result, the art occasionally looks as if it were drawn on a chalkboard with impossibly fine-tipped pieces of chalk.
The story is quite reminiscent of Larry Marder's Beanworld. The Assembly, a loose confederacy of birds (plus one tree and one unidentified creature wearing false wings) discover some sort of larva in a treehouse. Apparently (mis?) identifying it as a type of bird, they call upon The Hand of Fatima (a disembodied hand covered in Arabic) to issue a fatwa, warning all the predators in the forest not to prey on the larva (subsequently named "Dolly.") The birds then take turns guarding Dolly, who occasionally fills us in on her brief backstory via flashbacks. The tone is very similar to Beanworld (the narrator's reaction to the introduction of the Hand of Fatima: "Does ANYONE still give a crap about The Hand?"), but the initial concept is even more similar. A foreign element is introduced into a preexisting system; beings living within this system try to integrate the new element into it. The story ends before we can gauge their success, but their confusion at Dolly's lack of a beak suggests some struggling ahead.
Unlike Marder, Marzocchi does not lay out the rules which govern her system in the first issue. Prior to the arrival of the Mossy Mammoth, Marder's Beans were part of a cyclical system in which there was no waste, but no creativity either. Niger's ecosystem is still unrevealed at the end of the first issue. It's unclear what Marzocchi is getting at in the first issue; unlike Marder, she doesn't seem to consider symbols and systems as sufficient material for the entire series. (Her gossamer linework doesn't really suit that kind of approach, anyway.) Marzocchi is much more interested in showing how the new element (Dolly) reacts to the system, whereas Marder concentrates on the opposite. But this isn't exactly like Chester Brown's Underwater, either. Marzocchi focuses more on Dolly's avian protectors than Dolly herself. We can understand their dialogue, whereas the language of adults was gibberish in Underwater.
It's a very strange first issue. The opening pages, in which an owl watches Dolly struggle to move into an overturned flower vase, bring to mind Brown's "A Late Night Snack." Marzocchi's owl doesn't see Dolly as prey, however. Once this is revealed, the tone shifts considerably. Marzocchi draws the owl and other forest animals very realistically, while Dolly is a very simple cartoon larva. Dolly thus seems like an innocent in a mysterious, dangerous environment. After the birds' benevolence is made clear, however, she introduces the comical Wingman, drawn in a jarringly cartoony style. Dolly is no longer alone; she almost looks like the larval form of Wingman. Marzocchi also begins introducing more whites lines into the backgrounds.
Unfortunately, once the birds appoint themselves as guardians, Niger loses much of the tension which made its first few pages so intriguing. Marzocchi tries to rectify this towards the end of the book. In the last three pages, Marzocchi introduces a new character who may end up being an antagonist for Dolly. Furthermore, the last text in the book suggests that Dolly is eager to remove herself from the birds' protection. That would be a shame, actually; the large proportion of owls among the Assembly ensure that most of Niger takes place at night, which best suits Marzocchi's artwork. The birds also have a few funny moments as they try to make sense of Dolly's presence. As it is, the main pleasures in Niger come from Marzocchi's cobwebs of lines, congealing into spots of bright white bursting out against the black backgrounds. Beyond that, it's too hard for this reviewer to disentangle Niger from the better-known Beanworld. Marzocchi's art is occasionally stunning, but there's not a whole lot of other reasons to read Niger yet; she doesn't successfully replace the tension of the early pages with an effective thematic hook in the second half of the book. Hopefully the second issue will make Marzocchi's intentions a bit clearer.