Mourning Star, volume 1 (publisher's website)
Ooh, I really liked this. It immediately reminded me of Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar's Dungeon, in that they're both fantasy-type comics told with funny animal-type characters. Except that Dungeon is more of a straight-up fantasy (with wizards and whatnot), while Mourning Star is a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max kind of thing. And, actually, Kazmir Strzepek's characters aren't funny animals at all--some of them are based on his doodles of Nosferatu, while others are an "elf-alien combo," according to this Comics Reporter interview. But tonally, there's a lot in common--both series use fantastic settings and tropes as a way to examine very human characters. And they both have a sort of genial, whimsical quality. This attitude pervades all aspects of Dungeon. In Mourning Star, it's expressed mostly through scenes involving members of the Rule, an evil...clan? Invading army? It's not really clear yet.
I'd say that Strzepek takes his story a bit more seriously than Trondheim and Sfar, though. The latter two seem to be writing Dungeon by the seat of their pants; the plot serves mostly as a showcase for their characters' personalities. That's not the case for Mourning Star, at least not yet. This is not to say that Strzepek is more concerned with plot than characterization, but he seems to take his action/peril scenes a bit more seriously. He also seems especially interested in the post-apocalyptic premise itself. Dungeon, with its tripartite structure mirroring three overarching stages of life (youth, adulthood, and old age), is often concerned with the changing relationship among characters over time. Trondheim and Sfar paint with broad strokes--there's a lot about the folly of youth, the regrets of the old, and everything in between. It's a very cyclical work: as characters age, new characters are introduced, who often behave similarly to the older characters. Patterns repeat. Mourning Star is also concerned with the passage of time and memory, but the past is totally unrecoverable for its characters. History is divided very clearly between before and after the comet. Characters who try to recover aspects of their past lives appear to be deluded. One character has amnesia. Another, a sort of ghost-type thing, feeds off of other characters' dreams--he's a parasite who leeches off of others' memories. Dungeon's fantasy trappings are basically just a springboard for neat little drawings and funny bits of characterization. In Mourning Star, the post-apocalyptic premise is at the absolute center of everything Strzepek is doing.
Mourning Star is one of those books that totally absorbed me on first reading, to the point where I had to make a concerted effort to think about the book in a critical way. I mean that as a great compliment to Strzepek. Much of this is due to the appealing characters he's created, all of whom seem to breathe life into much-used archetypes (the dangerous loner, the avuncular traveling companion, the young seeker, the bumbling hanger-on, etc.). Strzepek's charming art helps--his style reminds me of James Kochalka (cute, deceptively simple), early Chester Brown (austere page compositions), and Bryan Lee O'Malley (expressive character work); if this sounds like a strange and not altogether useful description, I encourage you to check out the copiously illustrated Comics Reporter interview. My interest in these characters intensified my reaction to the excitement and mystery Strzepek injects into the proceedings. I finished the book wanting more, and soon. So when are we getting more?
It was this reaction that reminded me of the discussion of Vertigo from a couple of days ago. There are a lot of different theories I've heard for explaining Vertigo's historical success, but I would mostly attribute the imprint's longevity to its association with strong serialization. The Vertigo titles I've read all have a marked soap opera quality--issues often end in a cliffhanger, placing the principle characters in jeopardy. Combine this with a strong meta-narrative hook, as many of the most successful titles have done (Preacher, Fables, and Y the Last Man all spring to mind), and you have a highly addictive comic. Assuming you're tuned into the Vertigo aesthetic.
I never have been, personally. Fables is the only Vertigo title I've followed on a monthly basis. I think that's due to three major factors: the subject matter, Bill Willingham's breezy writing (in direct contrast to his often gruesome plots), and Mark Buckingham's terrific pencils. I haven't read the majority of Vertigo titles (as Matt Brady can attest), but those I've tried and disliked have been lacking in one of those regards. Art especially--many of the most popular Vertigo titles are drawn in a style I find tremendously dull (I'm thinking Lucifer, most of Hellblazer, and Animal Man in particular). This seems to have improved over the years; I'd certainly take Cliff Chiang, Eduardo Risso, or Jock over Chas Truog anyday. But I'd take Kazmir Strzepek over all of them.
Anyway, the growing consensus seems to be that Vertigo is moving away (but by no means has completely moved away) from the monthly pamphlet format as grows more reliant on TPB sales. A lot of people are waiting for the trade, in other words. This is interesting to me, in that I think the soap opera/cliffhanger thing is so important to Vertigo's success. If there are a lot of people waiting six months between trades, then there must be a lot of folks willing to embrace serials with large gaps between installments. Obviously North American manga publishers are aware of this; most of the series I follow only come out about four times a year.
So why aren't more publishers trying to start up lines of serialized OGNs? I think Vertigo has proven there's a niche for this kind of material, even if it only comes out about twice a year. I'd go nuts for a similar line if it were geared a bit more to my tastes. There's probably money to be made from serializing less sf/fantasy-orietnted stuff than Vertigo typically offers. Something like Berlin* would surely appeal to a fairly wide audience. Likewise, I think there are untapped readers who would gravitate toward something like Mourning Star**, just because its visuals are so inviting. Jesus, folks, what about Scott Pilgrim? What is that but a series of OGNs? In the past year, we've seen a number of new formats successfully introduced into the industry, most notably Fantagraphics' Ignatz line and Image's Slimline. If these two formats have caught on with readers, there's no reason to think that a line of serialized OGNs has no chance.
*I'm not trying to imply that Jason Lutes could be counted on for two OGNs a year, given that I have a firm, Dave Sim-like grasp on reality.
**Which is apparently a collection of Strzepek's mini comics, so it's probably not a good example either.