Review: Chiaroscuro

(Originally posted on my Ferret Press blog, February 2011)

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Back when IDW published my Lifelike book, they also collected and published two other indie/alternative comics: Pat Lewis’ The Claws Come Out, and Troy Little’s Chiaroscuro. (You may know Troy’s work from his more recent graphic novel, Angora Napkin.) Chiaroscuro started out as a self-published small press comics series, and follows the life of Steve Patch, an unemployed slacker artist living in a mysterious apartment building, and getting embroiled in a case of mistaken identity.

I really wanted to like this graphic novel, and it’s certainly not bad, but…well, maybe frustrating is a proper description. From a story/plot perspective, not much happens over the 200+ pages of this pseudo-slice of life book. A lot of interesting and intriguing plot points are introduced, to be sure – a ghost only seen by the protagonist, the (possibly) haunted/mysterious apartment building he lives in, strange men accosting him over letters sent to a mysterious person who used to live in his apartment, etc. But the problem is, nothing ever comes of any of these elements.

Heck, in the middle of the book, an entire issue (chapter) is devoted to the protagonist playing hoops with his best friend and shooting the breeze. So again, it’s not that the writing is bad. Little has a great ear for dialogue, and the banter between Steve and his friends is very authentic and funny. But for such an apparently ambitious narrative, the pace is glacial and the non-ending extremely unsatisfying. Granted, this is listed as “Book 1″ but it’s fairly obvious the series is not going to be continued.

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On the other hand, Little’s the artwork is gorgeous. The somewhat cartoony style used to depict the characters is juxtaposed against a very realistic chiaroscuro style used to depict the backgrounds and settings. Think Dave Sim (Cerebus) or Alex Robinson (Box Office Poison). In fact, looking at the way Little hand letters everything, and the fact that Sim has had good words to say about the book, it’s no stretch to imagine he is more than a little inspired, and influenced, by Dave Sim. Little is a master of crosshatching, and does amazing things with body language, facial expressions, and gestures.

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Too bad the narrative was almost non-existent. It’s a matter of personal taste, to be sure, but for me story always comes first. Perhaps if Chiaroscuro was played as a straight slice-of-life yarn, that wouldn’t have been an issue. But with so many quirky/supernatural plot points introduced but never delivered on, it’s more than a little frustrating.

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