Political Utopias and After-Life Taxi Rides

The works of the Brothers Goldman aren’t written like conventional comics, which is both their strength and weakness. While their storytelling methods are somewhat conventional, their ideas are clever. In the world of indy comics, there are few artists interested in tackling politics head-on, and that certainly isn’t the case for them. In addition, Steve Goldman has come up with his own set of recurring characters in interesting situations, with a terrific high concept, in his STYX TAXI comics. The dialogue is sharp, the scenarios are fully developed and one can sense how well-crafted their writing is. The problem is that they don’t necessarily scream “comics”! Indeed, they rather read like illustrated screenplays. In part, I think this is because they use others to draw their comics, and quite frankly some of their choices have been uninspired. This is especially true for EVERYMAN and the first issue of STYX TAXI, though things have improved in subsequent issues.

Let’s take a look at EVERYMAN first. Its subtitle is Be The People and purports to be volume 1. I described it as “political fantasy”, because its overall premise is truly wish fulfillment. It’s about an election year for a George W Bush-like president and how his administration was supporting electronic voting machines that capable of delivering him the vote in certain key states. Arrayed against him were an unlikely set of heroes: an author, a scientist, an ex-con and one of his own aides. The scientist, Perdita Orozco, was a member of the OneLove political party, an alternative to politics as usual. The exact nature of the party’s policies were left vague, but were said to have a “curiously bipartisan” platform.

Orozco recruited Thomas Womack, a successful author interested in social justice. His most recent novel was inspired by an ex-con named Spence, who also happened to live in his apartment. Womack believed in her cause, and used his media contacts to hijack airtime. Meanwhile, a presidential aide named Manny Perez (President Birch’s right hand man–a little allusion to the right-wing John Birch Society) is sick of the world he sees, and gains information about the upcoming voting scam. When Womack inherited a fortune from his father, it set what amounted to a bloodless coup in motion.

The Goldmans try to keep things within the range of possibilities. Indeed, OneLove’s initial goal of simply exposing the scheme winds up doing little but causing riots that are quickly put down. Despite that, it’s pretty clear where the story is going to go, with Birch deposed and Womack & Orozco winding up as President and Vice-President. Though the ending is a bit predictable, it’s still a good yarn, with a tense beginning and satisfying conclusion. The most interesting character winds up being Manny. He’s emblematic of an oppressed minority finally being able to voice his rage, but as a reader I wish I had gotten to know him better. His position was “affirmative-action aide”, starting under Clinton, but why this position was so close to the President now was unclear.

Ultimately, what was most frustrating about the book was its “Volume I” status. While the fantasy of ousting the corrupt administration was nice, what I really wanted to see was how Tom & Dita handled being the chief executives. To quote the film THE CANDIDATE, “Now what do I do?” Hopefully we can see that explored in future volumes. The Goldmans were clearly trying to draw a balance between political tract and political thriller, and I suppose as a reader I was more interested in the former than the latter.

The other difficulty with the book was the way it was illustrated. Ultimately, it’s a talking-heads story. Word balloons and email captions are jammed into many of the panels, and its small print size (about 5×8 inches) cramps things even further. Starting off with these handicaps, artist Joe Bucco does a decent job establishing mood (dark dark dark) but his figures are ultimately stiff. There’s not much flow between panels and the page composition is often clunky. It’s a claustrophobic read at times. Given the constraints, a more minimalistic or expressionistic style might have been more appropriate, because the realistic style he used simply didn’t flow well with the material.

On a different note, let’s look at Steven Goldman’s STYX TAXI. The first issue, “Pastrami For The Dead”, establishes the main characters and slowly unveils its premise. For the recently dead, there is a taxi service that will take you anywhere you want, and give you two hours. Two hours to see a loved one for the final time, get a last meal, or see the elephants. It’s an elegant idea that naturally opens itself up for extensive character development, both with the passengers and the drivers. Of course, the first question one asks is who are the drivers and how did they come to be there? That question is answered during the course of the issue, and quite satisfyingly so. Again, the difficulty I had with this comic was the art. The draftsmanship from Jeremy Arambulo was just not very self-assured, and his page composition was at times confusing to follow. Again, we had a story that was heavily dialogue-driven and didn’t have art that complemented or contrasted this very efficiently.

Happily, that changed a bit with the next issue. There were three short stories, all centering around music. The first was drawn by Dan Goldman (who looks like he uses a computer to draw a lot of it–it’s dark and moody but crisp and clean at the same time) and uses the lyrics of a song as a narrator of sorts for the characters picked up in this story. The second was written by busker Elizabeth Genco and drawn by Leland Purvis, whose scribbly style was a nice match for the little drama presented here. The last was drawn in a more expressionistic style by Rami Efal, and was the best match yet for the kind of stories Steve Goldman was telling. Efal did the two short stories in the next issue as well, and for the first time, STYX TAXI started to work as comics rather than an illustrated teleplay. The first issue had felt like the pilot for a TV show and wasn’t written in such a way that took advantage of the unique properties that comics has to offer. I think the stories are still a bit too talky; there’s not much stillness here to let things breathe, but Goldman is obviously bursting with stories to tell for his characters. Perhaps the difficulty I have is not that the characters talk too much, but rather perhaps that too much is revealed about them, too soon. One is never left with a sense of mystery after a Styx Taxi story. Maybe the entire set-up is one where mysteries aren’t allowed for people who have two hours to create some kind of closure for themselves.

I’m not really a “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” or “scale of 1-10″ type of critic. Different works have different goals, and I think the Goldmans write very good “new mainstream” entertainment. They’re both quite smart and humane and create distinct voices for their characters. If I seemed overly critical here, it’s because I can sense that they’re close to crafting works that go beyond simply entertainment. There’s a lot to examine and discover in their comics, and it’s my hope that they keep refining their inspirations. I’ll be eager to see what’s next for them both.

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Rob Clough fights cancer by day, and writes about comix, college basketball and funky music by night. He is the comics editor of Other magazine and is happy to have published many fine cartoonists. He used to write for Savant and just finished something for idea-bot. He is married to award-winning poet Laura Clough (formerly Jent), with whom he lives in lovely Durham, NC.

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