Posted by: Abhay Khosla on September 22, 2007
This is part two of a two-part review of Runoff, a graphic novel created by Tom Manning that’s been published by OddGod Press and was created over the course of the last 8-ish years; plus part two of a bonus interview with Mr. Manning is featured at the end of the review.
It was suggested to me last week in the comment section (thank you!) that I begin this week by noting the following: Guillermo Del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth, the Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy, etc.) is a fan of the comic, has in some capacity expressed “interest” in Runoff’s cinematic potential, and provided the following quote for the back of the third “Chapter”:
“Tom Manning has created a world that is as bizarre as it is recognizable. As scary as it is moving. The terse plotting and vivid characters in Runoff collapse the sweet flavor of Americana into a cyanide capsule that is easy to swallow, easy to like, and hard to survive. May we all get poisoned by Tom more often.”
He ripped off my pull quote; this is what I wrote:
“The stark art and surprising twists of Runoff set off on a rampage of cannibalism, murder and necrophilia, just like Jeffrey Dahmer. May we all get our toes eaten by Tom soon while In a Gadda Da Vita plays on a stereo.”
But others might cotton to poison metaphors coming as they are from a famous director and thereby cotton more to this particular book. I omitted discussion of the fact last time because who knows and who’s to say, and I find the whole “this comic has been validated by Holly-weird” thing intellectually lazy and frivolous. With obvious exceptions like Captain America: the Chosen, which was written by Rambo. (It’s fucking great: a young soldier with a head full of GOP talking points almost stops and questions his clusterfucked mission, but then he remembers Marvel Comics’s Captain America and is so inspired that he kill dozens of nameless, faceless Arabs! Marvel Comics: They Help You Mindlessly Kill the Arabs!)
Or worse, it gives the wrong impression that the comic reads like a movie pitch, when that’s so not the case for Runoff. And I have a very kneejerk “go pitch your movie like Buck Henry did in the Player, ya crumb-bum” response when I get a whiff of that. Which… I’m not sure is reasonable. Well, first off, if a comic felt like a MOVIE, I wouldn’t have a problem– if a comic had three arcs that fully realized its premise? It’s the feeling like a “movie PITCH” that I think is more aggravating. But even then: what’s the acceptable thing to say? The argument reduces down to “how dare you create your work in a way that conveys your intent not to starve.” And outside of obsessive nerds like me– no one cares. No one gives a shit. Marvel publishes a comic book with women getting raped by octopuses on a cover…? Judd Winick: still writing comics…? Plain Janes doesn’t have a third act..? No one cares. No one gives a shit. Comics? Nothing matters to anyone.
Tom Manning started working on Runoff in 1999, and finished it 2007-ish. How much validation do you think he got for that in those 8 years? 8 years! I’m going to hope that y’all comic fans didn’t throw Tom Manning a parade sometime in that 8 year time span, and didn’t invite me. The book exists anyways. Is that the appeal of these kinds of comics for me? That I get to, you know, like, suckle off of someone else’s irrational passion, if only for a few hundred pages. Is that gross? Maybe that’s gross.
Or you know another thing people say that I’m never sure what it means: “I want comics that feel like comics, and not movies on paper.” I don’t understand what that means. Well, Runoff certainly satisfies that criteria: it mixes presentational styles, art styles, comic formats, genres, tones, purely visual elements, fantasy elements, etc., with some semblance of an underlying structure underneath that mixing. But: it’s also fundamentally “cinematic”– there’s no narration or thought balloons, or explanatory text of any sort. So would the absence of the former somehow make the latter offensive? Or compare it to a book like CRIMINAL, say, which is purely cinematic and without any fantasy element– is that book somehow less than because of the “comics shouldn’t be movies on paper” criteria? I don’t think so. I think that’s just something people say on their comic blog when they’re feeling uppity. In bed.
So, yeah: I don’t know. I like Runoff. It satisfies my weird little prejudices that get me really excited about a book. I have a lot of weird things that prejudice me towards liking Runoff:
1. I Got to Discover It Myself: There’d been coverage about Runoff, but I’d not paid it enough attention to seek the book out before. When I got it and then liked it? I got to feel a sense of discovery. So much culture’s chosen for people– someone chooses which movies are important and which music gets on the radio, etc. It’s not as fun.
2. It’s Black and White: that’s my preference in comics. There are great colorists out there whose work I love, but that having been said, I like how immediate a black and white comic is. (Other people might get excited by the hand-lettering, but you know– that’s never been a thing for me; we all have our weird things, but that’s not one of mine).
3. Even If It’s Funny, It’s a Little Sad: Runoff‘s a comedy and a big silly monster comic, but when it counts, it’s just sad about people. Maybe it’s from reading Peanuts when i was a kid, but I think that’s an important quality for a comic to have. My knowledge of the classic comic strips is limited so I’m not sure how prevalent that is with the great ones. Or I’m not sure if… when I look at the classic Walt & Skeezix / Gasoline Alley stuff, I’m not sure if the strip is sad or I’m feeling sad because it’s OLD and a reminder of our collective impernance. In bed. Or, to translate that into mainstream-comics-ese: Ultimate Spiderman is a little sad about people; New Avengers isn’t. And so on.
4. It’s an Ensemble Piece Set in a Small Town: I grew up in a suburb; my graduating class was 80 kids. I think it’s good when whatever surface genre elements are present, that underneath that there be a sense of observation about actual life in there somewhere. Which isn’t to say I think it’s crucial: I liked the KILL BILL movies or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, same as anyone. I think there’s nothing wrong if all that’s being conveyed is a love and affection for a genre. But with Runoff, underneath it all is something I suppose I relate to. And heck, I’m just a sucker for an ensemble.
5. It’s Not Perfect: Runoff— the single mom character is never fully realized or integrated successfully into the plot; the finale over-relies upon exposition; the new residents of the town never get a viewpoint character, etc., etc. Who cares about perfect? I like seeing Manning find himself over the life of the book. I think that’s one of the biggest pleasures of the thing– the journey you go on to the town in Runoff, that’s a journey you get to go on with Tom Manning. It’s not just being handed to you. I mentioned CRIMINAL above– it’s this polished book by experienced professionals, and that’s nice, I certainly like it a lot, I’m enjoying the second arc more than the first, I’ve really come around to liking the colors, etc. But I don’t get excited about it. It’s too reliably good. In bed. There’s not that same element of risk, you know? There’s no gamble. No one’s going to get hurt. You watch hockey for the fights; you watch NASCAR for the car crashes.
You bored with this number thing? Oh, I don’t think the number thing was a good idea. Anyway: Runoff is available wherever it’s on sale, and online probably too from Mr. Manning’s website, and maybe you’ll like it or maybe you won’t because it’s all over the map that way, but me: I liked it, and I suspect there are other people out there that will cotton to it as well.
INTERVIEW WITH TOM MANNING PART 2:
Here’s more of that interview; again i apologize to y’all for asking the questions so selfishly from the point of view of someone who’s read and enjoyed the book, but– well, hell, that’s a lie: I’m not sorry at all. I did it and I’d do it again. SAVAGE critics.
Specifically, I mention the “floating objects” (which are not a spoiler in that they appear within the first 10 pages of Chapter One). One of the elements in the book are there are these floating objects that are creepy/cute. More importantly: people who want to stay strictly pure and unspoiled (and yet… are reading this anyway…?), might do well to avoid the final question-and-answer which concerns the book’s themes.
Caveat Emptor, dude.
QUESTION: What was the experience of working on a single book for 7+ years like? Comedy scenes, especially– after 1 or 2 years, a lot of the jokes in the book might have stopped being funny to you.
TOM MANNING: I have to admit, I still crack myself up at some of the jokes. I liked working on a series for so long, it was like having a movie on pause in your head for years. It seems annoying at the time, but you miss it when it’s gone.
INTERROGATORY NO. 36: You’ve mentioned before that Runoff was intended to last for 4 Chapters, instead of 3. Is there anything you’re willing to say about what got cut?
TOM MANNING: It was going to center mostly on the day to day life of the people in Range as they ran out of food and got used to living with ghosts and talking animals. In a way it was going to be the most like Bloom County, where the premise was that these humans and animals lived in one boarding house and didn’t think anything of it. I wanted it to seem almost like things were starting to get to a strange sense of normalcy and end the chapter on that normalcy. Anyway, I guess it did come down to a pacing issue. I realized that people may have turned on the book if they were made to put up with sixty pages ghosts, talking animals and humans hunkering down together through a snowstorm.
ME ME ME: I don’t want to ask too much about them– I think that’d be inappropriate, but can you talk about the character design of the floating objects? I especially like that they’re always smiling, which seems wildly appropriate to me.
TOM MANNING: Yeah, I admit I usually keep a tight lip on the meaning and look of the floating objects, not to be a jerk in any way, but more in the hopes that my reasoning is never really stated to the readers. But I would certainly say I was excited about the idea behind it because a lot of Runoff is about having elements that are usually separate play off and enhance each other. I guess it would be no surprise that if there is any influence it is Japanese character design, which worked with my interest of playing with what a comic book can do that other mediums can’t.
IT’S YOUR BOY: Thematically, Runoff ultimately seems like it’s focused on exploitation, how communities or individuals seem designed to exploit one another, and how their polite, social interactions are just a false veneer hiding their true natures. To the extent you agree, can you say why you thought that was an important theme for you?
TOM MANNING: Absolutely. There was something about growing up in the northwest that made one feel that nature will eventually get the best of us in the end. Or rather, we’ll get the best of ourselves as nature enjoys the last laugh. Perhaps this stems from having an active volcano like Mt. Rainier in sight at all times! I’m not totally sure where that comes from, I guess. I don’t mean to have a dystopian view of humanity, I just think when it comes down to it, in a closed system, we’d really do ourselves in quick. Hm. Maybe that is dystopian.