Posted by: Abhay Khosla on September 12, 2007
Hello. This is part one of a review of Runoff, a horror-comedy, funny-animal, monster, all-ages gore comic mash-up from Tom Manning, published by OddGod Press.
Runoff is comprised in its entirety (beginning, middle and end) of three “Chapters” — softbound graphic novels running 144 to 176 pages each. In total, roughly 456 pages of black and white comics (eventually plus greytones), drawn over the course of ~8 years.
The book is set in a small, isolated town somewhere in the Pacific Northwest named Range, and the central mystery of the book is as follows: Range has been afflicted by a condition where people can enter into Range from the outside world but no one in Range can leave. Small towns can feel like suffocating prisons; Range literally is one.
Then, things start to get weird.
For example: as much as there’s a Twin Peaks element you might have picked up on (see, small town of horror-mystery in Pacific Northwest), the book’s other sine qua non influence is Berke Breathed’s Bloom County. One of the mysteries as the book develops is animals in town begin to talk, and the way that’s handled is descents into a loving recreation/theft of the look-feel of the classic era of Bloom County strips. So the comic jams together the two different styles, shifting back and forth from Bloom County styled humor strips to cinematic Twin Peaks influenced horror. Plus horror gore.
Also: Runoff has over-the-top comic book elements interspersed as well, including a homicidal pirate, a dancing helper monkey, and eventually, a number of monsters. These elements work inconsistently– the pirate character especially never really worked for me except to introduce other, better elements into the book’s blender. The monsters work well thematically, but so-so otherwise, alternating between legitimate threats to cheesy cereal-box monsters.
And wait, there’s more! Did I mention that Manning is a Dave Sim fan and that influences the visual style of the book (e.g. hand lettering)? So yeah: add that to the stew, Captain.
Visually… the First Chapter is more than a little crap– there’s hints at some storytelling ability but that’s about it. But Manning grows by leaps and bounds as an artist over the course of the project, so midway through the second book, the art just kicks in and snaps to life– over the course of maybe 10-20 pages, the hand lettering starts to work, the drawings become clean and pleasing, the environments become more fully realized– abra dabra, you have a book that’s worth looking at. I had purchased all three Chapters at once so I could see the improvement was ahead of me; otherwise I’m honestly not sure I’d have finished Chapter One. But– that’s part of the fun for me, personally, seeing that much growth and improvement as an artist over the life of the piece.
Let me pause and acknowledge that, you know, for some of you this will just sound like a big mess, and it won’t sound.. it won’t sound fun for you. In that case, here’s what I recommend: wait by a crosswalk for a large crowd of people to surround you and then start whistling the song Desparado as loud as you can to yourself. The Eagles’s Desperado, written by Don Henley and Glen Frey. “Desperado, why dont you come to your senses?” That song. Then, just watch people’s expressions change as they gradually realize what you’re whistling. Have you ever done that? That’s fun. Fact.
It sounds like a big mess? Dude, it IS a big mess, a big overstuffed bursting-at-the-seams mess. The book jams together so many different elements. It’s not a great book visa vi the classic rule of suspension of disbelief that you should only have a single fantastic element for a reader to accept. Granted, this is comic books, and I think we’re all used to that by now, but that’s a rule I happen to put some stock in. Oh, the thinking behind it is sound. The dilemma of the premise is this: as people come to the town and become trapped there, one pressure the town faces is dealing with its gradually increasing population. So by adding all these different style/genre elements struggling for attention, the reader gets to experience that same suffocation but in a different way. I’m not saying it doesn’t make a certain amount of sense; it just asks a bit of patience from its readers, that you know– sometimes you’re willing to give, and sometimes you ain’t. Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t. Almond Joy’s got nuts; Mounds don’t. Think about it.
Here’s the thing though: THE ENDING. On its own highly peculiar terms, Chapter Three’s sort of a weird triumph. Think about it.
Fucking-a, it ends so well. The ending is persuasive. It’s persuasive that the different styles fit together. It’s persuasive that the disparate elements are linked thematically if not plotwise. It’s persuasive that Bloom County and Twin Peaks go together way, way better than you’d ever guess. Italics.
It’s persuasive that all the different elements needed to be there for it to have been as effective because the comic is about an existence that’s layered, that has a hierarchy and class system, castes, with different elements in a larger interconnected social structure that’s struggling to come together in the face of the book’s central mystery. So by having different elements that are as exaggerated as Runoff has, I would advance the proposition to you that the social structure is thereby more clearly delineated and the books’ themes are thereby more effectively communicated.
I think the ending works thematically. I think I can explain what each of the different elements mean in terms of the ending and the themes advanced by the ending. And I think it’s spooky and sad and mysterious and inevitable, like a horror ending should be. It’s one of those endings that stuck with me for a little while after the book. It’s insane that comic books so resolutely avoid endings, when Runoff is such proof of how much crazy fucking mileage a work can get from sticking the landing.
So: I think this is just part one of the review, but I’m also going to present part one of an interview with Mr. Tom Manning which was conducted by e-mail recently.
INTERVIEW WITH RUNOFF GUY, TOM MANNING
I’ve only done one other interview, and I thought it’d be fun to do an interview for this review. Are interviews appropriate for this site? This is a review site and all, but I don’t know– I thought it’d make this piece more interesting. But: too far off the mission-statement?
In the interview, I mention a moment I refer to as the “Laughing Squirrel” — I should probably edit that out, but it’s my favorite moment in the comic, so I had to ask about it. For all of you who have read Runoff, I’m going to leave it and for those of you who haven’t… uhm: there’s a part where there’s a laughing squirrel that’s kind of great. Mr. Manning’s comments were edited down slightly in order to hopefully avoid spoiling too much. Think about it.
SPECTACULAR INTERVIEWER WHO SHITS BRICKS OF PURE GOLD: Most of the comic’s preoccupations seem like they’re from childhood– Bloom County, monsters, funny animals, pirates. What was it about those things that drew you to them? Were they all things you’d enjoyed at age 12, or– do you remember how you arrived at that particular mix of elements? What’s surprising is how many of them seem organic to the piece’s themes by the finale.
TOM MANNING: In a way Runoff is a dance between genres and subjects that have been favorites of mine for most of my life. With the town of Range being based off my hometown of Enumclaw, Washington, I decided to work with the genres and elements that I was into when I was younger and remain into now. I also thought I would like to try leaving certain genres or elements out as well, ones that people may feel obligated to put in a long story like this. Leaving out romance all together kind of excited me.
MR. HANDSOME: In Runoff Chapter 1, while it tells the story, the basic drawing is honestly not very accomplished. There’s steady improvement throughout Chapter 2– around where the characters arrive at the Mayor’s cabin in the woods, I remember feeling like you’d turned a corner. Would you agree with that? What do you attribute the “improvement” to– were you doing things extracurricularly that lead to the improvement like life-drawing classes? Or was it just a result of having done so many pages?
TOM MANNING: Oh yeah, I’d agree with you there. My improvement really came down to two things. One was working on a larger scale. The pages I drew for Runoff chapter one were all done on a 1: 1 scale, where chapters two and three were done on a larger scale and reduced 30%. The second thing was just the fact of getting better by working on something. I got to be a better inker and penciller… and hopefully a better letterer… page after page. One other thing I should mention is the gray tones. At first I was trying to do all the tones by hand, cutting them out with an X-acto knife. But those Letratone sheets got more expensive and harder to find, and eventually I reluctantly had to turn to Photoshop to do them. So you can see about mid way through Chapter 2 when I was forced to stop doing the gray tones by hand. Of course it probably means it started looking better, but I still regret not doing every thing on the page by hand.
BRANIAC T. MACHORSECOCK: In those other interviews, you mention first starting to work on Runoff in 1999. When do you think you had the story completely figured out? When did you have that ending (which I thought was great)? Was there a lot of evolution as it went along? My favorite moment in the comic was the Laughing Squirrel. Could you talk about when you had that?
TOM MANNING: I had the main arc worked out from the beginning, a kind of list of scenes and plot points that were vivid in my head. As I went along I let the scenes in between these plot points come to me in a looser fashion, so there was a nice mix of rigidity and looseness in writing the series. Scenes that were pretty much in my head from issue one included things like SPOILER and SPOILER in the pet store, the Society of M outside the cabin, the bear in Charlie’s Cafe, and the final scenes. There were also patterns I knew I wanted to plant and repeat. The Laughing Squirrel is one of these patterns, though it serves to really evolve and finish the Bloom-County-animals-and-humans relationship. It actually is used as a punchline to the series itself. It’s funny you brought up that laughing squirrel, because that was one of those ideas that came to me later in the series that I was so excited to have. It’s one of my favorite moments in the series for sure.