Bigger, Bolder, Louder — Better? Ryan Carey Reviews ALL-TIME COMICS: ZEROSIS DEATHSCAPE

There seems to be any number of disparate and even divisive takes on the first “season” of All-Time Comics — the brainchild of Josh and Samuel Bayer aided and abetted by a murder’s row of cartooning talent both contemporary and “classic” — and while I came down more on the “pro” than “con” side of the project, I understand where some of those in the other camp were coming at it from: after all, whether or not this was a send-up, spoof, homage, or just plain copy of comics from the so-called “Bronze Age” was very much in question, as it incorporated elements of all of these without making a clear tonal or thematic commitment to any of them. With the backstory of the line’s creation in mind — it was initially developed as a film project to be set in the present day with the comics serving as backstory — some of these uncertainties came a bit more into focus, but let’s be honest: in order for any given work to, well, work, it needs to speak for itself on paper separate and apart from the process or processes that informed its genesis first, its execution second.

Another thing that may have been working against it on the margins was its publisher: after all, Fantagraphics’ critical outlet, The Comics Journal, made the analysis, deconstruction, and even reconstruction of various superhero stories its bread and butter for years, and it still dabbles its metaphorical feet in those equally-metaphorical waters from time to time to this day. So the idea that All-Time Comics represented some sort of ideal of what Fanta thinks capes n’ tights funnybooks should be was baked into the cake from the outset. Not that the Brothers Bayer and their creative partners ever asked for this unstated designation mind you, but things are what they are — nothing exists in a vacuum.

In that respect, then, the move to Floating World Comics for the first trade paperback collection and for the second “season” of issues (now collected in trade, as well), bearing the intriguingly batshit title of All-Time Comics: Zerosis Deathscape, is a fortuitous one, as it relieves the project of some subliminal pressure to “be” something in the collective mind of the public at large that it was never intended to, but with the various and sundry raison’s d’etre of the various and sundry heroes already established in the book’s initial run, the challenge with this follow-up series was to show their “universe” to be a not just an interconnected one, but a cohesive one. Enter the clever, and frankly probably necessary, conceit of constructing “season two” as one giant 1980s-style “crossover” story pitting vigilantes Justice, Atlas, Bullwhip, and Crime Destroyer up against a menacing legion of baddies in the form of Beggar, Rain God, DLST Killer, and the titular Zerosis himself.

And while we’re at it, enter Josh Simmons, brought on by Josh Bayer to serve as his co-writer (with both doing some art duties, as well), and primary artist Trevor Von Eeden, a visual maverick from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s who certainly never got due credit for being the stylistic innovator he both was and, I’m pleased to report, remains. Throw the talents of modern “indie” stalwarts Gabrielle Bell, Tom Toye, Ben Marra, Julia Gfrorer, and Ken Landgraf — who are tasked with illustrating the ingenious framing sequences that introduce each issue (there’s also a bonus “zero” issue that kicks things off in overt EC homage style, with the mysterious figure of the Time Vampire Scientist, a rather “straight-forward” villain in the first series, serving in an omniscient, Crypt-Keeper type of role) into the mix, and supplement it all with wonderfully garish colors from Dan Lee and covers Brendan McCarthy, Das Pastoras, Jason T. Miles, Skinner, Tara Booth, the aforementioned Toye, and Shanna Matuszak, and once again, what you have here is very much a “jam session” of “A-list” cartoonists past and present, this time all conscripted in service of a single, if admittedly disjointed, narrative.

Rounding out the creative crew for All-Time Comics is Patrick Keck on intro/contents pages and Simmons himself on the letters. If the whole thing sounds overwhelming to you, that’s very much by design: every page, particularly those drawn by Von Eeden, is jam-packed not only with concepts ranging from the throwaway to the essential, but with movement, action, and purpose — and while the scripts for this second series are generally more sparse compared to the dense, McGregor/Wein/-esque “purple prose” stand-alone yarns of All-Time Comics year one, they’re also free to do more with less, not only because the lay of the land is already established, but because Von Eeden’s frenetic, sense-assaulting layouts and line are inherently better suited to do most of the heavy lifting as far as the storytelling goes.

A bit of depth and individuality for the various characters is out the window this time around —  as one would expect given that everybody got at least one “solo” adventure in the first series, and some got two — but what the creators skirt in terms of characterization, they make up for in terms of sheer scope and narrative cohesion: this story goes from dirty back alleys to cosmic alternative dimensions and somehow makes a kind of warped and even fun sense every step of the way. Plus, we finally get the goods on the bizarre figure of The Red Menace, who was largely a hinted-at figure in series one. It’s all a lot to take in, no question, and some sequences work better than others, but there’s a sense of common purpose here that makes all the difference. Yes, this is still very much free-form jazz, and that’s essential to the project’s overall ethos, but while everyone is playing from the same songsheet in Zerosis Deathscape, they are given the freedom to do so in their own way. By all rights maybe it should be discordant, but the end result, full of highs and lows as it is, nevertheless comes off feeling very satisfying indeed.

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February 2023


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