Cold Heat doesn't work like most action-adventure comics, mostly because of the range of effect achieved by artist Frank Santoro. Santoro's art is simple and open and dependent more on giving us sweeping, evocative moments than a reality from panel to panel that's dependent on representational art. That sounds like excuse making, I know; but Santoro can flat-out draw. His loose-seeming art in Cold Heat isn't a point of retreat but a choice that allows him to bring in any number of powerful effects without upsetting some sort of cartoonist-fan contract on what is and isn't allowed. This allows him to depict this issue's alien encounters and moments of temporary kindness and intimacy without affectation or melodramatic build up. The dramatic moments arise out of the power of the moment rather than depending on an appreciation for how they're rendered. Most of the successful adventure comics of the last few decades count on one or two moments of raw, emotional recognition to hook the reader into sturdy explorations of genre tropes. All Cold Heat offers is the rawness of a story based on fear and doubt and paranoia, and if it continues to get better, it could end being quite awesome.
It should be easy to take stock of the state of independent comics these days: just consult the graphic novel section of Chapters to see the many magnum opuses available from various independent publishing houses. Kramer's Ergot, The Ganzfeld, Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphic Books and McSweeney's have all put out inch-and-a-half-thick anthologies that champion the major players of indie comics in recent years. While these books provide a unified front regarding the medium, the actual content suggest the opposite. Instead of creating a spectrum of different takes on the practice of the comic book, these collections seem to be comprised of two unspoken camps functioning in direct conflict with one another.
One set seems interested in being weird, while the other set, truthful. One set has nonsensical narratives, the other has linear storylines. One set started doing comics because of Gary Panter and the other set, Robert Crumb. One set likes collectives while the other set seems decidedly hermetic. One set makes drawings and paintings while the other set makes illustrations. One set has Fort Thunder, Nog A Dod and Paper Rad while the other set has Dan Clowes, Chris Ware and Chester Brown.
The first candidate to bridge this gap between the straights and the weirdos might be ColdHeat. Published by Picture Box ( Nog A Dod, BJ, and The Dogs and Brian Chippendale's Ninja Comics) ColdHeat is a collaboration between Ben Jones (Paper Rad) and Frank Santoro (author of Incanto and Chimera). The comic also cameo's Aaron Cometbus as letterer, whose long standing self-titled zine is a benchmark of American punk and DIY publishing.
While it is impossible say exactly who is drawing what, Santoro's lyrical style juxtaposed with Jones's pop-psychedelic creates something that neither artist could create individually. Jones and Santoro are confident and slick in their technique, utilising narrative techniques that they have made their signature. Santoro's painterly lines and chalk rub coloring clash wonderfully with Jones's ghoulish creatures and op art backgrounds.
In collaboration, the artists and have been able to focus more on the actual storytelling. ColdHeat is about the death and afterlife of Joel Cannon, the lead singer of famous noise act Chocolate Gun, and the world that has been left in his absence. This is paralleled by the life of twenty-something female protagonist Castle, as she is fired from her internship, has sex with a CEO, is sent to a mental institution and has a lesbian tryst.
While the plot might seem completely absurd, it's pretty accessible compared to projects that Jones and Santoro have done previously. Cold Heat gives a voice to emotions familiar to a generation that has never been interested in articulating how they actually feel, preferring to mask and abstract those emotions in other ways: noise music, weird drawings, knitting, etc.
The presence of a recognizable human form strengthens this sentiment and allows the reader to empathize with the characters. Unlike an abstracted cartoon character, which creates layers of separation, people physically recognize themselves in the comic. Simultaneously, the concepts and politics come from artists whose work has typically been decidedly alienating. Reading ColdHeat is like discovering that the people who have been making these weird comics are actually people too, not just talking muffins that can draw.
ColdHeat has been canceled at Issue #4 due to poor sales. The final issues have been slated for release as one big comic book in Spring 2008.
Cold Heat is a terrific comic for people who don't think of their adolescence as having been particularly adolescent. That is to say, the prevailing approach toward reminiscing about one's teenage years seems to be one of cringing embarrassment --- no, actually, more one of condescension: "Ugh, what a little idiot I was then, I can't believe I listened to Stone Temple Pilots," etc. Writer-artists BJ (aka Ben Jones, he of those dog comics) and Frank Santoro say, "Fuck that noise," and instead choose to emphasize the rapturous beauty that adolescence's grandiose melodrama and edge-of-disaster emotion constantly infuses into everyday life, particularly where music and romance are concerned. In doing so they craft a comic that is impossible not to compare to both arenas. Cold Heat's wispy, barely there linework, the visual leitmotif of swirling and the rock-centric storyline --- the events of the first issue revolve around our heroine Castle's reaction to the fatal overdose of Joel Cannon, beloved lead singer of the noise band Chocolate Gun --- don't so much suggest as demand references to the blindingly happysad guitar maelstroms of Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and M83. Moreover, readers of a certain age will no doubt remember the whirlwind of emotion they were caught up in upon the death of Kurt Cobain, the likely inspiration here. I still remember storming away from the dinner table when my dad dared to agree with Andy Rooney's "good riddance" assessment of Kurt's passing; Cold Heat is a little like remembering that incident in comic-book form. But the romance angle is important, too.
The book starts out with an almost anti-romantic vignette --- Castle is callously informed by the CEO of the company at which she is an intern that the outfit has gone belly-up after just having had sex with him. "I forgot my CD player there," she realizes after she leaves --- one more regret. But soon the wide-eyed, upturned-face beauty of Jones and Santoro's portraiture of Castle takes hold, suggesting a lo-fi --- or more accurately, doodled-during-math-class --- approximation of romance-era John Romita Sr. The simplistic pink, white and blue color scheme adds to the "just hadda get it down on paper before study hall ended" feel so effectively that you might not notice the subtlety with which a sort of crayon shading is used to evoke smoke-filled, drug-addled parties and the lonely, scary darkness of suburban night-fall. And the hints of craziness --- a murder mystery, a potential World War III, a minotaur carrying a severed head --- somehow combine to evoke teenagedom much more accurately than a strict slice-of-life comic would. Add in the slick-cover stock, a letters page (called "Heat Waves!"), a letter from editor Dan Nadel that reads like liner notes from that old Temple of the Dog CD you've been meaning to rip to your iTunes, and a short prose story by Timothy Holder about falling in love with the office superhero fan, and you've got a comic that feels like a cable from a world where the only thing that exists is a dimly lit bedroom in which you're wearing ripped jeans and you just keep listening to and rewinding "Teenage Riot" over and over again. Outstanding.
SEAN: “Like a 6-year-old trying to describe the awesomeness of Space Mountain at Disney World, this indie tale of sex, drugs, rock, conspiracies and alien abductions draws its strength from the contrast between the epic nature of its subject matter and the childlike way it’s presented. With its simple pink and blue color scheme and deliberately lo-fi linework, this issue’s revelation of presumed-dead rock singer Joel Cannon’s ‘2001’-style contact with extraterrestrial beings has a purity that makes up for its lack of detail, making its mystical vistas as powerful as those of any mainstream artist.”
How?! Cold Heat #4 is already in stock, and it's a doozy. Disparate and heretofore disconnected aspects of the storyline are joined together as some puzzling pieces of the plot are put into place. We don't want to give too much away here, but suffice it to say that some things have turned out -- surprise! -- not to be what they seemed. Lovers of cosmic mysteries and mighty metaphors will find plenty of food for thought this time around, and thrill seekers should find what they're looking for as the intensity is ramped up a notch or two. Santoro's art really shines this issue as he continues to bring a world beat of styles and perspectives to the mix while at the same time turning in some of his most polished art to date. To those of you who have been watching on the sidelines, uneasy about the ellipticality of Cold Heat's narrative, wondering what it's all about and where it's been leading, we say: Now's your chance -- this is the one you've been waiting for. This is the issue that puts the story into focus and brings the series up to speed, and to put our money where our mouth is, we are offering a special price on a set of the first four issues.
SEAN: “The deliberately crude art style of this indier-than-indie miniseries will no doubt turn many readers of Big Two comics off. That’s a damn shame, because BJ and Santoro have created a unique and addictive hybrid of thrilling sci-fi murder mystery and drugged-up punk-rock coming-of-age tale. Continuing the story of a high school girl named Castle who’s reeling from the death of the lead singer of her favorite band and from getting dumped and fired simultaneously by the CEO of the company she was interning at, this issue introduces the man who’ll doubtlessly be the series’ big bad: Senator Wastmor. In his crazed search for the ‘killer’ of his dirtbag son—i.e. whoever provided him the drugs he O.D.’d on, at a party where Castle was the last person to see him alive—he’s the perfect portrait of the power-crazed politician: He mouths platitudes about how ‘the war on illegal drugs and underage drinking is now at its own D-Day’ on TV, while spewing obscenities and violent threats against the kids of Castle’s hometown when the camera’s off. Meanwhile, the pink-and-blue art nails the feeling of being really, really messed up as Castle takes way too many pills and gets embroiled ever deeper in the strange events befalling her town. If you can put aside your preconceptions and track down this comic, you’re in for a treat.”
Cold Heat 2 by Ben Jones and Frank Santoro. PictureBox, 2006. $5. Issue two of this most unusual 12 issue series (I reviewed issue one here). The story continues as Castle, protagonist, discovers the dangerous side effects of her anti-depressant, and the Senator goes on a rampage trying to find his son’s killer.
I don’t have a lot to add to what I said in my review of the first issue, but I wanted to point out a couple panels.
Here Santoro uses words in the image, not as a visual representation of sound
I just love the expressiveness of these two panels.
Firemen get Castle after an overdose (just following the previous panels). The abstract shapes in the back so clearly illustrate the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, more impressionistic than realistic, but completely readable and effective (even moreso in context of the rest of the panels).
This should be coming through Diamond to comics stores in the near future, with the rest of the Issues to follow monthly starting in the new year. This series is going on my best of the year list.
Now is probably a decent time to talk about this stuff, since issue #1 just showed up in Direct Market stores serviced by Diamond this week.
Cold Heat is a 12-issue miniseries from PictureBox, written by Ben Jones (of Paper Rad fame) and drawn by Frank Santoro (of several newspaper-format comics, like 1995’s excellent Storeyville) with letters by Aaron Cometbus (of several punk rock outfits and the seminal zine Cometbus). These first two issues have actually been out for a little while, though Diamond initially refused to carry the series on the grounds of its format not being popular with retailers and collectors. I presume Diamond meant ‘format’ in terms of interior aesthetic presentation, since Cold Heat is packaged as your typical 24-page pamphlet-format comic, 20 pages of color story per issue for $5 a pop. Diamond later reversed their decision, but the book has still proven to be highly divisive, reactions running from Derik Badman’s declaration that series is among the best of the year, to retailer Brian Hibbs' withering assessment of the project as “one of the worst, least professional, and most overpriced comics I’ve ever seen, and Diamond was absolutely right to originally reject it.”
I think Cold Heat is quite a well-done comic, albeit one pursuing a vision that the majority of comics readers are just not going to be interested in. The plot, however, is actually extremely straightforward, following a teen girl named Castle who’s in an awful lot of trouble. The corporation she’s been interning at has just been bought out, and she’s out of a job. The CEO she’s been sleeping with can’t help her with anything anymore, though he’s still an asshole. The lead singer of her favorite band, Chocolate Gun, has just committed suicide. Her and her father are dirt-poor, and now it turns out that the free antidepressants they’ve been given might have some particularly nasty side effects, like causing wild hallucinations, or prompting violent activity that the user can’t remember, or possibly even literally turning people into monsters. Certainly something ugly went down at a party Castle attended, since a prominent Senator’s asshole son wound up dead. Perhaps only the loving bonds of family and the skills she picked up at Ninja Classes can help Castle now, though there seems to be a wider conspiracy at work. See? Very easy to grasp, really rather typical. There’s even the expected digs at warlike government and corporate malfeasance, and all the adolescent angst one might find in a teen mutant book. The trick is, Cold Heat almost never actually seems like a teen mutant book, so deep is its immersion in its creators’ particular visions. Frankly, I suspect that the book might get a bit more attention if it wasn’t so direct in its at-heart appreciation for fantasy/adventure tricks ’n tropes, but Cold Heat is wholly uninterested in playing obfuscation games; its creators apparently love crazy genre comics stuff, and by god they’re going to make a crazy genre comic entirely in their own vision, which doesn’t at all comport to the prevailing perception of what crazy genre comics ought to look like.
As a result, they beg for comparisons to the front of Previews and the realm of shounen manga, while projecting their work wholly through a style that is generally segregated to the realm of ‘art’ comics. But there is no irony to this series, no commentary on popular genre comics, no icy detachment or allegorical study, no sniggering from behind the drawing board; this isn’t a new thing among members of what I’ll clumsily dub the ‘Fort Thunder generation,’ who have consistently proven themselves to be remarkably catholic in their hunger for comics styles, but now Jones and Santoro and PictureBox are going the extra mile of actually putting out a miniseries in a format that, regardless of what Diamond once thought, actually resembles other books containing plots of the same type.
And it might yet be their earnestness that leads them into trouble. Cold Heat, through the aesthetic outlook of its creative team, looks and feels like virtually nothing else packaged in that particular way. I can certainly imagine the ninja moves and scary monsters and beheadings turning away some factions of dedicated ‘art’ comics connoisseurs, just as I expect many curious browsers interested in ninjas and demons might become puzzled by the project’s peculiar approach.
But I think it’s a worthy chance to take, and it’s a highly coherent, pleasing work for its vision and particular approach. Santoro has an extremely individual drawing style, fluctuating in tightness and detail to suit the mood of whatever sequence its illustrating. Calm, waking-world pages are drawn very simply, almost in the way one might expect from a vintage b&w boom comic, albeit filled with solid pinks and blues. A few pages later we’re at a noisy party, and the lines become more scribbly, crowds of people filled in as faceless circles, and the colors are suddenly delicate and dusted over the art, to make for a smokier, hazy atmosphere. Sequences of violence are harsh and slashing, usually filled in with what seem to be colored pencils or markers. Characters’ heads literally melt when they’re woozy, and faces stretch and contort to match their emotions (a drug overdose sequence in issue #2 is outstanding in this regard). Really, it’s the emotions of the characters that constantly shape Santoro’s visual approach of the moment, shaping the whole page into an impression of how the target character feels at whatever moment. It’s a signature device of his, present since Storeyville, and it rules over all the series. Derik has some art samples at the link above, as well as here.
Santoro’s grip on the work is so tight that writer Jones seems a bit overpowered (though some of the figure drawings look a little bit like his, or maybe that’s just Santoro evoking his co-creator), though he still manages some of the funny, flowing, punctuation-light bits of talk that are his specialty (“My son was no loser, some drug thug slipped him some bad dope and I have to stand here like an asshole with his ass on a pole acting like I’m some victim, I got news, the party is over for all the kids”), and the contours of the plot may yet fit into his ongoing concern with individual spirituality in a largely debased, confused world.
If ever there was a comic that’s not for everyone, it’s this. But I get the niggling feeling that it may be for more people than I think. There’s something lovely about the unassuming honesty of a comic pamphlet of this sort, a book that seems to want to have it both ways, but only because the industry and its rhetoric has declared that there’s mutually exclusive ‘ways’ to have it. Cold Heat is a curious hybrid, if mainly curious for how ready it is to think as wide as possible, beyond boundaries. Hell, maybe you’ll agree with that and still hate it, but I think it’s fun and funny and good-looking, and I am a pretty big fan of Jones and Santoro. And Timothy Hodler’s bonus prose stories are aces. Give it a peek, won’t you?