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FIRST ISSUE: SWEETS

An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being so mysterious as to be cryptic or incomprehensible. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode” — that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.

Kody Chamberlain has been working on his comic book Sweets “for a few years,” he tells us in an editorial at the end of No. 1, “—stealing time way from other projects every few months to inch my way forward.” He did the whole thing — writing, drawing, coloring, lettering. All Kody Chamberlain. The first issue is commendable, and it is nearly a roaring success. But not quite. It is, if we are to judge from the first issue alone, a near miss. Or, rather, a near hit. It almost satisfies all the foregoing criteria. It falls short — just a trifle — in being too cryptic: the mystery that fosters the suspense that will bring us back is so vaguely outlined that we’re not quite sure what it all means. There seem to be two crimes being investigated—although they will turn out to be connected. Happily, the second issue resolves much of the vagary and revives our interest.

The story is set in New Orleans, and the title of the book, Sweets, refers to pralines that a serial killer leaves at the scenes of his crimes. Investigating the murders are Jeff, a black cop, and Curt, a white cop, whose daughter died recently and whose wife is divorcing him. Curt is distraught and not paying attention to his duties; Jeff intercedes for him with their boss, a fat slob lieutenant with a foul vocabulary, getting Curt a reprieve: the lieutenant is about to fire him. Jeff gets Curt back on the job to help investigate the praline murders. These two developments — successfully interceding with their boss and successfully getting Curt back on the job — are the complete episodes in the book. All else is mysteriousness, fraught with too much ambiguity for serial publication.

Chamberlain’s storytelling technique is cinematic, and I don’t mean just camera-angles: it’s pictures and dialogue, no expository captions. And we are plunged into the middle of several sequences without explanations, so we must determine what’s happening from what the characters are doing and saying. This is classically sound storytelling in plays and movies (hence, my “cinematic” accusation). In a movie, this elliptical manner is soon sorted out as the tale unreels: cryptic comments at the beginning are quickly explained by what happens later. But in a serialized story in successive issues of a print medium, ellipsis only muddles matters (“What the hell is going on?”), and we have to wait too long for the next issue — the “later” that will pull it all together.

Sweets And Chamberlain’s arty drawing style, although admirable for its line quality and deft with shadows and angles, adds to the confusion because it’s not always clear which characters we’re watching. After a couple panels, it becomes clear; but at first, initially in a scene, we’re not sure.

The bafflement induced by Chamberlain’s storytelling and arty rendering is further advanced by a “cartoony” segment insinuated into the midst of the narrative; nearby, we see the beginning of the segment in the first issue.  The import of this stylistic diversion is not at all evident. And it’s an ingenious device — pregnant with possibilities. We bought the second issue of this title as much to see what Chamberlain might do with this maneuver as to see how Curt and Jeff are doing.

And in the second issue, as I say, the pieces begin to come together. The cartoony segment, for instance, may turn out to be a record of the killer’s early years, an insight into how he became so perverted as to be a serial killer. (I hope the cartoony style does not mean he was corrupted by comics or Saturday morning cartoons.)

The excellences in this title are many, and I’m glad to see Chamberlain beginning to tie up the loose ends in No. 2. When the five issues of this title are re-issued as a graphic novel, it will doubtless be one of the best of the season.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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