(me+you): “You’re a tough guy, but I’m a nightmare wrapped in the apocalypse”

This is a piece from my newsletter, (me + you), which comes as the spirit moves but is hopefully worth the wait. I use it as a place to test drive ideas, to practice therapy, to get writing tics out of my system…it’s really just a sandbox for me to write to you. The newsletter is about everything and nothing, but this one is about a new comic that was written by a friend of mine. It’s not necessarily a conflict of interest if I tell you about it upfront, right?)

“Because,” Brenda said, “you’ll meet him again. You’ll work with him again. And he’ll look at you, and what will he say? That’s the stand-up guy came back for me? Or does he say, That’s a guy I don’t trust so much any more? What do you want him to say, Ed, next time you see each other?”
–Richard Stark, Comeback

I think I’m required by international law to disclose that I’m friends with Chip Zdarsky, who co-created Newburn with Jacob Phillips. (We do a podcast together with a couple of other friends, Mangasplaining.) Newburn #1 is out this week, and it’s split into two parts. The main story is by Zdarsky & Phillips and features a private detective who works to solve crimes on behalf of criminals (you can’t just ask a room of goons, “Hey, who killed Bobby?” like you used to), while the backup story comes from Nadia Shammas, Ziyed Yusuf Ayoub, & Frank Cvetkovic. This split is a format I’m very partial to, because getting a comic after a comic is like getting overtime after watching a whole basketball game.

Newburn #1 lines up nicely with an idea I’ve been chewing on, the idea that crime fiction—whether it’s on the side of the law or the thugs—is a genre that is often about confirming that there is an order to the world. To the cops, that order must and can be effectively protected. To the thugs, the rock-solid truth of that order can be effectively circumvented so that you can balance the scales by your own means. This is particularly true of detective fiction, I think.

It’s like when Robert Browning wrote, “The year’s at the spring, And day’s at the morn; Morning’s at seven; The hill-side’s dew-pearled; The cop loads their gun; The skel’s on the lam; God’s in His heaven— All’s right with the world!” Everything is in its right place, everything is working as intended. Things make sense, but only if you pay enough attention to the right things. There are procedures to follow, traditions to observe, and once done, they speak to the rightness of the world. It feels strange to call crime stories comforting, but—there it is.

The backup story in Newburn #1 is “Brooklyn Zirconia,” part one. The first part of Shammas, Ayoub, & Cvetkovic’s story is just a few pages long, so you’ll forgive me if I talk around it. Let’s say that a thing happens and that thing forces someone make a decision. That’s enough ground for us to build on for the next few minutes.

In Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond, there’s a moment where Miyamoto Musashi, having won a few fights and made few friends as a result, hightails it into the woods and up a mountain with the 70-member strong Yoshioka dojo out in the streets looking to bring him back to face justice. Halfway up the mountain, though, he hems, he haws, and then he walks back down the mountain, out of the woods, and directly into the group of men waiting for him. About four hundred pages of some of my favorite comics later, seventy men are dead in the dirt and Musashi has stepped into infamy.

There’s a moment in that span where Musashi makes a decision. In this case, it is an incredibly bad one, and as a reader, I love it. These moments, when you can see or feel a character’s brain working, are manna from Heaven for me. It makes me think, it makes me wonder, and it makes me get really attached. Sometimes the decision is to save someone else. Sometimes the decision is to make someone pay for killing the dog your late wife got you, or for decorating their saloon with your friend.

The decision in “Brooklyn Zirconia” isn’t like Musashi’s, but it’s not not like Musashi’s either. In this case, a person makes a decision rooted in some flavor of melancholy (sadness? resignation? hopelessness? apathy? wait, am I projecting?), and it happens in such a way that I am personally hooked. Stories where someone makes a measured and probably incredibly bad decision really sing for me. The doomed and damned on a rush to a bitter end, for means that may be noble or petty but are utterly undeniable? I’d eat it with a spoon if I could.

In general, my favorite characters tend to be laconic. I love Boyd Crowder and Lupin the Third, but Golgo 13, Amos from The Expanse, Parker from Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter, Chiyoko from Akira, Cougar from The Losers, and a host of gruff, dark-haired shonen adventure manga characters are near and dear to my heart. Again, while this is not what Team Brooklyn Zirconia is up to here, it’s not not that either. There’s a texture here that’s familiar, a string to tug that’ll take me somewhere fresh.

Plus, I love me a word balloon with three words or less. It feels like raw, unadulterated confidence.

If you hear “I hate waiting” in this clip and smile, I think you get what I mean. If you laugh a mean laugh when you hear “Better if I don’t,” let’s play Tekken together. You’re family now.

I want to know more about the thing that happened in “Brooklyn Zirconia,” I want to know more about the decision-maker, and mostly I just wanna see where this team is gonna take me. I’m fixated on the decision in the story, but the little creative decisions are cool, too. Cvetkovic uses a lot of zig-zaggy balloon tails and connectors, which does a fantastic job of setting this story apart from “Carmine’s Apartment,” the first chapter of Newburn. I really like how the people are drawn and colored too, the way they’re cartoony but also maybe reminiscent of people you see day-to-day, the way the art has kind of a cut-out quality sometimes…the combined effect is a really pleasant one. When I read “Brooklyn Zirconia,” and I believed it. I want to see what the decision leads to, how it looks when this person gets to some place for whatever reason it is that they’re headed there.

Team Newburn’s side of Newburn #1 features the title character, the retired detective who’s found a new gig investigating crimes for the other side. You can’t be a corrupt cop if you’re not a cop, right? It’s a clever idea, a fun little inversion of what you normally expect from stories like this.

“Stories like this” is important here, because if you read enough of anything you tend to recognize the formula, and when I read a LOT of anything, the way the creators follow and deviate from the formula becomes part of the draw for me. It’s the difference between listening to a drummer and listening to Ringo Starr drum. Ringo is gonna do something different, like this tiktok video breaks down in an incredible fashion. Ringo could take a song that was already a bop and still make it funky.

@grahamethedrummer

Dear Beatles fans, it’s our duty to keep this great music alive for many more generations. #thebeatles #ringostarr #drummer #music

♬ I Feel Fine – Remastered 2015 – The Beatles

The “Come Together” part is so good it’ll give you gas face.

Anyway, Newburn feels like a procedural. The title character walks around, he talks to people, and he figures things out. It’s not really the kind of story with a lot of Genre Wick stuff going on. It’s more about the details and subtler touches than the gunfights. You can see it in the way people move in the book, with how often Newburn will look and notice things before acting on them in a subsequent panel, how he touches a wall while explaining the what he’s found, how he changes the way he speaks to maximize his chances of getting his way.

I realized where Phillips & Zdarsky had decided to Ringo it up when I thought about his status quo in relation to the usual demands of a procedural or detective story. A police procedural is often about returning things to zero by the end of the episode. The cops solve the case, the criminal goes off to get tried in a hit spin-off TV show as part of a crossover, and society is safe once again. Heist movies are probably the closest we get to a criminal procedural, and in the end, those are about up-ending things, defeating the establishment instead of restoring it. A reverse-procedural. More or less equal and opposite.

What’s the overall outcome of a detective using the law to serve and protect criminals? Whose idea order is maintained or destroyed at the end? If criminals are committing crimes against other criminals, then that necessarily means that he’s going to run afoul of someone on his side, but he doesn’t work a straight enough job to expect protection from the police, either.

This moment right here, where I’m not sure where it’s going to go but I can see that it’s obviously just laid out a briefcase full of Chekov’s guns and for some weird reason my name is on every bullet.

The first chapter of Newburn makes me think about how if you can figure out a way to be just observant enough, you can divine the order of the world and find truth. The first chapter of “Brooklyn Zirconia” makes me think about how sometimes there are things that must be done, even if you must do them through a heavy sigh. They must be done because they’re right, or necessary, or meaningful, or whatever whatever.

As a reader, these kinds of textures are the things that hook me. That intersection between duty and damnation that comes with one story, that blend of safety, knowledge, and hidden motives that run through the other.

Hey, what do you think is a weirder experience, writing an essay about your friend’s book or reading an essay about your book from your friend? There’s a running gag on the Mangasplaining podcast that Chip and I are sometimes the same person. I’m even more convinced now.

(special thanks to chris butcher!)

(me+you): Say My Name (say my name)

This is a sample from my newsletter, (me + you), which comes as the spirit moves but is hopefully worth the wait. I use it as a place to test drive ideas, to practice therapy, to get writing tics out of my system…it’s really just a sandbox for me to write to you. The newsletter is about everything and nothing, but this one is about Fist of the North Star and a friend of mine. I wrote it back when the Kickstarter mentioned was still running, but it’s over now. Stay tuned for ways to get this!)

“After he saw God he felt really good, for around a year. And then he felt really bad. Worse than he ever had before in his life. Because one day it came over him, he began to realize, that he was never going to see God again; he was going to live out his whole remaining life, decades, maybe fifty years, and see nothing but what he had always seen. What we see. He was worse off than if he hadn’t seen God.
-Philip K Dick, A Scanner Darkly

Listen, I’m making a short comic with my friend Nick Dragotta (East of West, Fantastic Four, a bunch of ill sketches online) for the Cry Punch Comics anthology. It’s kickstarting now, and you’ve got four days to get in there. The kickstarter already hit goal, so the creators get to split the remaining funds. I say that so you know how serious I am being when I tell you to give your money to this kickstarter so that it will give money to me so that I can buy video games this summer.

Nick texted me on New Year’s Eve asking if I wanted to collaborate on a short comic. I don’t write comics, but I do like doing dope things with my friends, so I thought about it for a few minutes and then just said yes. Nick’s one of the illest artists working in comics (I said this even before he was my friend!!!), and he wanted to see what we could do if we started with Fist of the North Star as the foundation for our idea.

How can we flip it? How can we update it? There was no question of fixing it—Fist of the North Star is Fist of the North Star—but we did want to see what it would look like if we put our own spin on the core concept, a love letter to a classic that tries to speak the same language.

Our story is chapter 21 of the smash hit, hyper-influential series GOODDEVILS, and we chose to spotlight the sixth episode as another way to pay homage to a great. It’ll make sense when you read it and the upcoming release of Fist of the North Star volume 1 side-by-side.

Nick draws like this, by the way. So give us all your money and nobody gets hurt.

Listen, though, listen, while I’m shilling, I also co-host a manga podcast with Deb Aoki, Christopher Butcher, and Chip Zdarsky. It’s called Mangasplaining, and the format is technically “Three Amazing People Introduce Handsome Devil Chip Zdarsky to Manga” but has actually settled into a nice “This is our manga book club” approach. It turns out it’s hard to “be new to manga” after reading a couple thousand pages of it. Who knew?

People seem to really dig it, so we must be doing something right. Give it a listen on wherever you get your podcasts, or check out the site at mangasplaining.com. We’ve got a calendar, a diverse reading list, and some very charming icons. I very rarely do ongoing podcast projects (a rolling stone gathers no moss!), so this is special and you should eSPECIALly listen to it!

Listen, I got a good review at work recently. I feel like I’m a hard worker and blah blah blah other things workaholics say to pretend like they aren’t, but it still felt weirdly surprising, which is another mental health thing I’m going to have to grapple with soon. I keep running into situations where my confidence is super low but my actual execution is on par or better (“on par or worse?” I shouldn’t use golf metaphors. whichever means “above expectations, but like, in a good way”). It’s baffling, though my therapist explained that it is also anxiety, which is not baffling and very easily understood. But it’s still baffling to me, so I’m working on it.

What I’ve found, though, is that if I trust myself to get the job done, even if I dread the end result and adopt an apathetic attitude toward the lack of confidence…things tend to come out in the middle. It’s not great, but it’s a step.

I’m working on it. Good mental health is a practice, not a plateau, and sorting this out will help me. I’m just grateful that I can still make stuff, despite how I feel sometimes. The first step is figuring out what it is, then understanding it, then living with it. I’ll get on top of this too.

If I unthinkingly inflict this on you in conversation, bear with me and remind me that I live the life I want to live and do dope things on a regular basis.

Life is ludicrous.

Listen, the thing about Fist of the North Star is that I saw it probably around thirty years ago, and it’s been sitting in the back of my brain ever since. The violence and animation drew me in. I’d never seen someone’s head explode before, much less see a hero grab someone’s head and squeeze until it popped. It came out back when American animation was looking pretty soft, too. Anime hit me at kind of a perfect time, and the novelty and production values combined to make it something that just felt different. And Fist of the North Star was a lot different, even amongst a field of unique material.

To this day, I have a weakness—no. I have an interest in battle manga. I want to see how they do the fight scenes, what the martial arts system is like, and if they steal anything from real life martial arts. I want to know what the specialty of the series is, if it’s about magical action like Ajin or rooted in fundamentals like Hajime no Ippo.

The creators of Fist of the North Star ripped off Bruce Lee and Mad Max, and in so doing, created something fresh. There are Fist of the North Star imitators, but there’s only one FotNS. There’s a sublime mix of extreme violence and kindness in the pages, shared amongst the characters. Family ties, doing right by others, and living a moral life are right there next to the thrilling battles, and the combination of the two creates an interesting moral framework, one I have rarely seen expressed as well in a lot of American media that tackles similar ideas.

Do well by others. Protect your community. Do no harm. Cooperation is the way forward. And if you stray from this path, if you choose to impose your will upon others for your own personal benefit, you are already dead.

Listen, here’s another page of GOODDEVILS from Nick.

Nick’s got the hard part of the job. I’m just watching pages come back like 😭.

Look, I made another video essay. This one is about my relationship with King II, the legendary wrestler from Tekken, and how I once broke my thumb playing video games. I hope you dig it. It’s also kind of about my life changing in completely unexpected ways.

Listen, GOODDEVILS is really fun to do, and I have another short strip with another friend, Caleb Goellner, coming soon too. (Different setting, though.) I doubt I’ll make a habit of it, but again: dope projects with dope friends. Life is short and you only get one.

I like the setting of GOODDEVILS enough that I’ve been working on a prose story that I may or may not show people once it’s done. Bella is our Kenshiro, and we have a Shin you’ll meet soon, but what’s Fist of the North Star without Jagi?

Our Jagi is named Sheila. She sucks, man. She really sucks.

Anyway, here’s the first page of GOODDEVILS:

Nick’s a beast. A little bit of a Kenichi Sonoda vibe there for ya. Don’t forget to give us most of your money. Thanks in advance.

peace,
davidbrothers

Rebirth & Decline: A Thought About Ghost of Tsushima and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

I’ve been playing Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima and FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice a lot lately. I can’t help but compare the two in my head. Comparing the gameplay is pretty pointless, as they’re different types of games, but the themes? The arc of the story, the way the settings help tell the story? All of that stuck with me, and after mulling it over a bit, I wanna share it with you.

FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima—created by a Japanese and American studio, respectively—are similar video games in the same way that Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Spectre were the same kind of movie. They share a family tree, which means they have enough texture in common to make looking at them in juxtaposition with each other pretty interesting.

Ghost of Tsushima is set during the 13th century, and its protagonist Jin Sakai is the head of a samurai clan that’s fallen on hard times. The Mongol Empire invades his family’s lands, taking complete control of the island of Tsushima. Sakai, his uncle, and an unlikely gang of allies band together in order to take back their lands. Ghost of Tsushima depicts a samurai clan on the cusp of being reborn into a beautiful world full of untold potential.

Sekiro takes place much later, during the Sengoku period. Rather than a rebirth, Sekiro depicts a decline. The Ashina people lost control of their lands in the past, and have been subjugated for quite some time. Eventually, they clawed their way back and took control of their lands again. But by then, it was too late. The warring states period had turned the land of Ashina into a slaughterhouse, filled with nothing but death and those who would forsake their values in order to achieve victory.

Jin Sakai and Genichiro Ashina both stand in the gap, determined to preserve their lands at all costs. Sakai indulges in assassinations and befriends thieves to get his results, much to the disappointment of his samurai uncle. A similar disappointment to his grandfather, Genichiro pursues dark arts, allies with the corrupt, and seeks immortality in order to gain the power to restore his lands.

But Genichiro isn’t the main character of Sekiro. Wolf is. And Wolf is only loyal to the Iron Code, which demands that he protect his master, Lord Kuro, the Divine Heir. As it happens, Wolf’s goal is mutually exclusive with Genichiro’s, which leads to some of the game’s most bitter battles.

If Sekiro were Ghost of Tsushima, Wolf would be the villain, most likely, rather than a hero. In Sekiro, he makes for a grim protector.

These games depict two different fantasies about the samurai: rebirth and decline.

Ghost of Tsushima is big on exploration, achievement, and restoring a community. While Sekiro is focused mainly around melee combat, leading to several intensely memorable one-on-one encounters. As you progress in Tsushima, the lands around you become more beautiful as the people reclaim their land.

Pleasure is common in Ghost of Tsushima. Even though it’s a very dramatic game, the visuals and story both emphasize that Tsushima is a beautiful island populated by a beleaguered but industrious and kind people. You can take baths in hot springs and reflect on recent events, or feel so inspired that you pause to write a haiku.

Pleasure is much less common in Sekiro. Sharing sake with certain characters is one of the primary ways to gain info about the story, and those characters do tend to enjoy themselves as they reminisce about their lives. The different varieties of sake are described in glowing and unique terms as well, but Wolf himself doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in sharing a cup.

Almost everyone in Sekiro, Wolf included, is focused on their duty or their selfish desires at the expense of everything else. As Sekiro progresses, Wolf only ever becomes a more efficient killing machine.

There are two subtle touches in both games that perfectly encapsulate what they’re about to me.

I think of Ghost of Tsushima as a deeply romantic game, in a classic, adventure sense, It has an idealized depiction of the samurai—kinda like a samurai version of copaganda, I guess—and life in that time period in Japan.

The game is stunningly beautiful, like an enormous temple covered in red and gold. Jin Sakai knows and appreciates this throughout the game, such as when you’re traveling through a field of pampas grass and he reaches out one hand to let his fingers run through it, enjoying the sensation.

Sekiro, on the other hand, is a deeply passionate game to me. Wolf has spent his entire life ignoring pleasure for the sake of duty. But, late in the game, his lord gives him a sweet sticky rice ball. When Wolf bites into it, he’s surprised at how good it tastes. He describes it as delicious, one of the few times Wolf seems to be enjoying himself during the game.

Lord Kuro is pleased by his response, and shares a story about how he’d like to open a tea house some day. He’s prevented from fulfilling his dream because as the Divine Heir, he is responsible for more than just himself. Similarly, Wolf is his protector, and must remain focused on his lord. There is little space for pleasure in the midst of duty.

Ghost of Tsushima is a romance, and that’s reflected in the visuals, the gameplay, and even the way Jin Sakai lives and moves around the island of Tsushima. He’s very comfortable here. He’s at home, and the love he has is obvious and ever-present.

Sekiro is more of a passion play. You visit incredible locales, you fight a diverse group of enemies, and the game is truly beautiful, with exquisite animation and exciting combat. But the game is fundamentally about Wolf suffering while serving his lord. He’s here to kill, be killed, and to rise again to kill for his lord.

david brothers, 9/6/2020

This is the second one of these I’ve done, closing out what I’ve got to say about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The first was called SEKIRO: in the blood, charting my emotional arc with the game. I’ve also got an irregular newsletter on TinyLetter called (me+you). If you’d rather read some fiction, check out some criticism, or download these videos, visit my Gumroad. I’ve done a few limited-run podcasts too, under the Brothers Before Others umbrella.

SEKIRO: in the blood

Transcript:
The closest thing I’ve felt to agony in video games is when I first played Sekiro, from From Software.

The game is very difficult. It demands a lot of you. This fight, where Wolf, your player character battles Genichiro Ashina, was the first big road block I hit when playing the game. I must’ve bounced off him easily forty times before I finally got a lucky break and beat him. It took me a while to learn to see his moves, and even longer to learn how to react to them. Most of my runs ended like this.

SEKIRO: in the blood
david brothers

Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

“Are You Washed in the Blood?”
Elisha A. Hoffman, 1878

Pain is central to Christian doctrine. The cross has grown to be the dominant symbol of the religion, but the Blood of Christ is what gives the cross its power. The cross was just a tool for His sacrifice.

As a child, I was taught that the wages of sin are death, but the blood of Christ washes you clean.

Agony is a prerequisite for salvation.

Pain and agony are two related, but different, things to me. Pain is just stimulus, it’s value-neutral. It’s not good or bad. It’s just an indication that you are at risk, a self-preservation response.

Agony is pain that is directed or allocated. Enhanced maybe. Pain with a purpose. You can see what I mean in monks who self-flagellate to mortify their flesh in order to push their souls closer to godliness.

But maybe that’s an extreme example. I don’t rightly know. But I do know “No pain, no gain” and “Nothing worth doing is ever easy.”

I think of people who push themselves toward excellence by forsaking everything but their goal. That lack in their lives, that sacrifice, seems agonizing to me. The idea of looking away from love.

The feeling of pushing yourself harder than you ever have before and still failing is also agonizing. So, agony is a little broadly defined, maybe, but it’s consistent for me.

Sekiro has been one of my pandemic games. The blues have been brutal this year, and falling into this game and absorbing the pain it brings with it, accepting the agony of trying and failing until I finally manage to succeed, that has felt amazing.

I’ve been stressing over a million things over the past few months, just like anybody else. I spend a lot of time sitting, or staring at a ceiling or wall while I process. But when I’m controlling Wolf and looking for the right opening, that split-second between swings when I can turn the fight in my favor, I feel more free. The only thing that exists in that moment is the goal, and the pain that is going to get me there.

Sekiro has a very satisfying gameplay loop. You find a wall, and it bars your way until you learn how to clear it. Learning how to clear it takes so much physical time and emotional energy that finally making it happen feels great—it feels euphoric. It’s as if the agony reversed direction.

The agony of Sekiro was good for the blues. It gave me an emotional release that was sorely lacking while I shelter alone here, and a way to get some distance from my anxieties. It makes weathering the fears and worries brought on by this pandemic a little easier. And it keeps me from spending all my time on just the sad end of the emotional spectrum.

In the moment, when I’m trading blows with the boss and trying to fight my way to the deathblow, it kinda feels like meditation. The self falls away, the world falls away, and the only thing left is just this moment.

Are you washed (are you washed?) in the blood (in the blood)?
In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb? (of the lamb!)
Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

“Are You Washed in the Blood?”
Elisha A. Hoffman, 1878

david brothers, 9/1/2020

This is the first one of these I’ve done, and Rebirth & Decline: A Thought About Ghost of Tsushima and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the second, completing my thoughts on Sekiro. I’ve also got an irregular newsletter on TinyLetter called (me+you). If you’d rather read some fiction, check out some criticism, or download these videos, visit my Gumroad. I’ve done a few limited-run podcasts too, under the Brothers Before Others umbrella.

Gokudo Cats, Emma Ríos (2012)

I’m trying to write more. Probably the day after you read this, I’ll have a new short story up on essays.iamdavidbrothers.com. In the meantime, though, I’d like to talk about this old drawing from my friend Emma Ríos, co-creator of Pretty Deadly and Island magazine, and creator of ID from Image Comics.

The Flickr title for this one is “Gokudo Cats,” gokudo being a Japanese word that references the yakuza, and cats being…c’mon. You know what cats are. Meet me halfway here.

What first struck me about Emma’s art way back in 2011, when she was working on Osborn with Kelly Sue DeConnick, was the way she approached motion. She was using a technique in a way I found remarkable and striking, one of those “read the page, then read the page again, then save a screenshot of the page” kinds of things. She really brought some superhero bombast to the page, filtered through influences I’m not qualified to guess at. (I guessed that there was some Kirby in the mix when I first wrote about it, but I think that’s true of the vast majority of people who work with Marvel and DC.) That sense of motion made for exciting superhero comics, a genre where if the action scenes aren’t on point, everything else falls apart. More than that, it was new, novel—I saw it and it made me pause. That’s a feeling I chase in comics and media more generally, and Emma really delivered way back then.

Gokudo Cats is different. It’s from 2012, a single illustration that Emma submitted to a yakuza-themed art show in Portland that was running at the time. (I submitted a short story in zine form, which you can read here.) Emma perfectly captures stillness in this work. Not the absence of motion, that’s not what I mean. More like…if I had to describe this scene, I’d call it a vibe. There’s a narrative depicted here, but not necessarily one that’s being pushed forward or held back by the actions of the characters in the narrative. It’s just a moment, and in building that moment, Emma first had to build the vibe of that moment. I asked a few people about it, and most of them remarked on the way that it feels liminal, my favorite take being that it felt like a “calm between two storms.” It’s a moment frozen in time, but it’s a moment that lasts forever too. She’s drinking, he’s tattooing, and the cat is doing cat-things for eternity.

So: stillness in the sense of not inaction, but subdued or minimal action. It’s like watching a kid playing with building blocks. There is motion there, even though they may not be moving around too much. Every time you look at them, it feels like they’re in the same place, but there’s evidence of their movement too. If this picture were a Boomerang, like from Instagram, you’d see the old man pushing his tattoo needle down into the subject’s skin, the cat batting at something in the woman’s clothes, and the woman raising or appraising her beer can. Outside the window, a wind would blow back and forth, swirling in such a way that you can’t tell whether it’s coming or going.

The window is a crucial piece of the drawing for me. I like hiking and being outside, and recently went on a solo hike. It was eight miles, bright and early on a hot day, and I saw something that struck me early in the hike. The area where the cloud cover or fog met the tops of the trees looked like a mid-air waterfall almost, with the water vapor streaming down “into” the forest from afar. But it looked like the reverse, too, with the vapor rising out of the trees simultaneously. If I focused one way, the water fell. The other way, it rose. I was halfway up a mountain, staring at a sea of green and grey, trying to guess at the tides.

The way Emma drew the clouds, ground, and forest intermingling outside the window feels like that to me. It’s a concrete thing, very specific, but it’s anything too. It’s an ocean, it’s the sky, it’s the Earth. It’s an injection of the idea that some things are bigger than us into a piece that’s focused strictly on humanity otherwise. The posters, the tattoos, the posture, all of it feels deeply real to me, something that could be to such an extent that it might as well be. But the forest and clouds are out there saying, “There is more.”

The intrusion of the branches in the foreground does that for me too. It could be from a bonsai tree or from an off-screen full-sized tree, but it’s another reminder that nature surrounds us. We exist within it, rather than the opposite. In the Flickr post that went with this image, Emma described it as being a little Hayao Miyazaki-ish, and I can totally see it.

Even with the gun, the beer, and the tattooing, the image brings Miyazaki to mind because it evokes peace and contentment more than anything else to me. Everything and everyone in their right place, from the armed woman with a beer to the tattooist with a subject. Everything just looks right. Everything looks as it should, like the platonic ideal of a cool evening in this particular setting.

Sometimes, it kills me how good Emma is. I’m happy we’re friends.

Right now, Emma and Kelly Sue DeConnick are releasing the third part of their Pretty Deadly project. They just put #2 to bed, so that should hit in a few weeks. #1 is out at your favorite place to get comics, and the paperbacks are at bookstores, comic shops, libraries…shoot, you probably know somebody who owns them. Ask around. Tell your friends.

I do an irregular newsletter with lots of stuff like this. If you’re interested, check out (me+you) on TinyLetter. I also wrote a story inspired by this illustration called In-Between, which you can read here.