If you're at all invested in the comics business — fan, creator, critic, retailer — then yes, of course you're paying mind to the massive creative and business realignments, including muscular and savvy digital distribution initiatives, taking place at Marvel and DC.
Together those companies make eighty cents of every dollar in this business and in that respect they define the marketplace. Watching and interpreting these companies' wide influence has its rewards, however fleeting.
But I'm here to implore you to feed your soul every once in a while, because that's the real place where comic books anyone is going to give two fucks about come from.
In Ron Regé, Jr.'s Cartoon Utopia, the soul of comics finally has its moment in the sun in a glorious, defiant and hallucinatory reading experience that should be taught in universities (reputable ones anyway).
This is a man utterly unafraid to let his freak flag flap into the heavens.
This is an artist with something to say about why we care about comic books and where they could go if, somehow, commerce was amputated from the process entirely. This is an artist with a credible publisher like Fantagraphics behind him who knows his vision has to be seen and heard.
With this book, Ron Regé has emerged as comics' answer to Walt Whitman.
Yes, Cartoon Utopia has the exactly the same level of commitment, daring, clarity and resonance as Leaves of Grass, and I'm certain Whitman couldn't draw anywhere near this level. The art here vacuums you up with in a fascinating, pseudo-mystical illustrative tornado.
Pages that resemble mazes of complicated piles of ornately drawn typography intermingle with full-blown short stories that appear to advocate one esoteric philosophical position or another but instead simply entertain and energize with glorious, pure abandon, and some fairly hilarious slight-of-hand.
The juicier segments that stuck out for me were "The Incorruptible Diamond Body," a graphically rigid but pure-hearted metamorphosis tale, "I Believe in Magic," a waterfall of exceptional linework that recalls Art Spiegelman's earliest great work, and the piece that closes the book, "Peace Comic," a highly satisfying future-set fulfillment of the utopia promised in the book's title.
Occasionally Regé takes a break from the lucid lunacy of this jam-packed sequential pages to offer a gentle poetic quotation or a humorous, exuberant pin-up. A favorite subject in Cartoon Utopia is "The Cartoon Utopia Marching Band," who appear in some full-page illustrations early in the book looking like demented, lazy eyed 19th century wooden figurines brought to life in some kind of half baked voodoo ceremony. These pages work beautifully, especially as punctuation for the author's deeper point about the possibilities of comics.
This is the real stuff, Regé's bold art/text juxtapositions implore on every jam-packed page, please don't be a coward. Dive in and experience it.
When an inviting and inclusive — but genre-less — message like that comes wrapped in a snazzily designed hardcover package, I tend to forget Marvel and DC even exist.
A word of warning: Cartoon Utopia is not quite a graphic novel or even a short story collection. It's much closer to a manifesto or a diary comic, but its almost-square trim size and dazzlingly colorful cover suggest something you don't see much of anymore — the concept album.
Thankfully, Regé's overarching concept — that a vivid and transcendent comic book experience is within our grasp, if we're willing — is not a hard one to understand at all.
R.J. Ryan is a Los Angeles-based writer best known for the 2010 graphic novel Syndrome. His next book with artist David Marquez, The Joyners in 3D, will be out later this year from Archaia.Find him at @RJRHQ on Twitter.