When Image Comics debuted 20 years ago, it was completely unlike the entity it is today in terms of aesthetics and tone. The publisher's early titles were often little more than palette swaps of the series the founders had been associated with at Marvel, knock-offs of various X-Men, more X-TREME!!! versions of already extreme heroes. The company has of course matured into something truly innovative, but that process took time and experimentation and a willingness to hand the bulk of the creating over to untested newcomers. I bring this up because even if nothing else comes out of Chris Roberson's Monkeybrain Comics (and I sincerely hope that isn't the case), the creator at least deserves recognition for not just splitting from what he perceived to be an unethical employer but for forming a publishing line that is genuinely, refreshingly different from what that employer published.
While Monkeybrain Comics offers quirky action fare in Bandette, and even science-y super hero stuff in Edison Rex, it's also a line that feels comfortable with something like Aesop's Ark, a gorgeous quasi-anthology that is devoted to animals on Noah's ark telling stories derived from Aesop's fables. Aesop's Ark is the kind of work that is normally found in its own hardcover, to be passed from parent to kid for generations, rather than in single issues. But there's a certain kind of genius in presenting a work like this in the digital format that Monkeybrain is built around rather than in a hardcover edition (though one would hope that it will eventually be collected in that form as well). There's no denying that current generations are far more immersed in technology than their predecessors, and Aesop's Ark's target audience likely skews young enough that iPads were never a novelty to them but a basic fact of life.
Jennifer L. Meyer's lush linework would be beautiful in any form, but it seems particularly suited to success in the digital format, where the mostly black and white art takes on a special smoothness as she depicts the worried, anxious animals who need stories to stay optimistic. J. Torres' writing keeps things simple, but doesn't condescend towards its younger readers, instead rightfully assuming that anything they miss in the words will be made clear in the images. Torres cleverly stays out of Meyer's way, allowing the artist to do the brunt of the narrative work here as she builds the world of the ark carefully and deliberately.
Meyer contrasts the world of the ark and the world of the stories that are told by the resident lion through an explosion of color, illustrating the way the stories enliven these animals' lives on their journey as well as depicting how their memories of the non-ark world are colored through the haze of nostalgia. It may not be the most original visual trick, but it's highly effective, especially considering the light pencil shading of the rest of the issue. The drawback is that it also highlights how slight this first issue is, featuring as it does only one fable, with the rest of the issue devoted to the real life applications of lion's fable about a mule not helping his friend donkey with a burden.
Future issues could use a better fable/framing device ratio, particularly if the creative team wants to hold the attention spans of kids, but given that you can buy the entire batch of first issues that Monkeybrain has out for less than a couple New 52 titles, that's a small complaint. Roberson and company still have some growing to do with Monkeybrain, but they're already making braver and bolder choices than their like-minded predecessors and Aesop's Ark stands out as a particularly exemplary first effort from the company.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.