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Monday, April 26, 2004

The truly strange. 

Fantasy is the genre that is both the most promising and most stunted, unproductive genre in all of fiction.

Case in point: When I said "fantasy," what came to mind? Swords and wizards and elves? Maybe dragons? Great Horrible Undead Hordes That Must Be Vanquished By A Band Of Plucky Multi-Racial, Multi-Talented Characters With Verbs And Colors For Names?

(Before you get all pissy, the "racial" in "multi-racial" is in reference to elves, dwarves, hobbits and other such nonsense.)

That's the problem with fantasy. You say the name and everyone thinks of one very small part of it; in this case, stuff like Lord of the Rings is considered "sword and sorcery" fantasy but fills most peoples' minds as the prime example of what the genre is and can offer. That would be like saying the only kind of drama there is are cop dramas, or that slasher flicks are all that horror has to offer. J.R.R. Tolkein may be modern fantasy's greatest hero, but I believe he is also its greatest enemy.

Then something truly strange and original comes down the pike, and I remember what fantasy should be. This time around it was Jax Epoch and the Quicken Forbidden, written by Dave Roman and drawn by John Green.

Jax (short for Jacqueline) Epoch is your average 16 year old girl, if a bit of a recluse: she prefers books to human company, and only sticks with her current boyfriend because he's pretty cute. Her frustration with the world seems to come from the realization (typical for that age and thereabouts) that the real world usually isn't as interesting as the ones you read in books by half.

It only takes 7 pages before this book starts fucking your brain. Jax has followed her boyfriend and his group of ne'er-do-wells into a lab facility, presumably to vandalize and investigate, when she finds herself chasing a runaway lab rabbit (hint, hint) and stumbling through a gateway into...

Oh, but I don't really want to tell you. Finding out what the hell is going on, page by page, is really half the fun of it; as I was reading this book, the logic centers in my brain were screaming to piece together what the hell is going on, while the rest of me was having a blast. And this realization, right on the heels of that: This is what good fantasy should be. A pleasant disorientation as new and wonderous sights are presented to you page by page, stacking up in a half-mad configuration you know should make sense, if only you had the proper reference point to go by.

Roger Ebert once said that there was more imagination and innovation filling up the corners of the Mos Eisley cantina scene in Star Wars than there was in almost every sci-fi and fantasy movie since then. I would argue the same is true for Jax Epoch. Yes, there's some winks and nods to previous fantasy greats, such as the "chasing the white rabbit" sequence, but overall the final product is something new and innovative and heading toward (if not quite at) daring.

There are so many sights, so many characters, so many new proper nouns to learn, such a wild sense of setting and character design, and little throwaway moments of sheer oddity that you'll barely have time to catch your breath before the next new weird/stunning/humorous/odd/quirky thing comes along.

No, this isn't to say this book is just page after page of Roman's and Green's ids stamping themselves on the page; there's a real story here, a real spin, a real through-line informing every twist and every turn and every new seemingly random event. The fun is in finding it.

Jax herself is well fleshed out, which is critical. So many genre stories want to give us a cipher of a main character, perhaps assign a Hallmark card philosophy or a lame "shortcoming" to give them depth, and then expect the setting to do the rest. Not here. Jax has a wholly-formed personality, and all the quirks and foibles you'd expect of someone her age. More importantly, she works her way through what's going on the way someone like her would, rather than just going with what the plot demands. Her casual kleptomania, a personality that flicks between dreamy and pragmatic with ease -- all of it matters, all of it factors in, and all of it makes sense.

Quick question: Was it intentional to make Jax resemble Scott McCloud in some of these panels, especially early on? The big round empty glasses with black frames, the plaid flannel shirt... it was a little eerie.

Anyway. I loved it. Could you tell?

Here's a bit more info. Then Buy it.

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