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Yam: Bite-Size Chunks

Yam: Bite-Size Chunks

YAM is a small boy, wearing hooded orange jammies and owning a pet TV set and a hover-pack. But I’ll see you that and raise ya – YAM is a comic book by Corey Barba told entirely without words. For kids.
Knowing these rather extraordinary facts, I expected YAM to be extraordinary. In a a sense, it failed to meet my expectations. In another sense, I am at fault for having these expectations.

To explain:
YAM lives on a small tropical island but often visits the nearby city. Both are populated by bizarre creatures – his good feline/humanoid friend Gato, the scientifically-oriented May, talking cupcakes, edible tortoises, emotional clouds and more.
The exploits of YAM have appeared in Nickelodeon Magazine over the last few years, and YAM: Bite-Size Chunks collects these yarns along with several new tales. This probably explains the variable formats and styles displayed in the book – colors and black & white, inks and pencils – with stories ranging from a single page to 38 pages. To Barba‘s credit, he seems equally at ease in all of these – YAM remains characteristically YAM whatever the length and technique, and the stories never seem to suffer from the limitations I assume the original medium imposed.

YAM being Yam
YAM being Yam

The problem with YAM is that while it is original and often charming, it almost never seems to soar – the characters are neat, but nothing much happens to them, the stories often revolve around a single joke or a simple theme, and they are neither very funny nor profound. Unlike the designation on the back-cover, I am not at all sure that this is an All-Ages comic, but, rather, aimed exclusively at kids.

But this, I shall reiterate, is my undoing more than YAM‘s. Coming from the well-respected Top Shelf Productions and described on the same back-cover as “stirringly fun” and “cartooning at its finest”, I expected something that would appeal to me and not only to my kids. Abandoning expectations, YAM proves to be very well executed, full of the right spirit, and, most of all, much fun for the kids. My five-year-old found YAM’s alternative world charming and intriguing, while my three-year-old laughed at the visual puns and fell in love with the adorable characters. For them, the book was a perfect introduction to comics – the absence of words made it possible for them to enjoy the book without my help, and they took turns telling the short stories to each other.

The story the kids found the most bothersome was, however, my own favorite: the 38 pager that Barba added for this collection tells of how YAM fell in love with the girl of his dreams, and then fell in dreams and forgot about reality. It contains most of the book’s surrealistic scenes, and possesses an eerie, dream-like quality that is the closest YAM comes to meeting my (misguided, I know) expectations.
There’s no doubting Barba’s talent, but if I could be self-centered for a moment, I wish he would write more lengthy stories and use the same talents to let us see YAM – or other denizens of his obviously impressive imagination – reach its full potential. The result, I wager, would be enchanting for adults as well as children.

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Creature Tech cover
Creature Tech cover

What makes for a good comic?

I’d have to stay story comes first, but – unlike a regular book – art also comes into it. This is rather obvious, I know, but there’s more: the pacing is crucial as well. It doesn’t have to be fast – or slow – to be good, but it has to be right for the story. If it’s an introspective exploration of human character, it should take its time; and too many slow moments in an action adventure will send the readers yawning. But this, of course, is not enough – you also need characters that are believable and you make them believable mostly through their actions and their dialogue. Both have to be consistent – not necessarily consistent with real life (where’s the fun in that?), but consistent with the story’s reality.

The first time I read Doug TenNapel‘s Creature Tech (from Top Shelf) I couldn’t put the finger on why I didn’t like it. It had neat technological innovations. It had wonderful art. It had a fast-paced story with loads of cool monsters. It had an effeminate British undead scientist with a neat sense of humor. What’s not to like?

The second time around, I got it: the pacing’s wrong and some of the dialogue was, well, horrible. Both of these were not consistently off, but when they were, it yanked me out of the story, of the world – it made everything seem unbelievable. Less fun, too.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Which is kind of what happened to Dr. Michael Ong when he moved to Turlock, California, to head the Research Technical Institute.

RTI – or Creature Tech, as the locals have it – is more than Ong bargained for, as is Turlock. Ong, you see, was born there – and he isn’t happy to be back. And Creature Tech is full of crates, and until he’s catalogued the lot, he’s not getting a transfer. As if this wasn’t enough, the crates’ contents are, how shall we put it, slightly odd. Or is it more apt to call, just as an example, an alien slug beast with revolving teeth and a multi-talented symbiotebizarre“? One wonders.

Ong is handling all of this with a certain amount of success, but then two things happen at once: one of the crates turns out to contain the shroud of Turin; and Dr. Jameson, a long deceased mad scientist, appears as a ghost to steal the shroud and revive himself. Jameson, however, is not just your run-of-the-mill undead evil nemesis. He has made a pact with a demon, and can turn ordinary cats into raving, roving, roaring, randomly-shaped beasts of destruction. Oh, and he’s out to conquer the world with the help of inter-galactic giant space eels. Obviously.

You may think I’ve just thrown dozens of spoilers your way. Not so. All of this is just the premise for the story, which now picks up the pace, introduces a love interest to Dr. Ong, explores his relationship with his parents, veers into religious themes, casually throws a half-man/half-mantis security guard into the mix and gallops onwards to an action-packed climax.

Now, as if all of this is not impressive enough – and the imaginative prowess behind Creature Tech is awe-inspiring – TenNapel almost manages to make it work. Somehow, much of the book doesn’t seem crowded or rushed, and the world is – remarkably – not only believable, but not that different from our own.
And then there’s the art.
Oh, the art.

TenNapel is, let us not mince words, a master. This is not only because he’s an excellent artist, demonstrating line-work as impressive as I’ve ever seen, but because he doesn’t let the art go over the top: it’s there to serve the story. The synergetic effect is quite wonderful, and everything else about the art – lettering, layouts, even sound-effects – works as well.

But then come characterization and dialogue. The book only has two significant characters – Dr. Ong and Dr. Jameson. Jameson is rather one-dimensional, but in an original sort of way, and, after all, he’s a zombie mad-scientist – so no complaints there. But Ong, who carries most of the book on his shoulders, is supposed to make amends with his father, learn to live with an altered medical condition, struggle with theological issues, initiate a romantic relationship and stop a horde of hell-cats hell-bent on enslaving the world. The character collapses under the strain and stops being believable before he’s even begun: is he a geek or a rebel? Why does he fall for his love? When and why did he become an atheist, and why is it even important? All of these – and many more – just get left behind as the story races on. If the story was just about action and monsters none of this would matter, but it aims to cover more “serious” issues and, mostly when it comes to Theology, fails.

What, really?
What, really?

I think I may have still liked Creature Tech – because, really, it has so much going for it – if the only problem was Dr. Ong. But TenNapel doesn’t trust his readers to understand what’s going on, and from time to time the characters pause to state the obvious. I may be going out of a limb here, but I suspect that when an alien creature has just pierced your heart, you don’t pause to state “it has pierced my heart!” before collapsing. And when you stumble unto a highway and bright lights approach you – as is clearly indicated by the beautiful art shown above – you’re not going to say “bright lights!”. This is devastating to suspension of disbelief. Suddenly, you’re not in a wondrous world where work is reached by a plant/worm tunnel; you’re sitting in a chair, reading a book.

Creature Tech is not all bad. Actually, it’s mostly good, often excellent, and many people love it. But the occasional spalshes of “bad” paint, for me, the whole thing a rather depressing shade of mediocre.

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