by Kazimir Strzepek
reviewed by Dustin Harbin
Okay, so as I described in my post-SPX photo report, I picked up The Mourning Star almost completely by accident, and mostly due to a string of recommendations, one mistaken rhyming name, and a case of reluctant-buyer's guilt. Let me preface this review by saying that this book had already been lauded half to death by the time I happened up on it: in most cases, anything I "discover" has been cool for months by that time, if not completely blase already. I was probably one of the few people in the room that had not read the thing. Anyway, I'm just saying I didn't know anything about the book, and left the Bodega table kicking myself for having spent even more money.
So I shared one of those nutty Supershuttle things to the airport, which had the unfortunate result of me showing up at the terminal more than an hour before my flight was scheduled to board. Nightlife at SPX is the best, so I was ready to sleep, but I was too afraid I'd snooze right through my flight. What to do? When I opened my bag, which was stuffed to overflowing with all the mini's and books I'd bought or was handed over the weekend, there on the top was The Mourning Star. Oh, alright Mourning Star. For thirteen bucks, you'd better keep me awake.
When you open the cover of the book, which is barely bigger than an average CD box, the first page is literally the first page. There's no introduction, dedication, preface, foreword by a respected someone-else, copyright, et cetera: you're just sort of unceremoniously dumped into the story.
The same rough hand-lettering is continued on the succeeding few pages, drawing in rough strokes the backstory of this world. It was very much like the intro to a serialized TV show--remember the A-Team? Each episode would start with the little story of how Hannibal and the boys were done wrong by the government, and thus forced to ply their trade as mercenary do-rights, and so on. Or David Lynch's awful Dune adaptation, which compresses several thousand years of backstory into a klunky intro piece that lasted something like 20 minutes or so. Ditto here, except that Kaz--as people call him, and which I want to call him, too--just throws out the bare bones of this dystopian future in a few pages, and then launches right into the story, which opens on a relatively bucolic little farm scene which immediately turns violent and sad.
Still no copyright, other-works-by-this-author-include, ISBN number, nothing. I think I actually stopped and flipped back through the pages to see if I'd missed something. There I was in the Baltimore airport, trying to figure out how to work this comic book. Don't get me wrong: I was already hooked. I was sold. I was already thinking to myself, "How do you pronounce "S-T-R-Z-E-P-E-K", anyway?"
Here's the thing about The Mourning Star: it's one of those things that rides the line between innocuous and terrible; between friendly and savage. These are usually my favorite things. Kaz's art at first looks closer to the world of minicomics than to a long-form narrative--it's easy to imagine these characters complaining to each other about something, or skipping rope or drinking beer in someone's 16-page autobio comic. The expressions are funny, simplistic, even silly in places: which is what makes it shocking when characters start to experience real sadness, terror, even death. You're left pretty quickly with the impression that any person you see on the page could die at any moment, without warning or preamble, and most likely without mourning.
This is what people call "drama", and is something a lot of more trained and experienced writers strive in vain to achieve in their stories. Somehow twentysomething Kaz has made it seem effortless; the fact that the art and much of the dialogue seems light and carefree only increases the tension for me.
The other big tension-increaser is the complete lack of exposition in the story. Maybe not complete, but there's almost zero explanation of ANYthing. There are only the most passing references to the larger pre-apocalypse social structure, economy, government, etc.; it becomes apparent that there are different races, one of which seems to be nomadic talking birds, but that's about all the description you get. Instead of describing the "world", giving backstory, historical tidbits, and so forth, the story is told like a car moving down a dark highway with its headlights on. You get a blurry idea of what's passing as you move through the night, but never enough to really feel secure with ANY idea of what's happening or where you are. Around every new curve is more road, with more mystery.
I have to say, I love it. In a medium that is so incredibly young, comics only rarely seem to be all that experimental, beyond the daring it takes to tell your story with a bunch of sequential images instead of just boring old words. Not that this book is all that experimental, I guess, but it's a little more sophisticated than I'd expected from someone who I'd barely heard of, and most of whose work had appeared in mini-comics and anthologies. Even better that it's a sophistication of storytelling, of writing, rather than a bunch of worrying about how sweet the cross-hatching is or how anatomically correct someone's thigh muscles are. It's quiet and it's effective. The Mourning Star is a story that seems to drift pretty effortlessly between comical and incredibly violent.
Here's something I noticed in re-reading the book for this review: the story bounces back and forth between groups of characters, Star Wars-style, as each group moves closer and closer to each other. Each time the focus of the story moves from one group of characters to another, the color of the paper changes from white to black or vice versa. It almost seems as if certain characters are always on black pages, but I haven't been able to scientifically prove this yet. Is this an exciting innovation? Maybe. If so, it's over my head; but it reminds me of the way that Paul Grist used different backgrounds in Kane to denote the difference between present-day action and flashbacks.
Last innovation: besides The Mourning Star itself, Mr Strzepek (who is not the other "Kaz", who's been around a lot longer) has done a number of related stories which have appeared in various places. What's innovative is that of the four or five "side" stories that I've read now, all of them are part of the main story without being absolutely necessary. For instance, the one in the new Awesome! Indie Spinner Rack Anthology involves some of the bad guys on their way to a scene within the book itself, but delayed because of a roadside bandit. It could easily be included in the book itself, but instead it's just a little gem you discover that deepens the character of the world of The Mourning Star. As a publishing model it's pretty free-form--Kaz seems able to tell his story wherever he gets an opportunity.
I think I'm out of stuff to say about it, without getting specific about story elements--but I'd prefer that you read it yourself, rather than ruin any of those surprises for you. For instance, the incredible number of beheadings--oops! Shut my mouth! Go find the book yourself: also worth getting are Papercutter (#5 has a Mourning Star story in it, but all 6 issues are great--I'm working on getting some for the store) and the aforementioned Indie Spinner Rack anthology. You can find out more about Kazimir Strzepek at this website, or at his MySpace page. Enjoy!