Over 80 creators.
51 different stories.
Songs from 11 different albums including single b-sides.
Comic Book Tattoo — an interstitial smorgasbord that clocks in at nearly 500 pages and has a list of contributors that span from established to up-and-coming — is undoubtedly one of the most interesting anthologies to come out in years. Each comic is based on a song by singer-songwriter Tori Amos and choices range from her most recent album, the rock-influenced American Doll Posse, to the hard-to-find early synthpop group album, eponymously titled Y Kant Tori Read.
The reason you should buy this anthology is simple: it’s awesome. The diversity of art styles in the book range from stark lines to photo-realistic to “cartoonish” to the avant-garde. And the plots are just as diverse. Almost every genre is represented — science-fiction, romance, paranormal, dark thriller, fantasy, and slice of life. The true thrill of the book is how none of these differences detract from the stories or seems jarring. They just flow from one to the next until you find yourself on page 300 without realizing it. You don’t go from a story of joy directly into one of pain; instead, you’re led in a slow wave of emotion from depressive to euphoric and everything in between.
The biggest mistake here would be assuming that the collection is only of interest to Amos’ fans. The stories stand on their own quite well and make absolute sense without any knowledge of the songs. None of the stories attempts to recreate the lyrics of the song in a visual format, a rule put forth from the very beginning by Rantz Hoseley, the book’s editor and longtime friend of Amos’. He asked the creators to take whatever the song made them feel and create a story from that — and it works beautifully. Inspired by the emotions provoked by Amos’ songs, the stories revolve around issues of pain, alienation, freedom, choice and betrayal. The use of these central themes and the simple emotional honesty of the stories makes them feel like they belong together almost as if they were part of one large continuing narrative. Readers will identify with the stories even if they aren’t fans of Amos’ music.
But, for those who are Amos fans, owning this book is a must. Listening to the songs while reading the story provides an emotional feedback loop between the two mediums that makes them resonate on a whole new level. The influence of Amos’ songs wrap around the stories and influence and deepen them without overpowering or controlling. This layering also gives even the most domestic stories an ethereal feel.
Some of the standouts in this work include “Little Amsterdam” by Leif Jones, a dark tale of family secrets that has a chilling essence of despair almost from the very first panel. A mother is forced to work in a brothel while waiting for the return of her lover who left long ago and hiding their “freak” of a daughter in the cupboard downstairs. When the sheriff, a regular customer, offers her a respectable life with him she must make a decision about her daughter’s fate unaware that someone is already looking out for her child.
“Girl” by Jonathan Tsuei, Eric Canete, Saskia Gutekunst and Geoff Ong centers on the the idea of choice and individuality. A woman who has always done things to help others, doing work that’s not her own, allowing people to treat her shabbily, and putting their needs first, is approached by men late one night who make her an offer: a new life. But is it a way to freedom or just another leash? The almost noir feel of the artwork fits very well with the ambiguity of the story and increases the feeling of drowning in a miasma of other people’s needs.
“Programmable Soda” by Drew Bell, Kevin Mellon and Mark Sweeney is a light-hearted romp all about the right look and attitude being key in picking someone up in a bar. However the woman in question has a whole new way of changing her look and style and, when rejected, refuses to give up. On the surface it’s cheerful and light but thinking about some of the implications in the story make it seem more sinister.
“The Waitress” by Rantz A. Hoseley, Ming Doyle, Mark Sweeney and Kristyn Ferretti works with the themes of betrayal in this dark story of friendship in the labyrinth of Hollywood life. It’s told in a very interesting and affecting split-screen style — the left half of the page comprises only a few minutes in a bar and the climax of the whole tale while the right half shows the years and betrayals leading up to the confrontation. The style works for the piece very well and highlights how some people change over years and some don’t.
“Teenage Hustling” by C.B. Cebulksi, Ethan Young, Joey Weltjens & Lee Duhig is one of a few completely silent pieces within the work where the characters don’t actually interact through speech at all. Told exclusively through expressions and physical interactions the tale is an emotional roller-coaster about teenage sex, loneliness and alienation.
“Devils and Gods” by Jessica Staley and Shane White is the quiet story of a father and daughter stranded on an isolated island. The daughter is forced to wear a mask because of a deformity and there are darker things at work including secrets and another mask that whispers in the daughter’s mind. Heart-wrenching, sad, complex and, like many of the works in the volume, morally gray and ambiguous.
These are far from the only works within the text worthy of praise; the large majority of the stories create interesting images and plots that you remember for weeks after reading them. But the anthology isn’t a complete home run. There’s a dearth of characters of color in the work and, when they do appear, they most often take a supporting and guiding role and end up in jail or dead, sacrificed for the emotional growth of the white protagonist. The two stories where characters of color are the protagonists — “Sugar” and “Take To The Sky” — both fall into very stereotypical storylines: the Asian girl in ancient times who sacrifices herself to save her servant lover and the black family in the ghetto with an absent mother and neglectful father. The stories themselves aren’t bad, but when they are the only pieces that feature characters of color in the whole book it’s more than a bit problematic.
Other stories are confusing, buy into old tropes, fall flat, don’t awaken much empathy in the reader or simply don’t take advantage of the visual aspect of the medium and seem like they would have been better as short stories.
However, those pieces are in the minority — overall Comic Book Tattoo is well put together and a pleasure to read.
Naamen Gobert Tilahun is a freelance writer in San Francisco. His lifelong love of Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror books, TV and movies (both really-exceptionally-bad and good) can probably be traced to a mother who showed him films like Monster Squad and Bladerunner and TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits at far too young an age. He writes about identity, politics, media, and writing at his personal blog Words From The Center, Words From The Edge and is one of the many wonderful bloggers at Feminist SF – The Blog!.