Buzz! was one of the funniest things I’ve read since last year’s Friends With Boys. It had elements of Scott Pilgrim sprinkled from beginning to end and really it just screamed ONI PRESS on every single page. It’s a good thing that Oni Press is the publisher then right? In all seriousness this was a fun read. It’s about spelling and competitive spelling bees. I hate spelling; I’m terrible at it and dreaded spelling out loud in class and yet I enjoyed the hell out of this graphic novel. What was particular great about this story was that it doesn’t spend a ton of time setting up the world or really explaining why Spelling Bees are a media sensation. There’s even underground spelling that is illegal because of its unsanctioned nature. You’re given this information as the story progresses and I was very thankful for that. Since the concept is simple, but the world is complex it could have been page after page of explanation. Instead it just hit the floor running and filled you in along the way.
The story kicks off with our main character Webster’s first day of high school. His sister gives him a bit of a pep talk and through that we learn that Merriam is his legal guardian since both of their parents are gone. Please tell me that you caught their names? I’m trying not to blatantly spell out these jokes for you. Anyways, she tells him not to fall in with the wrong crowd and Webster runs off to school. As he’s walking he buries his nose in a book and doesn’t pay attention to where he’s going. He bumps into to a dude and drops his SAT prep book. The guy picks it up and looks at it, then walks away with the book. This dude looks like something out of a video game the way he’s dressed and soon enough he leads Webster to an underground spelling competition.
Webster freaks out instantly because he knows he’s somewhere he shouldn’t be and this was exactly what his sister warned him about, but he wants his book back. The guy with his book tells him to chill out and watch and he sticks around. They watch as a guy and a girl faceoff. The guy misses his word and the girl “The Black Queen” swoops in and nails it. As the rules state she must spell her own word correctly and then she wins the match. She does of course and gives a very Street Fighter inspired victory quote at the end which was fantastic and very cool.
After their match the guy Webster is with throws his book into the ring and steps in himself. Clearly he’s just duped him into a match, but Webster doesn’t realize it. The guy is finally introduced to us as The Outlaw King of the Alphabet and this opponent Goldilocks; which is what the announcer calls Webster when he figures out he’s about to go face to face with the Outlaw King. They begin spelling and this is where the flair of the art comes into play. They’re not just spelling, they’re battling. The letters they say take form or at the very least are thrown in the other person’s direction. The match is ended by police sirens and a frantic Webster trying to figure out how to escape the situation. The Outlaw King helps him escape and stays in his place.
The battling reminded me of an episode of The IT Crowd called “The Final Countdown” in which a quiz show breeds an underground competition as former champs face each other. It’s very similar, but obviously the spelling bee angle is different and the characters are way over the top. The characters remain for the most part as they are. Webster has some minor character development, but for the most part it’s just about the craziness of the world. Sure we learn everyone’s back story and motivation throughout the tale, but it’s presented in over the top ways just like the rest of the story.
The writing is fantastic. The way it strings you along without you ever being lost or confused is masterful. The inclusion of the backstories in interesting ways that never hinder or weigh down the story was the absolute best way to include it in the story. The pacing is very fast, but again just right for the story. The world is just as interesting as anything else and anyone would love to take a trip inside.
As fun as the story is, as great as the writing is; the art is the glue that holds everything together. The style is very American-Manga influenced and it fits the pacing and tone of the story perfectly. There’s only one color used throughout the entire book and it’s a golden-yellow with the rest being in grey scale. It works amazingly well. The art is the aspect of the book that reminded me the most of Scott Pilgrim, but it never felt like a rip-off just in the same vein. The battle of words and the over the top characters coming together in a world that was completely unrealistic made a comic book the right medium for the story. Speaking of the characters their designs were phenomenal and something out of a fighting video game; their mannerisms were also quite cool. When the Black Queen wins her first match she pops her hood over her head as she spells her last word. It’s pretty damn amazing and hard not to fall in love with her.
Well you’re kind of screwed because the book doesn’t ship until November, but I would highly recommend it to anyone that’s a fan of Ananth Panagariya’s webcomic Johnny Wander or Tessa Stone’s Hanna is Not a Boy’s Name, which is one of the few webcomics I’ve sat down and read from beginning to end in one day (it’s really good). I’m not sure if they collaborated on the story together or not, but overall it’s a great read and is definitely one of my favorites of the year. It very well might end up being my Friends With Boys pick of the year which places it in very strong company. Now this was supposed to release as part of Oni’s digital initiative, but it hasn’t yet. I would keep an eye on their site in case they release it weekly prior to the print release. This is Oni at its best and these are the type of stories that I think of when I think of them as a publisher.
Writer: Ananth Panagariya
Artist: Tessa Stone
Publisher: Oni Press
Release Date: 11/20/13