Oh, thank God. I liked something. Let's get this review down quick before this feeling goes away. Published in the independent newspaper The Knoxville Mercury, Spirit of the Staircase is a weekly comic strip about an unlikely friendship between a depressed, social anxiety plagued service worker and a non-descript furry sasquatch with an unwavering streak of affectionate obliviousness. 'Tapwater and Tuna Party' marks the first collected volume of the strip, bringing together the first fifty-six installments into one volume.
I'll admit, it's been a long time since I paid much mind to newspaper comic strips, the last bump of interest being Berke Breathed's surprising and timely resurrection of Bloom County earlier this year. I don't get my local newspaper, and it's not like they are going to print Oglaf in it anytime soon anyway. With Spirit of the Staircase, The Knoxville Mercury lucked the fuck out in landing writer/artist Matthew Foltz-Gray, presumably being the only newspaper running a strip that deserves national syndication immediately. It's funny, capable of originality, and arguably the best-looking strip I've seen in the newsprint format since Bill Watterson put down the weekly pen in 1995. Part of the rich quality may be creating a comic on a weekly, rather than daily basis, but regardless these talents need to be rewarded.
Writing wise, it's a charmer. The premises are simple, focusing on the daily life of the odd couple leads, alternating and blending perspectives between the anxious spiritual lethargy of Matt and the boundless wonder and idealism of Mumford, crudely put, a sort of reverse Garfield. Some of the humor feels a bit simple or somewhat familiar, but Foltz-Gray also has a clear comedic voice, not to mention a structure that often allows for comedy that unfolds more naturally than just set-up/punchline, a pacing that actually reminded me more than a little of the aforementioned Breathed. The comedy doesn't shy from indulging in dumb when it feels like it, but like a lot of great cartoonists Foltz-Gray also draws from wells of surprising momentary poignancy. These moments, often paired with carefully chosen wording, reveal skill that extends beyond illustration.
But what illustration it is. Thin, scratchy, but delicately weighted linework, once the comic settled into its art style after a few weeks it began to reach a quality bordering on perfect. I would hope that Foltz-Gray makes a habit of guesting at cons because I would love to see what these strips look like in their original form, etched on paper. His leads are illustrated with great personality and humanity, but an equal amount of personality is granted to the background population and locales, often deceptively simple but packing in fantastic texture, an artistic care you might not notice unless you slow down and give the panels their individual due. The colors, presumably digital but given a rough watercolor aesthetic, only enhance what's already there, lending the weedy hairy lines a rustic gritty weight.
The only downside is the presentation. While the format is straightforward, unfortunately for some reason Foltz-Gray decided, perhaps as either padding, visual balance, or the sense the book needed something "new" in it, to include a sort of running commentary for each strip. The commentary isn't actual annotations with behind the scenes process, but rather jokes about the jokes tacked on, like a text percussion sting. The inclusion is largely unnecessary and unhelpful to the quality presented material, and after a few strips, I began completely ignoring them in lieu of simply enjoying the body of work on its own.
Ultimately, the mild gripes don't affect what is otherwise a great collection of a genuinely great work in an under-appreciated wing of graphic storytelling. Knoxville doesn't know how lucky they are to have an artist like this creating for them, and hopefully, people beyond the Tennessee border are finding and appreciating this work as well. I can't say it quite convinces me to start giving Pearls Before Swine and their ilk a spot in my daily routine, but I'd definitely think about that newsprint subscription if somehow Spirit of the Staircase was among their number.
[su_box title="Score: 4/5" style="glass" box_color="#8955ab" radius="6"]
Tap Water and Tuna Party Creator: Matthew Foltz-Gray Publisher: Karate Petshop Price: $9.99 Format: TPB; Print