By Justin Wood
You never notice the scars reviewing indie comics have left on your love for the medium until you read something like The Mindgator. Cracking open the review copy blind, I had to check to make sure it was a genuine indie. No publisher bullet, no hyperbole laden pull quote from one of Matt Fraction's Image Gang. An actual self-published work. And it looked really good. Not "good for you", like a majority of the self-published books that cross the Bastard bullpen. Actual high-quality artwork. Now, I'm front loading this review with this praise because my take on the book that is The Mindgator isn't all glowing, but coming across a book that looks like this that isn't a marketed property by a titanic publisher makes me want to climb to the highest point of Comic Con and shout “This! You don't have any excuse other than your talent!”. We'll get to my detractions, but there is more praise coming as well.
The Mindgator deals with Miguel, a hoverbike courier in a futuristic Tokyo, a young man with a John Waters mustache that kind of makes him look like a cyberpunk David Niven at times. So far the first part of the four-part miniseries is sort of a blend of Premium Rush and The Fifth Element, compiling familiar tropes together like a mysterious woman falling into a working stiff's life, a technological MacGuffin pursued by mysterious external forces, and the high-speed chases that ensue from the combination of these properties.
As mentioned, this book looks amazing, but unfortunately, it isn't quite as polished in the writing. When considering the dialogue and pacing the words that came most easily to mind were, reluctantly, clunky and awkward. From the first few pages the script felt off, our mute protagonist internally monologuing in cliched and oddly stilted language, both breaking the utility and charm of a mute protagonist gimmick and setting a wobbly tone that never fully recovered. Characters with shaky motivations pop in and out, delivering some genuine head-scratcher lines of dialogue in between inelegantly packaged exposition, all while not establishing enough individual personality among the characters to take the mysteries as an IOU for future installments. The story was originally published as a webcomic, which can explain some of the odd pacing issues (or how the narrative doesn't comfortably fit it's slightly shy of traditional print page count) but it doesn't dismiss the stilted dialogue or lack of real development of our protagonist. The final block of pages, set in a diner conversation between two participants in the story, was much better, if not helpful in investing me in the plot, but all in all the writing was a bit of a mess.
That said, let's gush about the art, shall we? This is a nice looking book, packed with energy and strong futuristic design work, both fleshed out yet stylistically simple in forms, using lines efficiently to produce compelling and animated action oriented landscapes. It's technically sophisticated, popping with kinetic motion, and stylistically unique to artist Mulule Jarvis, familiar in conceits but not appropriating any specific style. Amazingly, the book is in black and white, which doesn't serve as a detriment, the inky grey tone shading used with sparing specificity to perfectly balance the weight of objects in each panel, making the book thoroughly comprehensible despite the aggressive speed and minimalism the action is communicated with. I loved how this book felt to read visually; I wish I could say I felt the same about the accompanying narrative. Considering the book is available in print, formatted in widescreen landscape, it might be worth picking up to appreciate from time to time solely as art.
I didn't love reading The Mindgator, but this is what reading indie comics should be: an act of discovery. I didn't know who Mulule Jarvis was as a creator before I read this, and now I'm glad that I do; the dude can thrash a pen. I don't demand that indie comics always be perfect to be worth reading, I just want more of them to try something different. Packaging stories according to the principles that major publishers operate under is a wasted opportunity, underestimating and misinterpreting the freedoms that creating without corporate demands allows. Comics are only one step removed from being the most artistically accessible artform to creators after the written word, there being no real limitation on creating grand stories beyond the individual's personal ability with storytelling and illustration. A filmmaker needs millions to tell the kind of story a comic book artist can tell with a pen, a Strathmore artboard, and a flatbed scanner, and it sucks to see people chalking subpar looking books up to an issue of budget. I don't love everything about The Mindgator, but I'm damn pleased to see a self-published book be among the best-looking things I've read this year, and I hope others will take note as well.
Creator: Mulele Jarvis