Broken Frontier Anthology review
Writers: Greg Pak, Tyler Chin-Tanner,Cullen Bunn, Phil Hester, Robert Dammelin, Justin Zimmerman, A. David Lewis, Fred Van Lente, Carla Berrocal, Jamie Coe, Edie OP, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Merguerite Bennett,Frederik Hautain, Kurt Belcher, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Karrie Fransman, David Hine, Noah Van Sciver, Sean Wang, Salgood Sam, Box Brown, PJ Holden, Scott Ferguson, INJ Culbard, Steve Orlando, Steve Bryant
Art: Steve Bryant, INJ Culbard, Yaroslav Astapeev, PJ Holden, Salgood Sam, Sean Wang, Box Brown, Noah Van Sciver, Mark Stafford, Karrie Fransman, Jeff McComsey, Facundo Percio, Rob Croonenborghs, Varga Tomi, Ryan Kelly, Edie OP, Toby Cypress, Jamie Coe, Robert Sammelin, Carla Berrocal, Daniel Warren Johnson, Nathan Fox, Alison Sampson, Noel Tuazon, Aysegul Sinav, Mike Lawrence, Tom Raney
Letters: Simon Bowland, Taylor Esposito et al
Colours: Gina Going, Jason Wordie et al
Review by Jamie Groovement
“There’s always something bigger. And nothing, no one, will mourn us here.”
– The Wreck Of The Vesalius, by Steve Orlando
Broken Frontier collects 27 fantastical, twisted stories into a trans-dimensional beast of an anthology. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign and including over 50 creators, both veterans and newcomers, it’s available digitally as well as in a luxury, slightly oversized hardback.
I’ve attempted to identify common themes running through some of the narratives and clumped stories together accordingly. The one overarching thread is, of course, the idea of breaking frontiers – this is taken 27 different ways over the course of the collection.
Two stories focus on their main character obtaining new abilities via body parts. Greg Pak and Tom Raney’s Phantom Limb Ghostpuncher opens the book, an origin story for an everyman cop I’m already keen to see more of. Running through a (mystically) burning building and losing his arm in the process, Larry fights off demons with his new super-limb and gains the companionship of a talking cat taking on a Yoda role. It comes across as a prequel story, which is no bad thing, and there’s loads of potential for more ghost punching to come.
The Beard’s main (female) character realises her powers more subtly, gradually embracing the sudden appearance of facial hair that just won’t leave, bringing more complexities with it than are first apparent. Alison Sampson’s sketchy, distinctive art collides with the use of text in the story beautifully, using a slightly chaotic layout to relay the trauma our main protagonist goes through in her battle with the beard. An optimistic end rounds out a unique idea.
While there are many twists and turns throughout the anthology, a couple of stories make ‘things not being what they seem’ their main focus. In The Night, Mountains Grew is a beautifully painted tale about an Alaskan ranger dealing with the titular phenomenon. Muted colours throughout from Varga Tomi portray the coldness and isolation of the town, right up until the dynamic final spread reveal.
Stranger Than Fiction is an ode to hard-boiled detective stories with a psychic twist, with mystery writer Dee Hendrix communicating with spirits to find a sort of justice. Anthology editor Tyler Chin-Tanner has a great idea here, Aysegul Sinav sticking to a subdued palette with the exception of the glowing, otherworldly spirits.
Then there are stories of lands, not necessarily ones that are ‘far-off’. Dark Dark World is a brilliantly neon adventure, a monster-filled mini-odyssey where young Rhia is tasked with delivering a precious package. It’s a standout story in the book, not least because of its brilliant character design and fluid use of panels and text. Putting me in mind of Adventure Time in terms of both plot and execution, it’s still very much its own monster and Cullen Bunn and Nathan Fox deserve a series!
Beasts are also prominent in Here There Be Monsters, a Sean Wang-created 16th century set kaiju flick that needs to happen. Conquistadors get their ships trashed as they escape the smackdown, but the last panel leaves us in no doubt as to who the real bad guys are.
Also on the invading tip are the treasure-mad Vikings of Plunder, slaughtering the last member of a tribe to get to that all important reward of a giant silver skeleton adorned with gold horns and hands, a ‘dead god’. Such ideas lend Phil Hester’s script an epicness not easily manageable in a few pages, and Daniel Warren Johnson creates some distinctive characters (some of which get their heads sliced in half cleanly) helped along by Doug Carbark’s blood-stained palette.
The Wave is one of the crown jewels of Broken Frontier, providing some of its most memorably lasting images. Completely textless and with a heavy Mad Max vibe, a biker travels the wasteland in an attempt to outrun an unseen, unsettling and overwhelming threat. It’s gobsmackingly beautiful work from Robert Sammelin, each panel designed with fantastic use of space and purposefully looking like movie frames.
Another distant-land tale is The Wall, beautifully distinctive and punky art by Toby Cypress bringing to life instantly likeable characters from Tyler Chin-Tanner. Colour is used cleverly by Cypress, relaying the strangeness of this land and building up to the final reveal, the society on the other side of the wall. The best stories in this book leave you itching for more, and the final scene does just that.
Purgatory’s main character travels to Interland as the result of falling into a coma. Carla Berrocal conjures up a dream: an angular landscape, awash with overpowering colours contributing to an unreal, ethereal struggle for the woman to stand up for what she believes in.
Terran Omega is fun: PJ Holden and Scott Ferguson’s characterful aliens partaking in an ancient ceremony, interrupted by their prophesied champion who is not all that he immediately seems. I’d love to see more of this world.
The Wreck of The Vesalius (named for the founder of modern human anatomy) is a beautifully painted (by Yaroslav Astapeev) expedition for the crew of the aforementioned ship into a giant space being, an inquisition into relevance and religion that turns nasty. Writer Steve Orlando throws up the sort of questions you’d ask yourself if you were in the circulatory system of a giant, god-like being, and does it darkly.
The Legend of Dyson Holmes is a wonderfully absurd story about what can happen when your cat jumps out of the window. Presented in Edie OP’s trademark crayon and bits of collage style, protagonist Florence must traverse maths, inter-dimensional travel, a pair of cats and the journal of the mysterious Dyson Holmes to save the universe. It bounds along like an escaping feline and maintains a lovely optimistic mood (even in the face of possible destruction) to contrast it against some of the more doom laden stories.
Algerian superhero Kismet fights the Nazis in the WW2 set Kismet: Man Of Fate – The Fiction Of Free Will. He’s a great forties-style superhero (and actually first appeared in 1944, the first great Muslim superhero and now out of copyright), his ability to slow down time and his gymnastics combining with his excellent fez to produce a hero enlisted for war and forced to leave his family behind. Rob Croonenborghs uses blues and reds to great mood effect, Noel Tuazon’s brush-like line art providing a warm, European feel to proceedings as Kismet tracks down a traitor. I look forward to more Man Of Fate from writer A. David Lewis.
Justin Zimmerman’s Flyer begins with a page-long monologue, an elderly gentleman prepping his soldier for an attack – a soldier revealed on the next, full page panel to be his sullen, huge-eyed young granddaughter in a pilot’s jacket, with Da Vinci-style wings and a rocket pack. It’s a striking image, compacted by her lack of dialogue with the elder and her resignation and determination for the assassination mission she’s been asked to carry out. The next few pages all silent but pure beauty – zooming into the sky to track her enemy, Mike Lawrence’s panels as large as the vistas and horrors of war they’re conveying. A really memorable story.
Kurt Belcher and Rob Croonenborghs’ Rabid chronicles the origin and devastation of a superteam infected with an alien virus in the 1940s, destroying parallel earths on their journey. It’s a potentially large concept not dissimilar to Marvel Zombies; the story is a countdown to an unpleasant end for one of the ex-heroes.
The wider theme of people and the choices they make is explored in various ways. Another standout story in the anthology is Jamie Coe’s No Regrets, where loser Fred discovers a time-travelling enabled glove which turns his life around. Fred’s darkest traits come to the surface as his addiction to the power this brings him deepens. Told in rhyme and certainly moralistic, it’s so powerful that it leaves you asking yourself what you’d do in the same situation.
Another time-travel-is-not-your-friend cautionary tale, this time about a scientist obsessed with finding a way of preventing his wife’s untimely death, comes in the form of It’s About Time. It’s fervent and dynamic throughout, Facundo Percio lending fantastic expressions to his characters and Frederik Hautain’s script forcing you to empathise with what his beleaguered scientist goes through.
Joshua Hale Fialkov’s The Trip is a far subtler tale, a conversation between father and daughter on a post-apocalyptic drive remembering the mum that didn’t make it. It packs an emotional punch, and kudos to Ryan Kelly for varying angles enough to keep what could be a monotonous situation palpable.
Death Signal is uncomfortable and surreal, a story chronicling what might happen if you slip into the ‘time between seconds’. It’s certainly effective if a little abstract, but what else do you expect when dealing with the unknown? Brave work from Adam Egypt Mortimer and Jeff McComsey.
Sole Survivor, like a few of the stories in this book, reminds me of a great Future Shock from 2000AD. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say our eponymous survivor did not want rescuing. A solo joint from Steve Bryant, the whole thing looks gorgeous, a murky spaceship interior sandwiched with between two beautiful space scenes as the proverbial sun sets on our main character. The opening page is iconic.
Hilariously dark and in lovely sketchy black and white, Noah Van Sciver’s Down In A Hole presents us with a sacked criminal clown trying to find some solace. You know when you try to do that, but end up enslaved by a race of underground, tofu-inventing mole people? That. Harold amounts a brave escape with an unavoidably tragic end. Really enjoyable and bat-sh*t crazy.
Box Brown asks what else it there after retirement? 30 Years Of Service is a one page rumination on what’s left after your greatest achievements are over. Thought-provoking if depressing!
One of the most bonafide surreal strips, the crime noir Quin Returns has a Steve Buscemi-esque tenant return home to find his room a police-taped scene, but with no idea why. HIs neighbours are no help (indeed one of them seems to be a dog in leather stockings with his face), his suitcase full of Cuban currency with a passport and a gun. There’s no real resolution here, but reader satisfaction comes from empathising with Quin’s eternally shocked and confused face. Mark Stafford’s characters are instantly likeable because of their downright weirdness, and David Hine’s script by its nature takes you back for an immediate re-read. A strong highlight.
Karrie Fransman’s in the middle of her own photo story with Inside Outside, coming off the meds enabling cute, squishy and fast-expanding demon creatures to come out of her body and suppress her from the outside. It’s a gorgeous use of the format and takes the breaking frontiers remit to the level of actually making a comic in a different way.
Key – A Bastard’s Tale is a ‘rewritten memory’ from Salgood Sam, the tale of a moment on a 1977 road trip, looking up at the stars, where his mind was expanded by his father. Gorgeously rendered in coloured pencils and washes of paint, it’s a personal account of never wanting to be closed minded.
“We imagine our future. We mythologise our past.” – INJ Culbard, Last Dance At Omega Point
INJ Culbard (well known for the excellent steampunk saga Brass Sun), ends this immense anthology with Last Dance At Omega Point. A rocket firing towards its destination interspersed with flashes through the lifetime of a significant other – which may or may not be an alternate reality version of our character, or his father, or both. It’s abstract in the best way possible and open to interpretation, putting the reader through an emotional wringer, mundanity versus sci-fi possibilities.
If you’re a fan of anthologies, this is one of the strongest in recent memory. It travails the human condition and beyond, rarely providing resolution but always ensuring a thrilling read. If you’re new to the anthology format, this would be an amazing place to start. Think 2000AD’s Future Shocks, think Twilight Zone, think adventure and innovation.