“Riding the forks of the lightning, feeling the sparks along my back”
I’ve been a fan of Karl Slominski for some time, so I’m always interested when he has a new book coming out. Recently, his latest graphic novel, Teeter Topple, showed up from 215 Ink, and I bought it! It will set you back $14.99, in case you’re in the mood to pick it up.
Slominski’s art is kind of a hybrid of Sean Murphy, Nathan Fox, and Greg Hinkle, three fantastic artists, so it’s not surprising that his art is excellent. He has a solid, strong line that adds heft to his art, but his style is fluid enough that he’s able to do action very nicely and shift easily between tones. Teeter Topple is a very good example of this – in places, it’s the lightest thing I’ve seen from Slominski, as several puppets from a children’s show come alive (or at least the protagonist believes they’re alive), and they’re all somewhat goofy, from the one that’s insufferably upbeat to the sarcastic cat. Slominski draws them like they’re puppets, so they look more cartoonish than the “real” people, making their presence in the narrative odder. He uses thicker, bolder lines on the puppets (for the most part), so they stand out as unreal in the protagonist’s – Mark’s – life. Mark’s world is messy, and the puppets are in direct contrast to that. We also get a nifty comic book character from Mark’s childhood – it should be the early 1990s if the book takes place in the present, but like a lot of comic book characters today who are written by comics creators who grew up in the 1980s, Mark likes a lot of 1980s pop culture – who is drawn with the thicker lines of the puppets but also with a more static face, as he’s a square-jawed space ranger (his name is Major Tom, because why not?), and while Slominski draws him with the nuance he reserves for the “real” characters in the story, he still has a more sharply-defined face than the actual “real” people. It’s a clever way to show that Mark is losing his grip on reality – sure, we get that from the fact that he’s talking to living puppets, but the fact that real life is just messier than the character he’s interacting with is a nice divide.
Slominski does some other cool stuff, too. The book is packed with details, from the litter around Mark’s apartment after he loses his job to the shabbiness of his parents’ house even though it’s still homey, from the weirdness of the party he attends to the graceful beauty of the girl he meets at the supermarket where he works. Slominski does a nice job making Mark’s world a place that feels lived in, which grounds the book nicely as Mark veers into his fantasy world. There’s the spooky man with no face, which adds the right amount of creepiness to Mark’s generally buoyant imaginative mind. He does some really cool things to make Mark’s memories fuzzy, with smeared, off-register coloring and slashing lines that obscure what Mark is supposed to remember. The coloring is wonderful, too. A lot of the book is in black and white, but the colors, when Slominski uses them, work really well. The puppets are brightly colored, naturally, but they’re colored in the modern fashion, with nice shading and rendering, while Major Tom is colored more flatly, like an old-school comic character. Flashbacks to Mark’s childhood are colored more brightly, with much softer lines than for the present-day stuff. At the very end, the coloring becomes a soft green, implying the tone of the scenes and also making us focus more on the content rather than just the artwork, as we reach the crucial point in the narrative. Slominski makes great choices with the colors, which, along with the beautiful line work, makes this a truly stunning-looking comic.
The only reason I’m not higher on this book is because Slominski isn’t quite as good a writer yet as he is an artist. The story in Teeter Topple isn’t bad, but it’s not the strength of the comic. Mark is a typical man-child who works on a kid’s television show, bangs the star of said show but has no commitment to her (nor she to him – it’s basically the casualest of sex), and hangs out with his childhood best friend. Something happens to him, and he begins seeing his puppets as real, and he spirals into depression, eventually moving back in with his parents and working at the supermarket his father … owns, I think? Anyway, the puppets, Major Tom, and the man with no face are all pushing him to remember something he’s forgotten, and it’s actually kind of nice that Slominski really doesn’t hide it, even though Mark can’t quite remember it. The readers can figure it out pretty early, and Slominski doesn’t pull any twists with it, which is refreshing. It’s just that it’s so obvious and it’s so bizarre that Mark goes into such a fugue state when he starts poking at it that the story doesn’t work as well as it should. We’ve all experienced tragedy, and we don’t freak out and start talking to imaginary puppets, and we don’t really get a good idea why Mark does. Yes, he’s emotionally immature, but his reaction seems extreme. Mark isn’t a bad character, because Slominski does a nice job making him feel real (even though you’d probably like to punch him if you knew him), but his predicament doesn’t feel as powerful as it should. The entire book is about him facing his fear and growing up, but it doesn’t really have the impact that you’d like from this kind of story. Slominski isn’t a bad writer, but his writing still lags behind his art, and it makes the book feel a bit more hollow than I’d like.
I will continue to get Slominski’s work because his art is so good, and Teeter Topple certainly fits that criterion. It’s not a bad purchase, because it’s a solid read and each page offers you something else to stare at, and even with the shallowness of the story, it’s heart-felt and hopeful without being mawkish, which is nice. Slominski shows promise as a writer, and I hope he gets better, because his art is so good that it deserves an amazing story to go with it. This isn’t quite it, but it’s still not a bad comic to take a look at.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆