(All artwork © 2015 Thom Zahler)

Full disclosure: I have known Thom Zahler for a few years now, one of the perks of being a regular at a handful of comic conventions. Only recently have I been lucky enough to also call him a friend. Thom emailed me last night with a link to the PDF proof of his latest comic, the first issue of LONG DISTANCE, a series about two young professionals who strike up a long distance relationship after a chance encounter in an airport terminal, which is now available at finer comic shops nationwide.

buyme_iphoneThom, by virtue of the marketing machine, is currently best known for his work on the My Little Pony comics from IDW. However, I first cottoned on to Thom’s work with LOVE AND CAPES, a romantic comedy about a superhero falling in love. L&C focuses more on the relationship and less on the superheroics, which is a refreshing thing for comics, or any medium really.

Thom is a graduate of the Kubert School, and the lessons learned there are evident in the pacing and framing of his work. Thom’s strength is in dialogue, and every line feels natural. Often in comics the dialogue just feels weird, no matter if the line is in keeping with the character or not. With Thom’s characters there is none of that sense that the dialogue was conceived before the character. The characters feel…they *are* real, and the dialogue flows from them with the same naturalness as any conversation you may have with a friend or loved one.

Thom’s art fits a style that many describe as “cartoony,” except the term is often used in the pejorative. No matter an artist’s personal style, the most important quality a cartoonist can have is the ability to infuse a two-dimensional drawing with life and a vibrancy that more often than not can’t even be captured with a photograph.

Artists who reject a photo-realistic style to embrace their Saturday-morning influences more often than not bring that quality to their work. I consider the late Mike Parobeck to be a fine example, and the late Mike Wieringo to have been so great that he was a master of bringing life and joy to ink and pigment. It wouldn’t take much to convince me to think the same of Thom and his work.

The difference, though, is that Thom also writes his own characters, breathing even more life into them. One occasional discussion amongst comics fans is which character would they like to have as a real life friend. You don’t have to wish for Thom’s characters to become real…they already are.

Having posted years of LOVE AND CAPES comics to the internet, and released several paperback collections, Thom has turned his attention to a more common origin story: that first moment when you realized you met someone who would change your life.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book since I saw the early announcements of the comic’s release. My wife and I met thanks to the machinations of a close friend, but living nearly 3 hours away from each other, it took a while to finally meet, and when we did…well…let’s just say that it’s been an amazing 17+ years. And, it all started quietly enough in the lobby of a Suncoast video store, a moment I still remember vividly. When my wife looks at me just so, or someone asks how we met, I remember the way I felt when I first saw her, that first exchange of greetings, the gut punch I felt when I had to say goodbye, the rush of excitement and adrenaline as I drove back to see her for that second date.

Thom has captured all of that emotion brilliantly. Reading the dialogue between Carter Blue and Lee Smith brought back a lot of those feelings, which for me brought even more life to the story and its players.

One of Thom’s strengths in character building is that nothing is wasted, nothing added just to pad a page count. There are small elements of Carter and Lee’s life that are little details that add to their background and character depth. Thom has given Lee a grandmother with whom she lives, and Carter a best friend with a family of his own. These characters seem to act as a sort of oracle or chorus, much as they did in classical Greek theater, but also give the reader a role in the story.

That role allows us to even more so feel a part of the story. Several times I was reminded of what it was like to feel as Carter did, at the beginning of my own relationship, but Carter’s friend Tim was talking to Carter as I might were I given the opportunity to talk to myself those many years ago.

ld032_flatLike much of Thom’s non-MLP work, these stories are dialogue-heavy. However, also like his other work, none of the dialogue is laborious, and it all reads like a breeze. Several times I laughed out loud, and others there was the rush of familiarity for my own past. In particular was the long phone conversation between Carter and Lee that precedes their second date.

The main difference between Carter and Lee’s early days and the beginnings of my own relationship is the ubiquitous social media that is such a huge part of modern life. Unlike modern teenagers, though, Thom uses the device (so to speak) sparingly. Texts between Carter and Lee pepper the story to enhance the pace, and emotion, of a given scene, and don’t feel like the only narrative. Carter and Lee exist in the modern age of communication, yes, but are not so tied to it that digital communication becomes their only outlet. I have to wonder, though, that because this is at its core a dramatic story, if that technology will end up being a storytelling device that provides a measure of conflict for the story.

Print(I’m probably getting ahead of myself…and Thom…here.)

The one compliment I can give to a comic, a book, or any serialized medium is that I get ticked when I come to the end of an installment and realize I have a wait ahead of me to find out what happens next. Much like that first date with my wife that I never wanted to end, I wanted to keep reading Carter and Lee’s story. I want to know what happens next, and I look forward to see where Thom takes Carter and Lee. No matter how the story ends, I trust that Thom will have crafted a journey that I will not regret taking…not one bit. To paraphrase Cake, I’m willing to go the distance with Carter and Lee, no matter how long a distance Thom decides to take them. I urge you to do the same.

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