The short stories of Strongarm Labs’ The First Five embrace minimalism. The narratives aren’t complex, nor is the accompanying artwork overbearing. That’s because they don’t have to be. Writer Sam Girdich is scribing, I think, little tales that poke at our conception of genre and pop myth, while artist Mark Gonyea wants to deliver a discreet visual impact without surrendering himself to the brands of images we typically associate with horror and dark fantasy.
That’s why I enjoyed these comics. Strongarm Labs is very much an independent publisher: Girdich and Gonyea are responsible for every aspect of their books’ production, from creative inception to publication. That’s the only way books like these will ever see the light of day, I’m afraid: Dark Horse would never take a chance on comics of this angle, which is a purposefully indistinct angle.
I’m being vague, but I don’t mean to be so. A generalization is needed: The First Five collects the first five books printed by Strongarm Labs along with an assortment of miniature comic strips written and illustrated by Gonyea. Of the five major stories, three are traditional comics (“The Haunting House,” “The Tall and the Dead,” and “Godless”) while two are short stories accompanied by intermittent images (“The Tuesday After” and “The Goo”).
“The Haunting House” tells the timeless story of two friends venturing into a supposedly haunted house. This one in particular is set to be demolished, and the two adventurers wonder about the fates of the spectral residents that dwell within. What makes this story so interesting is the content versus the accompanying illustrations. Girdich offers us timeless legends that populate ghost stories the world over: doomed marriages, sorrowful suicides, accidental deaths, and misery from beyond the grave. Though, Gonyea’s images (rendered on scratch board) cast the entire premise in an almost comical light. And yet it’s not funny. It’s so simple in its words and appearance, and yet, even now, I’m still thinking about its exact meaning. I appreciate this.
“The Tall and the Dead,” however, is meant to be funny, and is a story I fancied for its light-hearted pokes at the zombie genre. For in this installment, the dead certainly do rise from the grave, and they are tall—very tall. The solution to dealing with such towering menaces: well, let’s just say big bugs are involved. But what about the big bugs when the zombies are dealt with? Allegories like these never loose their touch.
“Godless” is another story involving the undead, but here we have a vampire on our hands—a vampire hunting non-Christians in feudal Japan. This brief adventure is just fun; it’s easy to follow along with as a group of royal samurais and a cowering Catholic priest attempt to bring an end to Nosferatu. Are their symbols and metaphors? Of course, but not everything needs to be overanalyzed.
The two prose stories, “The Tuesday After” and “The Goo” are edgy in the ideas they inspire, but I found the prose a bit baroque and self-indulgent at times, unlike the pithiness of the comics. They didn’t have all of the energy that animated their sequential counterparts.
All of these stories are broken up by Gonyea’s comic-strip shorts, which are the very definition of “jest.”
Overall, I appreciate this collection because of how different it is. It’s truly unlike anything I’ve ever read. As I said, these comics are simple, and simplicity oftentimes takes courage. Don’t forget that it was William Shakespeare who said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
Girdich and Gonyea clearly want to tell the comics they have inside their minds, and if this book is any indication, they’ve successfully done so thus far.
This comic book review originally appeared on Broken Frontier.