Rich Tommaso has a reasonable claim on the title of “Hardest Working Man In Comics.” That was true even before this, his current venture. Black Phoenix is a serialised anthology published through his Patreon, where he juggles not only a plethora of ongoing stories, but stories in entirely different genres and attendant visual styles. Plus he designs the whole thing, complete with ersatz “interviews” with the different personas he takes on writing/drawing each story and spoof pulp magazine ads. When does the guy take a day off?
It’s probably been a while. A consummate pastiche artist, Tommaso has run through dozens of rhizomatic projects in the past couple of decades. Dark Corridor was a 100 Bullets-esque interconnected tale of gangsters and assassins. She-Wolf was a psychedelic female werewolf yarn. Clover Honey migrated disaffected Tomine-like Gen Xers into a hardboiled crime mystery. Spy Seal was a self-conscious Tintin riff. His “default” art style, if there can be said to be such a thing, is somewhere between Dan Clowes and David Lapham. That’s likely because he was drawing on the same influences as them: old funny page strips, pulp magazines, underground comix, along with meat-and-potato superheroes. Each of his previous series has seen this malleable, if clearly identifiable, style morph to fit their respective containers. Spy Seal leaned more strongly into the linge claire aesthetic; She-Wolf got more abstract and dreamy, doing away with solid outlines and embracing a less naturalistic colour palette.
Black Phoenix sees this magpie approach to storytelling and visuals writ large and small. Real termite art stuff, and gloriously so! This omnibus volume collects the first few “issues” of his self-published anthology. Each runs the gamut of longer, self-contained pieces and shorter installments of serialised stories. Within that, Tommaso explores affects from the more ironic and adult to the gleefully genre-embracing and goofy. There are prose pieces which deploy hoary old time travel premises with (seemingly) total sincerity — more of than not credited to the pseudonym VALIS. All of this is a delight, even beyond the nerdy reference-spotting. I’m particularly fond of ‘Zipper Dick Fryer’, a detective story taking place amidst precarious hustle culture in a retrofuturist setting. Sort of like The Incal, if instead of having his life transformed by the titular transcendental McGuffin, we just followed Difool trying to pay his rent.
Tommaso often makes hay out of placing stock characters outside their usual contexts like that. ‘Pregnant Pause’ sees an old mob enforcer accompanying his goddaughter to get an abortion; the best support he can offer her is “killing every man in Miami” in retribution for the careless would-be father. Sam Hill is a detective from the LA DA’s office who spends as much time worrying over his dental health as solving murders. There’s any number of stories that play it relatively straight too, though, which also pay out gangbusters. ‘Killer In My Sleep’ is a pitch-black, stripped-down short story that appeared in the series’ Holiday Special; a monochromatic red-and-black colour scheme is the only concession to Christmas cheer, with a denouement Robert Bloch would be proud of. ‘Ball & Chain’ is an ongoing Bonnie & Clyde-esque saga, depicted in moody black-and-white with noir shadows cast across nearly every scene. The returning ‘Spy Seal’ is an international adventure story whose cast is a menagerie of anthropomorphised animals.
Even as he riffs on the borrowed styles of these stories’ respective genres, Tommaso-as-auteur is restlessly inventive in his own way. His layouts spill out into double-page spreads, contract into chess boards alternating panels with narration boxes, depict dialogue scenes as close-ups of grotesques and exaggerated expressions, bathes back-room dealings in heavy inks and globetrotting adventures in crystal clarity. He knows when to hold them and when to fold them. Stories in Black Phoenix never outstay their welcome; sequences pass free of dialogue balloons when they’re not needed; colours are naturalistic when necessary, more evocative when not.
Black Phoenix is not meant to be the capstone to Tommaso’s career. If anything, it’s the Platonic ideal of his fidgety creativity, allowing him to spread out in all manner of directions, and to keep on growing. Humour, postmodernism, cynicism, aching romanticism — there’s room for all to exist when you can turn the page and be faced with its opposite number, a diversity that breeds constant engagement and surprise. If one doesn’t grab you, the next will be along soon, sandwiching fake adverts for realistic replica Tommy Guns (“Hold up your friends!”) and pin-ups of gangster moll-types. It’s everything fun in a certain tendency in sequential art, bursting forth from one container that can scarcely keep the lid on.
Rich Tommaso (W/A) • Floating World Comics, $100.00
Review by Tom Baker