written by John Rozum
illustrated by Frazer Irving
An unfortunate victim of DC's late summer 2011 termination of its catalog in favor of launching the New 52 in August and September, Xombi now stands, for some, as little more than testing ground for the success of horror comics such as Swamp Thing, Animal Man, IVampire, Justice League Dark, Demon Knights, Frankenstein: Agents of S.H.A.D.E., Resurrection Man, and Voodoo within the regular, DCU continuity and beyond the Vertigo realm. Yet, as evidenced by the recent trade paperback collection, Xombi is a quirky, original, and truly innovative title that was a lamented six-issue casualty of the DC transition.
Science fiction meets the supernatural as Xombi relates the tale of Dr. David Kim, a nanotechnologist infected by his own creation. Granted immortality and incredible regenerative abilities, Kim, in many ways, is similar to Dr. Ray Palmer, Dr. Otto Octavious, or any number of professors-turned-superheroes or supervillains (showing that not only does a career exist for Ph.Ds beyond the hallowed halls of academia and tenure—it's just one life-threatening critical accident away, apparently).
Sheer absurdity is often at the heart of Xombi. For example, for a man who can reconstitute matter into any form he chooses, drink alcohol with absolutely no side effects, or heal himself from any attack, why and how does Kim associate with a cadre of magic wielding nuns, a Light Brite-infused Catholic Girl, various occultists, and an irascible, cranky Rabbi with his golem bodyguards? Asking questions such as that can only hurt the enjoyment and truly bizarre experience that is Xombi.
Scripted by John Rozum, the author who piloted the original Xombi series alongside other titles in the Milestone Media umbrella, the current incarnation finds Kim hinting at events in his past while embracing a story for the uninitiated reader. It is a balance that Rozum has some difficulty maintaining. Although the first chapter deals out a series of unique, surreal sequences from paintings coming to life and interacting with one another to film stars leaving the screen and associating with audiences (akin to Jeff Daniels in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo)—all transpiring on the first page no less—to screaming all-seeing coins, the brazen insanity, at times, overwhelms a narrative and evolving core Rozum is attempting to craft. Verbal puns, such as a book giving a character "semicolon cancer" or a wisecracking nun identifying herself as "none of your business" after Kim inquires about the status of Nun of the Above and Nun the Less, are humorous, but may also distract some readers who do not recognize that neither Rozum nor Irving are taking this project too seriously. That is not to say that the creative team does not take their work seriously, but rather that they understand the absolute irrationality of the book and play to those features time and again. In fact, some may contend that Rozum forces far too many of these moments into the story as a textual assault on the senses at the expense of creating a cohesive narrative. Yet, it is also this witty levity that equates a truck driver receiving a tuna fish sandwich in place of the ordered pulled pork with the unreal events occurring throughout the world, giving Xombi a voice unlike anything else on the shelves.
Rozum is not alone, as Irving also plays his part in delivering the visual rimshots to Rozum's verbal gaffs:
Taken from page fifteen of the first chapter, this two-panel grid relies solely on a subtle shift in Kim's focus cast against a slightly darker background to convey the quizzical sense of humor as a verbal cue gives way to a nonverbal, visual response. Repeatedly, Irving is a master of capturing these nuanced beats in sequential art throughout his career and this brief sequence is one of many. Disarming moments of silliness such as this serve quite well to contrast the brutal action and horrific scenes where Kim is injured or the team combats a host of nightmarish villains. In fact, Xombi appears as a personal playground or uninhibited canvas for Irving's experimentation. While constrained on recognizable company toys such as his run on Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin, Irving seems completely unleashed with Xombi. The results are stunning for students of comic illustration and visual pacing in sequential art, as well as for fans of Irving's reconceptualization of comic art and color palettes for modern audiences. Irving has always been recognizable for his hues that challenge the normative gaze and visual experience in comics, and Xombi is no exception. Familiar magentas and turquoises adorn the pages, but Irving imports contrasting features with natural tones and lighting elements as well. Yellows, browns, and khaki tones fill the book and give character to the cigarette film burn or smoke-razed effects mixed with Kirby dots he uses in various sequences such as this:
Audiences familiar with Irving's work, especially his lesser-known, pre-DC or Marvel illustrations, will recognize the line art behind the posters, wall decorations, and magazine covers in Chet and David's apartment as Irving's very own. Additionally, Irving's trademark fractured panels (introduced by Steranko in Tower of Shadows #1) or utilizing multiple panels to break up a single image find new usages in Xombi as Irving guides and directs readers to specific elements within the picture. Alongside creative visual tricks such as the interaction between Kim and Chet in the first chapter:
or the conversation sequence later on between Kim and Annie:
Irving reimagines the often static nature of traditional comic book page composition and the relationship between characters. In the first example above, readers witness Irving bring motion to the pages throughout a panel-less series of movements. One can argue that all comics face the dilemma of conveying mobility on the standard, two-dimensional surface where such motion cannot logically occur. Generations of comic illustrators have employed tactics and techniques as visual ploys to trick the readers' eyes into witnessing the relative moving sequence between panels, thus forcing the brain to decipher the visual or textual cues and transform the fixed, inanimate images into active functions. Oftentimes, this momentum is still restricted by a grid, a bordered panel layout. Irving openly defies that approach and utilizes the space and depth between each incarnation of David Kim, as well as the perspective field of vision, to denote a sense of sequential progression. While the cut itself between environments divorced by only one door confines the extent of Irving's optical experiment to only two rooms, the divergent yellow and blue hues aid in the process of demonstrating expansion across the mostly inert locale. In a later example from chapter 5 not pictured here, Irving uses a single room, a museum of aeronautics as the single dimension, but manipulates the use of lines along the floor in a curved, U-shaped pattern not only as lines of motion highlighting Kim's passage through the area, but also as a feature of interior design that pulls the eye directly along David Kim's path.
Additionally, in the second example above of a dialogue sequence, Irving removes the director's camera angle from the field of play entirely, giving audiences a front and center point of view on David and Annie. Although he wisely places the dialogue bubbles in a stacked, adjoining format to assign order to the conversation, Irving ignores textbook models for drawing strings of conversation. As a result, Irving relies more on the facial expressions of his characters, and angle of their body language, as well as the lighting to give greater significance to the moment and what is being discussed. This technique also works because Annie is essentially a floating, unhindered head not bound by panels or borders and the absence of gutters requires a more active participation on behalf of the reader. Not only do these two techniques serve the story and Rozum's digressions into plot synopsis and backstory over repeated action through an abundance of captions, but it also firmly roots Irving as a contemporary master of conceptual layouts and design.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Irving's color work is how David Kim is cast and lit. Avoiding the trappings of selecting or designing a color to denote skin tone as well as racial and ethnic characteristics, Irving never shows Kim in direct lighting. Instead, Irving employs the ambient light sources to give Kim his coloring, thus breaking with the overt trends in comics to depict Asian figures with inherently yellow skin. It is unfortunate, however, that for all DC's talk about diversity, that Kim was jettisoned and the publisher's podium remains largely an Anglo-American one even into the New 52.
Yet there are also sequences where Rozum and Irving seem to be at odds. Xombi is such an illustrative, art-driven book that for some readers the pacing and freedom of the panels and pages to move and flow may seem inhibited by heavy narration or internal monologue. Dialogue-laden panels also obscure the art or deny a natural progression to the unfolding story, diverting the focus from how the art can tell a story to an overly busy page plagued with captions or text balloons. Some moments also appear as if Rozum has multiple stories he wants to tell and develop, but he is reduced instead to coalescing them all into one much more constrained format. Perhaps this is a result of poor monthly sales and the editorial dictum of cancellation that forced Rozum's storytelling hand much too early; however, the result, unfortunately, is some muddied panels and plodding sequences overburdened by text.
This is but one minor criticism, though, in an overall positive reading experience. The collected paperback also includes a supplemental Xombi story reprinted from Brave and the Bold #26, also penned by Rozum. It is a strange addition and perhaps some readers would have been better served if DC chose specific, significant issues from the first volume of Xombi that are fleshed out in the Rozum and Irving volume. For audiences who missed Xombi the first time around or new readers who want more from the New 52 "dark" line of books, it is a trade collection that should not be missed.