Comic Books as a Second Language 

click to enlarge Anasazi, by Matt Bryan and Matt McCubbins, is a riddle wrapped in an enigmatic comic book.


Anasazi, by Matt Bryan and Matt McCubbins, is a riddle wrapped in an enigmatic comic book.

In Anasazi, members of an alien tribal system at war speak with a language that is, at first, entirely indecipherable — all except for a single pictogram, a symbol defined as "ancient enemy." It is one of just sixteen English phrases used over the graphic novel's 212 pages. But from that base, Anasazi, the second full-length work from illustrator Matt Bryan and writer Mike McCubbins, unfolds just as much from the reader's vocabulary as it does from the action on the page.

"We realize, it's a big ask," McCubbins says of the language they invented, during a recent interview in his south St. Louis home. On his dining room table lies an early proof of Anasazi, the pages not yet bound in the brown cloth cover with symbols etched on its spine. More than 400 are being shipped out, the result of a Kickstarter campaign launched in July that raised more than $16,000.

McCubbins and Bryan have amassed something of a following. This is their second Kickstarter-funded graphic novel after 2013's Book of Da, which introduced readers to the creative duo through the lens of a mysterious diver who defies a Lovecraftian underwater god who "speaks" not in words but in a series of comic strips.

For Anasazi, Bryan and McCubbins took that seed of an idea and grew it into a Sequoia-sized experiment.

"I enjoy some crazy-balls, can't-make-heads-or-tails-of-things projects," Bryan admits. "The tendency for us is that we start farther out, and then figure that we have to hold readers' hands a little more. Because, you still have to tell the story."

click to enlarge Anasazi is a story told in pictographs rather than word. - COURTEY MATT BRYAN AND MATT MCCUBBINS
  • Anasazi is a story told in pictographs rather than word.

That story follows a group of somewhat humanoid aliens. They hunt with bows and arrows and live in pueblo-like dwellings that are clearly inspired by aspects of Native American cultures in the American Southwest. But these aliens are decidedly non-human, as they're covered in fur, have vertically-oriented mouths and sport antenna, which behave expressively like eyebrows and functionally like miniature hands attached to their heads.

Anasazi began as a short story Bryan pitched for a science fiction anthology, but it grew into a story that delves into a conflict over culture, assimilation and the complexity of defining your enemy. It begins with a massacre based on a misunderstanding between two tribes, identified by the color of their fur — red and blue — and separated by a river. There is a lot of dialogue, and Anasazi forces the reader to follow the action even when that dialogue is, largely, undefined.

But those scenes aren't impenetrable. Anasazi's layout often works like film reel, with multiple panels dedicated to capture body language and antenna movement. It means the characters don't need English to tell you everything you need to know about their motivations and state of mind, and so you, the reader, don't need to know exactly what the symbols "squiggly man next to squiggly spear" or "box crossed with diagonal arrows" means to get through the page.

"There's a lot of mystery going on, and you're trying to piece it together," Bryan says. McCubbins nods and adds that he expects readers to dig deeper into the language and mythology of the world they've created.

It's a lot to expect a reader to get through. But it works. As each new symbol is defined, the book's characters get richer, their dialogue more pointed and their arguments more meaningful. By building a vocabulary — or, if you must, referring to the "cheat sheet" of symbols that Bryan and McCubbins mercifully include as a bookmark — the reader can get a sense for Anasazi's forest, even if the trees are at first somewhat incomprehensible.

"We want you to be satisfied with one reading," McCubbins says. "But we're certainly thinking that you'll have to read it more than once to get everything."

Find Your Comic Book Shop

Looking to dive into a graphic novel or comic book? These local stores have your fix, and not just across your favorite Marvel or DC archrivals, but with works from local artists who are pushing the boundaries of art and storytelling.

What would you get if a comic book shop was bitten by a radioactive saloon? Perhaps something like Apotheosis Comics & Lounge (3206 South Grand Boulevard, 314-802-7090) which has stocked coolers and serves coffee, local craft beer, wine and snacks.

Having the power to be in multiple places at once would be great, but Fantasy Shop does the next best thing by having four distinct locations — and like any good superhero team, each store has its own personality. Check them out in South County, Maplewood, St. Charles and Creve Coeur.

In the heart of downtown's busiest strip of shops, Star Clipper (1319 Washington Avenue, 314-240-5337) has none of the dank basement-feel and huffing comic book guy stereotypes. Bright, friendly and library-packed, Star Clipper is everything a comic book shop could aspire to.

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