Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Keep Your Eyes on the Road

Posted by Don MacPherson on April 15th, 2007

Red Eye, Black Eye original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: K. Thor Jensen
Publisher: Alternative Comics
Price: $19.95 US

A casual perusal of this website might lead one to believe that I’m a fiend for super-hero comics, and that genre alone in the medium. That’s not the case. Though I love the feelings of wonder and nostalgia that super-heroes stir up inside me, I really enjoy comics that challenge me and provoke introspection. That’s a domain that the world of small-press and indy comics do better than the larger publishers, and Red Eye, Black Eye is a shining example. Cartoonist K. Thor Jensen boasts an artistic style that one could describe as crude, but it’s remarkably effective at bringing his grounded memoir of an adventure on the road to life. This autobio comic rings incredibly true, because some of the main character’s experiences lead nowhere while others have more of an explosive quality. The central point to Jensen’s overall narrative is a bit elusive at first, but it seemed to become crystal clear by the issue’s end. To me, Jensen says life is meant to be a series of one’s own stories, of dramatic and unusual moments, good or bad, but that they can only happen if one actively seeks them out (even if it’s unknowingly).

When he loses his job, his girlfriend and his New York apartment all at once, K. Thor Jensen decides to take what little savings he has and hit the open road. The cartoonist buys a two-month, all-routes bus pass and puts the word out over the Internet he’s looking for places to crash as he makes his way across America. Over the course of the next eight weeks, he meets kindred spirits and unusual strangers, sharing not only living space with them but meals and drinks as well. And those hosts also share with Jensen stories from their past, about weird co-workers, close calls and more. Though appreciative of people’s kindness, Jensen begins to find the cross-country adventure a bit unfulfilling, as the grand epiphany he hoped to experience never seems to come.

Jensen’s approach to cartooning is quite basic, and one could argue that his approach to character design is crude. But one would be wrong. His style may be simple, but it’s consistent and clear. That consistency and clarity are vital components to visual storytelling, and despite the wide array of characters that turn up here, it’s easy to follow along. Jensen’s most effective design is his own, which makes sense, as he’s the central figure. He’s in every scene, and he’s inside his own head. Jensen is able to convey the subtlest of emotions in his cartoon self. The artist’s rough, thick-lined style also manages to bring a diverse number of settings to life. He manages to capture different feels for the various cities that serve as the backdrops.

I also like the way he’s crafted the book in terms of visual structure. The consistent use of a six-panel grid is welcome, but I most appreciated that each story the various characters tell begins at the top of a page, with a scene break to serve as a cue to a jump to different time and place.

Red Eye, Black Eye is a surprisingly engaging read, but it’s also a surprisingly quick one. I powered through the entire volume rather quickly as I killed some time waiting for the girlfriend to arrive home for supper one evening. With a price tag of almost 20 bucks US, readers will likely expect something a little meatier, something that will occupy a little more of their time.

Mind you, while it may not occupy time, it does occupy the mind. The treasure that Jensen seeks along his quest for self across the country is not only elusive but ill-defined. Thor doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but what he’s found doesn’t always live up to expectations. He really doesn’t come away with new stories of his own but subsists on those he hears from others. The irony is that he looks for inspiration on his road trip, and while he fails to find it, he ends up serving as an inspiration to others, who take stock and take control of their own lives. The ultimate answer that reveals itself at the end of the book is that Jensen realizes he has to take control as well, has to build his own stories, even if it is from where he started.

When I hear stories such as this — people who cast off their routines and the shackles of “normal” life to do something unusual — I look back at my own life and wish I’d done something similar. I don’t have European backpacking stories. The only lengthy road trip I embarked upon was an interesting and memorable experience, but it was carried out in the safety of being a professional undertaking, part of a job for which I was being paid. There was still some safety to it, some convention. One of the lessons learned here is that the universe provides when needs be, even if it by way of hard work or sacrifice. Jensen’s travels and travails are both enviable and unenviable all at once, and watching him look inward as he presses onward spurs one to introspection as well. 8/10

5 Responses to “Keep Your Eyes on the Road”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Apr. 16, 2007: Webscabs Says:

    […] Tom Spurgeon talks to Red Eye, Black Eye creator K. Thor Jensen. Related: Don MacPherson reviews Jensen’s book. (Above: sequence from Red Eye, Black Eye, ©2007 K. Thor Jensen.) […]

  2. George Hatzikostis Says:

    I believe that K. Thor Jensen has a long road ahead of him to distinguish himself as a capable writer-artist. Personally speaking, his consistent use of six-panel grid was what put me off this graphic novel – after a while I made an effort to actually finish reading it. His heart is in the right place, but he definitely needs to work on his skills.

  3. Don MacPherson Says:

    George wrote:
    I believe that K. Thor Jensen has a long road ahead of him to distinguish himself as a capable writer-artist. Personally speaking, his consistent use of six-panel grid was what put me off this graphic novel – after a while I made an effort to actually finish reading it. His heart is in the right place, but he definitely needs to work on his skills.

    Repeated use of such grids is a staple of small-press/indy comics, and it helps to disguise Jensen’s shortcomings as an artist. I think his simple style is effective for the personal stories he tells, and the small panels keep a tight focus on the characters. The strength of Jensen’s storytelling here lies in the sentiment and social dynamics, not detailed linework.

  4. Graphic Novel Review » Elsewhere on the Web: Review Roundup for April 16, 2007 Says:

    […] Yesterday, Don McPherson posted a decidedly mixed review of K. Thor Jensen’s Red Eye, Black Eye on his Eye On Comics blog: Red Eye, Black Eye is a surprisingly engaging read, but it’s also a surprisingly quick one. I powered through the entire volume rather quickly as I killed some time waiting for the girlfriend to arrive home for supper one evening. With a price tag of almost 20 bucks US, readers will likely expect something a little meatier, something that will occupy a little more of their time. Mind you, while it may not occupy time, it does occupy the mind. … more […]

  5. K. Thor Jensen Says:

    Don – Thanks for the very kind review. George – you may be happy to know that pretty much everything else I’ve done does not use the six-panel grid, etc – this interview at the Comics Reporter goes into some of the reasons why I chose to illustrate the book in the way I did. For other methods of storytelling, you may be interested in this, or either of my stories in the fine You Ain’t No Dancer anthologies. My next book is very, very visually different.