Fatalistic times generally call for a lot of escapist fiction. People glancing up at burning skies and down at flooding earth want to be transported to less troubling worlds, where things either look a little hopeful or at least more exotic. What to make of the current crop of anti-escapist fiction, then? Humanity’s prospects don’t exactly look much better than they did at the start of the century yet a growing amount of our fiction is focused not merely on imaginary worlds, but stand-ins for ourselves who long hoped to be taken away to those realms only to find they’re frequently horrible, terrifying places too. In the literary world, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians probably isn’t the exact patient zero for this but I’d be willing to bet it’s what made it a bonafide subgenre. Interestingly enough, it debuted at more or less the exact same time as its comic equivalent The Unwritten, with both sharing pitch perfect handling of prior literary works and an honestly kind of dickish, Harry Potter-esque lead. This is the ancestral line that has birthed Curt Pires and David Rubin’s The Fiction, and like any halfway smart child, it’s hellbent on rebelling against its parents.
After an ominous tease of an opener, The Fiction goes to Narnia by way of Runaways, a group of bored kids stuck in an attic while their parents argue over potentially shady happenings below, inadvertently opening a seemingly blank book that really contains an entire other reality that they are instantly transported to. This opening segment has a couple hallmarks of the anti-escapist fantasy, from anxious kids trying their best to talk and think like adults to hints of sinister motives, Rubin giving a close-up of an adult’s reptilian eye through a wineglass, Pires scripting some not-so-subtle hormonal conflict. Even as Rubin illustrates gorgeous alternate realms that the kids say “stop being scary and just start being exciting,” Pires lets you know a split is on the horizon, the kids pairing off and fracturing until one of their number disappears completely into an ever shifting, unpredictable landscape.
And here comes the other big hallmark of the subgenre, the fastforward to adulthood where that fantasyland that claimed your friend intrudes once more. Fifteen years after the kids have moved on and tried to forget the definitive end of their childhood innocence, the book that started it has come back to claim another. All that remains of the initial foursome are Kassie, now a pop journalist, and Max, an office drone. It’s almost certainly not a coincidence that the disappearance of their friend Tsang came as these two were falling into the grips of a young romance and while they’re awkwardly removed from each other now, they seem to understand that the only hope they have of recovering their newly lost buddy Tyler is by teaming up one more time.
Pires makes a Grossman-esque move in having Max argue that the fantasy was never real, that it was some kind of psychological response to a traumatic incident. For Max, his stability in later life has come from shutting out all fantasy and imagination, convincing himself that Tsang was murdered by his horrible father. Kassie has taken the opposite approach, refusing to let go of the memory of her fantastic adolescence but becoming stunted in the process, eschewing adult life for spontaneity and chaos and hedonism. Rubin expertly conveys the emotion that is rooted in both ends of that conflict, eloquently getting across the fallout of Tsang’s disappearance in a single page flashback that culminates in the juxtaposition of a teary Max waving goodbye to his friends with a mute current day Max looking through old photos of that era, wearing the same expression but this time holding back the tears.
Where The Unwritten was a purposefully ever expanding sprawl, ambitiously aiming to unify centuries of literature and fancy, The Fiction wisely keeps its sights more modest, hoping instead to explore that universal feeling of losing your childhood sense of wonder at the moment you first discover the world is a horrible place. Pires and Rubin might break open the floodgates and spread this story out on a much larger level but I’m going to predict that they stay the course and craft a more intimate anti-escapist narrative instead. Which is great because Rubin’s expressive, animated style is well-suited to both the whimsy of the story and the emotion, his art expectedly brilliant in the fantasy segments but unexpectedly humane in the grounded, “real” scenes. The eyes of Rubin’s characters in particular are enviously expressive, communicating more in a glance than lesser artists can get across in twelve panels. Pires smartly leaves ample room for Rubin to do the heavy lifting, bookending scenes of heavy dialogue with quiet expanses and intriguingly framed moments of tranquility.
This capacity for slowing things down is what most sets The Fiction apart from The Magicians and The Unwritten, eschewing the marathon academic sprint of the former as well as the continuously on the move nature of the latter. The Fiction is instead about carefully wading into the unknown and confronting your conflicting memories of the past head on, trying to find a way to bridge both the beautiful and the horrible. We get a peek at a big bad by the end of The Fiction’s debut issue, but even so this appears to be a story about rediscovering youth and remembering who your true friends are. Even in an era of instant, global communication, it’s not hard to break out the boxes of old pictures and wonder where your best friends disappeared to, what kind of trouble they might be in now, what kind of trouble they might be able to help you out of. It’s difficult to reach out, dangerous even, but the past is an escape of its own.
The Fiction comes out tomorrow, June 17th, from Boom!
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover