Based on my NZ-comic reviewing selection for "Beyond Spider-Man", you might be forgiven for imagining that Richard Fairgray is single-handledly responsible for a good half of New Zealand's annual crop of comic book releases. In fact, that's probably not too far from the truth.
Not only is he probably our single most prolific creator, he's also one of the most proactive. When I posted my recent review of Blastosaurus (Early Release), he contacted me and explained that despite the professional production quality, the actual story was a mere shadow of the final tale he hoped to produce with a second release.
He promised me an early version of the "New Blastosaurus" to re-review. And in the meantime, he also offered to send me a copy of his 2007 B&W graphic novel.
Naturally I didn't refuse, and duly the book arrived. It's a 96 page, square-bound TPB format graphic novel with clean white paper and a glossy card cover. Based on what I've stumbled across in my ten or twenty years of frequenting NZ comics stores, this is the single highest quality NZ graphic novel production I've come across - with the possible exception of the all-time NZ classic Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks.
But enough praise for the format. What of the story itself? Well... that's a little harder to evaluate.
Like his earlier efforts Drinking Mercury and Falling Leaves, this story features plenty of dark and moody characters floating through a world which seems... detached perhaps? Disconnected? Certainly it's plenty sparse and gritty. But there's a slightly zoned-out feeling of unreality which is almost Fairgray's distinctive trademark. That's not a criticism at all. It's his style, and he works well within it. But I don't think I ever really "identify" with his characters. I follow them, but at a careful distance. They're not always particularly welcoming.
The line art is generally as serviceable as ever. Having said that, I did have to re-read the first half of the book before I could see my way clear through to the end. Fairgray does not condescend to his readers. If you plan to figure out who people are and what is going on, you had better pay attention. No exceptions. Myself, I had a bit of trouble separating the two female characters until I looked a little closer and spotted some identifying features. I also struggled to figure out that the male lead was the same person and not two different characters.
Part of the problem is the art. Black and white, and loose on occasion, the art work is like a lamppost to a drunk man - it serves primarily as support, rather than for illumination. The other challenge is that the characters don't use each others names very often, combined with the fact that the two main leads are simultaneously appearing in a stage play where they use their stage names.
But the story, Jonathan. What of the story?
Without giving too much away, the tale is built around a woman who performs stand-up comedy, and who is also starring in a stage play which is shortly to open. The stage play opens, and... well... disaster may or may not strike. You'll have to read and decide for yourself.
When I first tried to read the story, I got half way through, but nothing had really happened. Then I got distracted and put the book down. I came back to it a week or more later and I had forgotten what was going on. I had to start again from the beginning, more carefully this time. In the end, I was rewarded with a thought-provoking finish.
The "plot" of Wilhelm Scream only really happens in the second half of the book. The first half is primarily concerned with building atmosphere and exploring character. I'm not entirely sure if this "slow-burn" approach really works in general. Personally, I'm a fan of stories that are built around ideas. Anything which distracts from the central theme of the story is, in my mind, risky and to be avoided.
But that's just my two cents. In the final analysis, I think Wilhelm Scream manages to get away with the slow-burn. Fairgray's thing is "slow and moody", and he makes it work. As usual. So take your time, read carefully, and this story will reward you in the end. Maybe it's not ideal for offering to friends as a first introduction to the graphic novel format. But it sure as hell is a proud addition to my small collection of classic New Zealand tales. Thanks Richard.
As a footnote, this story is credited to "The Fairgray Brothers", Richard and Christian. But the credits are rather tongue-in-cheek. Having read several other works by Richard, I would have guessed that the entire story was scripted and penciled by him alone. I sensed no other creative input. The Internet is surprisingly silent on the existence of "Christian Fairgray" other than a single, private Facebook page.
I'll want to see the two brothers standing side by side in real life before I'll be entirely convinced of the real-life existence of Mr. C. Fairgray, Esq.