Review of Down by the River by Turner Mark-Jacobs

02 Nov

I have a soft spot for low-key debuts by cartoonists: many small-press artists want to come right out and make the next Dark Knight Returns, and they get crushed under their own ambition. Self-publishing is the perfect venue for that project that interests you as an artist, and this retelling of a western folktale (that I’d never heard of) will obviously attract a bit of a niche audience.

I think I offended the artist when I met him at the Albuquerque Zine Fest and described this book as being “like one of those weird obscure one-shots Marvel put out during the eighties that went immediately into discount back-issue boxes”. The truth is that when you read those issues, the names on the cover include Mignolas, Allreds and Willinghams, and everybody needs to “cut their teeth” before word gets around and people start reading their stuff. I have no idea what Jacobs’ fate is going to be as an artist, but his obscure storytelling choices don’t necessarily put him in bad company.

I had to read the book twice to follow the story, because the sparse word balloons and uncluttered line word encourage the reader to breeze through the book in a way that the story doesn’t support. A traveling farmer in the old West rescues a drowning stranger, and is then given a foreboding warning that it’s “bad luck” to do so. Later, in the same river, he finds a dead Sheriff. He receives strange and unsettling “help” from an unnamed stranger, and decides to move away from the cursed Tules river. He discovers that the stranger (“Captain Jack”) had killed the Sheriff and faked his own death: later, his farm floods, and Captain Jack comes to rescue the farmer and return the original favor. The story is a very barebones Western tale that really only exists to showcase Jacobs’ ability to create a mood.

His drawings suggest a mix of Mike Mignola and Guy Davis (of The Marquis and B.P.R.D.), a slightly sketchy style that appears to have been drawn with a thick ink pen. It is an appealing and readable art style that I really like, but the real star of the show here is the coloring. Jacobs hand-watercolored every panel in this book, and every single one could hold its own as an evocative Western piece of pop art. The book alternates between washed-out brownish landscapes and blood-red dream sequences. Backgrounds are simply rendered and the facial expressions are all fairly cartoony: everything points back to the watercolors. This is an “artist’s book” if I’ve ever seen one.

This really does remind me of an old Marvel one-shot, where artists were given free reign to do interesting things in a way that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s fun to pick it up and just stare at a picture at random, letting a few lines and some painterly brushstrokes really wash over you and draw you in. I hope Jacobs draws another one.

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Posted by on November 2, 2013 in Uncategorized


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