Intriguingly Mixed Signals : Isaac Roller’s “Transmissions From Dreamtown”


The recent resurgence of so-called “solo anthology titles” or “single-creator anthologies” has been a welcome development for those of us who literally grew up on comics of that nature (Yummy FurEightballDirty PlotteNeat Stuff, etc.), but there’s no doubt that this latter-day veritable onslaught of them has been a mixed bag — which is rather the point of anthologies in general, I suppose. And yet many of the newcomers to “the scene” are often a mixed bag, conceptually and qualitatively, in and of themselves, as well, irrespective of the broader comics landscape in general. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising — people tend to forget, but not every strip in Eightball was a winner, especially in the series’ early going — but it also shouldn’t be viewed as a negative : seeing a cartoonist finding their footing, establishing their voice, or whatever other cliche you’d like to use in place of “figuring their shit out” is often a damned interesting thing to have a front-row seat to, and one would do well to keep that in mind as we delve into New York-based artist Isaac Roller’s self-published Transmissions From Dreamtown.

Roller’s been at this for two years now, producing four issues to date, and while it wouldn’t be quite accurate to say the trajectory of them has been uniformly upward, the general character of his series is such that things appear to be moving in the right direction on the whole, and he seems quite comfortable with the de facto “self-apprenticeship” that is learning on the job with no boss to tell you what to do — which, for the record, is not the same thing as fumbling your way forward in the dark. It’s a tricky business, this whole “following your artistic instincts for good or ill, wherever they may lead you” thing, and in a manner not entirely dissimilar to that of Brian Canini, whose work we’ve discussed on this site several times in the past, Roller doesn’t seem particularly anchored down to any one way of doing things — tonally or aesthetically.

Perhaps the best example I can give of this is the third issue of this comic, which makes an abrupt detour from the urban hustle and bustle of the first two installments to tell an extremely satisfying self-contained tale set in BF Alaska, where wooly mammoth meat has become the new haute cuisine, and Roller adopts a more clean-lined art style with clear roots in classical cartooning as opposed to the deliberately “rough around the edges” look of numbers one and two in order to more effectively communicate the needs of this particular narrative. The fourth and more recent issue, focused on an alien visitation, returns the focus to the big city, but with the more refined aesthetic approach of number three — so, yeah, you can see him pretty clearly figuring out not only what he wants to do, but perhaps even what sort of cartoonist he wants to be. That doesn’t always make for a “smooth” reading experience, granted, but it does make for an exciting one — after all, any new comic in this series could be about literally anything at all, and may even look completely different to what’s come before.

Does this make roller a genuine artistic chameleon by default? Possibly, but there is a definite unifying overall sensibility in terms of his page layouts, spot use of wash effects, and the like that clues you into the fact that these books are all made by the same person regardless of the obvious differences that are front and center. I’m not sure he’s fully committed to any one “path,” so to speak, but he appears firmly committed to discovering one, and that means everything’s still on the table and the future of this comic is well and truly wide open.

One thing Roller is clearly getting a firm handle on is using his stories to communicate a distinct authorial point of view, usually via allegorical means, and he’s got a really good balancing act going there — he’s not subtle, nor does he clobber you over the head with his messaging, and threading that needle is, more often than not, the mark of a natural storyteller. Some of his subject matter is specific not so much to him personally but to the artistic community as a whole (issue two’s primary focus is on the physical handling of art), while other things he’s expounding upon are more universal in nature (the aforementioned third issue has plenty to say about man’s exploitation of the natural world and the nauseating excesses of so-called “foodie culture”), but there’s a definite sense of passion underpinning all of it that can’t be faked and makes for enjoyable, if again occasionally uneven, reading. It’s earnest stuff, to be sure, but naturally earnest as opposed to self-consciously earnest, and that makes all the difference right there.
Just to remove any doubt, then, I absolutely recommend this series — and Roller’s work in general. I have yet to read his pandemic diary comics collection My Plague Year, but I did come across some of his stuff in Clusterfux Comix (another title that’s due for a review on here soon) and found that to be engaging, as well. It’s too soon to say whether or not we’re witnessing the emergence of the next great cartooning talent or what have you, but seriously — who the hell cares? I’m plenty interested in seeing Isaac Roller become whatever sort of cartoonist he wants to become, and there’s no question in my mind that he’s committed to putting in the work necessary to establish a true auteur sensibility and methodology. Art is a process of experimentation, of trial and error, and the truly determined artist in never content to rest on his or her laurels. How much of the transformation happening before our eyes with this particular artist is down to an evolutionary process and how much is down to simple restlessness I couldn’t really say, nor does it necessarily matter all that much : as long as Roller doesn’t stand still, I’ll be interested to follow him wherever he’s going.

***********************************************************************

Issues 1-4 of Transmissions From Dreamtown are available from Isaac Roller’s website at http://www.isaac-roller.com/shop

Also, this review is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very grateful if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse