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Sean William Scott

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Rob Osborne's Work So Far 

Rob Osborne's Sunset City is a complex book. I've read it over several times in the weeks since I bought it, trying to come to some sort of conclusive, definitive statement about it, but my goal eludes me. It is a book in which bad people do bad things, good people do bad things, and morally ambiguous people do bad things.

The focus of the story is Frank McDonald, a recent widower, recent retiree and recent resident at the Sunset City retirement community. Osborne does a brilliant job of characterizing the community and its people. He avoids any easy cliches and captures their humanity and their willing isolation from the larger world. These are people who have consciously made a decision to withdraw from the culture at large and live within their own self-made society. Osborne is particularly good at subtly portraying the hypocrisy of many of these people. They exhibit, to a large degree, an attitude that when the world doesn't fit into the neat little categories they want, it is the world that is wrong, but at the same time they show a disbelief in the idea that the "rules" of the culture at large should apply to them.

There are two stunning acts of violence that mark the book. The first, a convenience store robbery gone wrong, falls into that "morally ambiguous" area I mentioned earlier. At first we are drawn towards having some sympathy towards a man who defended his business from thieves, but the newspaper passages which punctuate chapters of the story paint a more complex portrait. The picture that emerges there is of a man with a casual disregard for violence and the deaths of others, suggestions of a history of violent over-reaction and intimations of racism. The second act of violence is taken by Frank himself, in a vigilante reaction to another tragic incident that intruded into the safe isolation of Sunset City. Frank's actions go beyond simple vigilante justice. They are actions born out of his sense of helplessness at the injustices of the world. He's unable to do anything about the casual, indifferent cruelties of the world, but he is able, and willing, to do something about this specific injustice, even if he understands intellectually that it is the "wrong" thing to do.

Sunset City is an accomplished, multi-layered work, and it's depth and skill is remarkable for being only Osborne's second comic. It's remarkable, and I'm at a loss to think of another recent comics work that has prompted so much thought and reflection on my part. I not only strongly recommend it, but would even suggest that a look at it is essential for anyone interested in comics as an art-form.

Quite a different beast entirely is Osborne's earlier book, 1000 Steps to World Domination. It's a surreal, absurdist humor book, that bounces from non-sequitur to non-sequitur in a winding, stream-of-consciousness ramble. Mixed in there is an amusing, if slight, portrait of the artist in mid-artistry. There's humor to be had in the book, but again it's slight work. And while I enjoy a good surreal joke as much as the next person (especially if the next person is Eugene Ionesco), in one big chunk of reading it is a bit much and becomes something of a distraction.

Both works also provide plenty of opportunities to enjoy Osborne's work as an artist. He has an engaging, rough-hewn style, occasionally vaguely suggestive of wood-block prints. In Sunset City in particular, the characters also have a bit of a "squiggly" look to them that helps to emphasize the ambiguity of the story.

Both works are good, though I find Sunset City to be much stronger of the two. The general impression I'm left with is that I'm looking at a promising talent with a strong debut, and that Rob Osborne is definitely a creator to keep an eye on and look out for future work from him.


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