A1 (Books 1 – 6A) – Various

3 out of 5

I get it.  You’ve toiled in indie comics for a while, and then suddenly a joke book – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – rockets to fame.  Also, those guys you’ve been working with are getting the call to go rock it for the majors, and you totally respect that, but maybe you’re still doing the toiling and wondering when your call is going to be.  Dreams stir: let’s show them what comics are really about.

This can certainly be a good way to get something going, even if it kicks off with a bit of hubris.  As Gary Leach and Dave Elliot were promoting their indie anthology, A1, as the be-all, end-all of the potential of comics – creators rights!  freedom of expression! – their first issue ballooned to a proud 90 pages, and included a massive list of amazing creators (including some of them majors), and… it was late.  Your first issue was late.

It’s kind of indicative of what the series ended up bringing to the table: a lot of promise, a head full of steam that got it off to a great start, but maybe you stayed up too late the night before and stumble pretty soon after the opening gun.  The first issue is great, and actually ends up supporting the “we’re going to be perfect” claims in the opening editorial.  Even if the strips aren’t necessarily to one’s tastes, there’s a holistic sense of originality and beyond-the-page imagination bursting from each entry.  A faux reprint of a 1940s comic (‘Blazin’ Glory’) adds to the otherworldly feel of the compilation.

The second issue maintains the somewhat anarchic vibe – it expands to 120 pages and is printed, for whatever reason, as a flipbook (1/2 is printed in one direction, then flip it over to read the other half) – but it also keeps up the quality and sense that, yes, this is a haven for big names like Barry Windsor-Smith, Michael Gilbert, Eddie Campbell, etc. to get out whatever they had rattling around between other, larger projects.  A promised letters page doesn’t materialize, but it’s still a fun read.

Book 3 drops its page count, and is when we first start to see some stories appear that feel more like experiments than fully realized shorts.  Not that I have any idea what the actual case was behind construction of this book, but it reads like a difference between people ready to go with something versus an asked-for commission; like A1 had checked off its main contributors and was now going for some B-team work.  This doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just not as bold feeling; A1 starts to read more like your average anthology, where you start to sift through which strips you prefer to read instead of just diving in to experience them all.

And Book 4 is the full turn.  We’re back up at 90 pages, but the entries here are very uneven, and in some cases… bad.  Page numbers disappear.  From here until the end, the series remains in this state, and little inconsistencies like changes to the way the conclusion of stories are marked (With the Atomeka logo?  With nothing?) make the construction itself feel a lot less confident and cocksure than the Perfection with which we started.  Book 6A was intended to be accompanied by a book 6B, which never happened.  A fitting conclusion.

I stumbled into A1 as I was hunting down stories by other creators – Alan Moore, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison.  I read their entries, excited to dig in to the whole series, but ended up only picking and choosing through the rest.  Eventually, I’d come back around to read the thing from start to finish, and the cause (as I see it) for my selective readthrough was a bit more evident.  A1 would have a history with here-and-then-gone publications hereafter, some okay, some bland, but certainly nothing topping the quality of those first couple of issues, when the sky was still the limit.