4 out of 5
An oddball British anthology publication, the 2014 edition of ‘meanwhile…’ is apparently the second volume, and publisher John Anderson talks in his intros as though the first volume has some notable repute, but strike me dumb if I can find out much info about it. But here’s a link that suggests that if I had been cooler and British that maybe I’d be espousing this notable repute as well. Regardless, Mr. Anderson was doing the indie publishing thing, made it to (I think) four issues, and then maybe 15 years or so later, came back for more. …And made it to four issues, although a fifth is available on their website. If’n my order is received, I’ll let you know how that goes.
But here we are, rounding the corner into 2017, and issue 4 of meanwhile vol.2 is about a year and a half in the past. So it’s time to give the series a review.
I’ve had much to say about anthologies in the past. My general gripe is when there’s a lack of theme. ‘Theme’ doesn’t – and often shouldn’t – be a concrete thing, so it’s hard to pin down, but a prime example of great theme is 2000 AD / Judge Dredd. Thanks to a unified vision of what the style of those mags are (at least under current editor Matt Smith – I can’t speak to progs before his run, although the collected material from those progs suggests something similar), although you will have stories you like more than others, and some you dislike, on the whole, the magazine fits together. So you can pick up an issue with confidence of a certain type of feeling / quality to expect. This isn’t as limiting as it sounds: there are decades worth of Marvel / DC creativity stuffed within a few cycles of progs. Smith’s oversight keeps things trucking within certain general parameters; he knows where to take his chances while keeping things on target.
One of the poorer examples of theme can be found in the latter day Vertigo anthologies, like their FX / color-themed books. This is taking an idea and forcing stories to adapt to it. While this can certainly be used effectively, or to spur new ideas, Vertigo has been such a look-at-me! operation the past several years that that’s not the direction those anthologies took. They read like “idea” books – all pitch, no filler.
In between, and may I catch eternal flack for this, you have something like Dark Horse Presents. Did DHP launch some classic creators / strips? Undoubtedly. Is Dark Horse, in general, a madly respectable publisher? Absolutely. But something about DHP has almost always felt like a catch-all to me, a complete crap-shoot of style and quality. Occasionally you’d score a win, but the majority of the time you’d be looking at a lot of shrug-worthy stuff. Rarely bad, but rarely notable. To my readings, anyway.
meanwhile… is a good anthology. It has a particular feel. But I started out by calling it oddball because I can’t tell you exactly what that feeling is. The first issue suggests it’s “mature” and “safe,” in a way, with (a strip with its own drawn out history) Gary Spencer Millidge’s Strangehaven playing flash-back catch-up and playing out like a sci-fi sprinkled soap opera, Yuko Rabbit’s 10 Minutes a suavely drawn but harmless fantasy, and David Hine’s / Mark Stafford’s The Bad Bad Place a cartoonish haunted house story. Filling out the rest of the 40+ pages are some contest winners and the kind of strips you’d expect in one of those high-brow Kramer’s Ergot things where you don’t understand half of what’s happening but you know it’s “deep.” Nothing exactly seals the lid on tone, though. And the writing is just on the edge of something… fresh.
This gets more defined as each series warms up. Strangehaven is a soap opera, but one that’s not afraid to go cryptic, silly, funny, etc. As it crawls outward to encompass relationship drama and town cult activity and a potential alien, you can get the appeal of such a developed world, and Millidge’s photo-real style works for me a lot more than people like Tony Harris because, firstly, he doesn’t over-exaggerate things just to back it comic booky, and secondly, he applies the style to the whole world, backgrounds included, so there’s no distracting divide between foreground and background. Bad Bad Place has Hine’s tendency to jump around with his narrative voice, but Stafford’s crabbed stylized look keeps Hine from wandering too far afield, and the ‘haunted house’ concept goes twisty turny to darker and weirder places. 10 Minutes doesn’t change, per se, simply becomes more distinctive, even though it seems like just a snapshot of a potentially bigger tale. As it becomes clear that ‘meanwhile…’ is a place for taking risks – and that that was the edge that could be sensed – the one-off additions become equally valuable and varied as the ongoings.
Without any conclusions in the first four issues, it’s hard to fully weigh in on the anthology, but there was a reason I kept waiting for more issues (about which I’ve gotten an e-mail response as confirmed to be coming), and reading them back to back draws that into clearer relief: Under John Anderson’s purview, meanwhile… gets the privilege of completely paving its own road. That might be at the sacrifice of consistent publication, or feature placement on the racks – which I’m sure makes it financially tough for those involved, falling into the ‘labor of love’ category – but the result is that you get a set of stories that, together, are a completely unique and rewarding reading experience.