5 out of 5
There are several quotes leading in to Jay Stephens Land of Nod Rockabye collection – which I believe collects the Dark Horse Land of Nod series – of which one from Henry Matisse becomes particularly relevant: “You have to remain a child your whole life and yet be a man who draws his energy from the things of the world.”
While this works on several layers for Stephens’ comic, at a very high level, we’ll just abstract it as being able to be an adult, and yet view the world through the eyes of a child. Some literal decades later, shows like Adventure Time would surge forward with this mentality, leading to a slew of cartoons that have dual kid and adult appeal, but I don’t know of anyone who’s quite achieved it in the same way as Jay. The Land of Nod is not for kids, but it’s not an “adult” book, either. But it’s also both. There’s surface stuff, like swears and whatnot, they may shy some away from handing it to their youngster, but it’s also the most harmless, friendly applications of it, while also threading in this elements of maturity… albeit expressed by space gorillas and superhero bugs. To be clear, though, that doesn’t mean that the many characters within Nod – Jetcat, Tuttenstein, and more – have heart-to-hearts with one another, more that Jay makes this zany world and population and then treats it with the respect of being as real as these characters can be.
In a later released collection of earlier work, we can see the roots of this same ability, though because it was of a more comix variety (and Jay was younger), it’s a bit more crass and random. In Rockabye, the tone is perfected, and maintains the pitch perfect comic timing and inventiveness that allows the story to loop in and in and in upon itself incredibly satisfyingly. Stephens’ artistry is also mesmerizing; his peers and friends – Jeff Smith, Paul Pope – have these instantly recognizable styles that cover all of their work, and Jay has the same, and yet each of his characters feels like they’re of their own universes and worlds, making it feel especially unreal and wild when they come together.
Anyhow, a giant, radio controlled robot creates a giant, giant, radio controlled robot, and he and his fellow Jetcat Haters blast Jetcat into space, where she eats space pistachios and gets bored. Dave hides in a suitcase. Space Ape 8 squares off against his dog-mate, Kip. Tuttenstein loses an arm. All of this is important, and all of this is fantastic, and hilarious, and genius.