The Rust Kingdom – Spugna

3 out of 5

I like comic book art. But I also like stories.

So when I’ve found artists I adore, I admittedly won’t just follow them from book to book unless I like the writer – because I want to read the thing, and not just look at it. Writer / artists would seem like a big score then, but the same still holds true: it’s not like me liking someone’s art is a guarantee of my liking their writing as well, and you get into an interesting conundrum with writer / artists in the balancing act: does it seem like they’re visual first, or narrative first?

In the former category, it’s proven harder for me to get on board. Even if the writing isn’t uninteresting, you can tell when it’s just a placeholder for visuals, but then you run into the potential problem of also being limited by a narrative: that it’s not just an art book, but leashed to something linear and wanting to be an art book.

And it goes back and forth. But when the balance works out? It’s magical stuff. Magical, bloody, sword-slicing, worm-infested stuff. Spugna’s grindcore work The Rust Kingdom is, I’d say, visuals first, but it feels like these visuals are already part of a story being told in the artist’s mind. So we can drop into the middle of it – a grotesque, Maxx-sized creature emerges from the ground of a desolated land, sprouts swords from its body, and begins chop-chopping its way toward some destination – and rather instantly feel like we’re in a realized world. And while this sword master’s travels are maybe just an excuse to draw grotesque monsters getting sliced to bits, that same already-established background gives us the sense of a quest, and indeed, it unfolds into a bizarre battle for a throne. What’s the throne of, and why are wizard hats important and how do various characters see out of the nails bulleted into their eyeholes…? Well, that’s the stuff left inbetween the garishly colored, full-splash pages of mayhem.

One glance at any given vein-strewn, teeth-grit, mushy-fleshed illustration of Spugna’s will likely tell you if the style is for you or not, but what bumped this up a notch was that no page in The Rust Kingdom feels wasted, nor does it feel repetitive, and I’d chalk that up to actual storytelling. So above world-building, above having a loose storyline to fuel us, Spugna is producing real comics: pacing is purposeful, and there are lulls and some exposition exchanges and a sense of building from one event to the next. It’s not just some cool ass images with a distracting story, but an inventive piece of curious mythology-backed grindcore artistry, primed for max engagement, page-by-page.

Hollow Press’ printing of this is glorious, with wonderful, sharp colors and a slick embossed cover – which, again, even glancing at that is enough to know if Spugna is for you or not, and if he is, then I promise the contents are in no way a let down.