by Vik Gill
For the prospective reader skimming the shelf of the bookstore, The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City is eye-catching on the basis of its title cum premise alone. That initial attraction to the title gives way to the rest of the cover, which features a pterodactyl descending upon a pair of men–one wielding a harpoon–in a hot air balloon. This action overlooks an ersatz city: with structures haphazardly placed around each other, with clotheslines connecting a cornice of one building to the bare corner of another building, and with two-dimensional smokestacks. The watercolors are subdued; they don’t turn the action into a complete spectacle. From all of this, it may be possible for the prospective reader to surmise that there’s much more to the book than the title would have them believe…
… or they may see fit to pooh-pooh it. There’s a trend in entertainment that involves coloring a premise with absurdity. It’s the sort of kooky zaniness that’s delivered with a wink and a nod, which juxtaposes what’s ordinary with what’s supernatural. And there are a countless number of cases where such absurd premises end up being more interesting than the work itself. It starts to becoming wearying, to the point where the prospective reader may be drawn to The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City with an initial spark of interest that quickly dies down when they take a step back and consider what a wash Zombie Robot Hitler and Space Jesus ended up being. Luckily, the blurb and praise on the back cover alleviates any misgivings the concerned reader may have on that front, and it affirms that book is a truly interesting thing.
The credits page is cleverly done as the front page of a newspaper. The headlines here, the heavy-handed use of the word “furlong” in one of the opening pages–and, obviously, the “NEW YORK CITY 1904″ in the center of the first panel firmly establish what the setting is. We know that we’re dealing with a New York far removed from our time–we know that it’s a New York that has been afflicted by the threat of pterodactyls for a period, and that the city is nearing the end of this epoch.
But writer/artist Brendan Leach takes these steps to ensure that his premise doesn’t get in the way of the story he’s trying to tell. The action scene in the first four pages, beyond addressing the premise, grabs the reader’s attention. The art lends itself to the frantic action depicted–the watercolors bleed out of the objects and the panels themselves, and the lines are unsteady. Eamon Sullivan and Alfie are always shown to be at an angle with respect to the rest of their frames; the buildings seem to lurch in different directions and have different proportions from one panel to the next. It’s not an uneven, unconfident hand that directs these pages: these stylistic flourishes enhance the action. It’s easy to look at the cover and these first few pages and consider the art sloppy, but it comes off more as a deliberate kind of inconsistency–more on that soon.
Having already dealt with the premise and exposition associated with it, the story explores its major theme: the transition between childhood and adulthood. The protagonist, Declan Sullivan, is first depicted in a way entirely contrary to the players of the scene before–an accurate reflection of his character. The story encapsulates his transition in its entirety: it starts with the looming demise of the pterodactyls and ends with the last moments of his childhood.
It’s a well-written story, and the art is frequently well-judged. What gives the action scenes a frantic tone gives the non-action scenes a tense tone. Tense, somber: almost bleak. Leach gives us an uneasy New York here–the buildings still lurch when the pterodactyls are nowhere in sight. The watercolors still bleed. The sky is bare white at night. Deliberate inconsistency. Is this a New York couched entirely in Declan’s perspective? Probably. There’s more to indicate that New York is ready to embrace the end of the pterodactyls than otherwise–everyone’s started to move on except Declan. The protagonist’s own uneasy thoughts are highlighted by a unique stylistic flourish that takes the form of words encircling his head.
Other stylistic flourishes don’t come off as well. For example, Leach, at several points, depicts rapid motion by superimposing a ghost figure over the figure in motion. It’s unique, but it doesn’t service the work and comes off as awkward. Still, it doesn’t detract too much from the quality of the work; it’s forgivable.
The work as a whole is not perfect. There’s a lot of meaning to be drawn from particular scenes, and the work is made stronger for it–but this meaning is drawn out fairly easily. That’s not to imply that the work is shallow, but there’s one major layer of subtext underneath the whole story, and inklings of further layers that are never expounded on. For example, Declan stops himself before directly referencing how his brother feels about him during an argument, and that’s all. There’s little build-up to it and it’s never brought up or referenced again: it seems out of place. The incident with the boy on the roof, Declan’s meetings with Sister Bridget–it’s easy to see how these engage the theme of the story, and then that’s all. There are no more layers to peel back. It’s a work which can mostly be consumed after the first read, and then there’s little impetus to reread it. Would it have benefited from being longer? As the work was originally a thesis submission for a Masters of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts, it’s possible that Leach was under some constraints while writing.
Still, it’s a very fine work and a lot more can be said about its particulars, especially its draftsmanship–but that’s better left for a discussion post. The book’s length and subtext gives it a broad appeal, and it would make a terrific gift for those with a passive interest in comic books or those wanting a straightforward-yet-thoughtful read. There is a sentiment among previous reviewers of the work that must be echoed here: Brendan Leach is one to watch.
TL;DR: Brendan Leach’s thoughtful take on the transition between childhood and adulthood ensures that his book’s zany premise doesn’t make for a shallow story. The art has a few moments where it stumbles, but is otherwise very expressive. The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City is an extremely solid offering with a broad appeal.
The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City is written and illustrated by Brendan Leach. It’s a delightfully strangely printed affair available through Top Shelf. Ask for it at your local comic book shop.
Vik Gill is eminently unqualified to be speaking about comics at length, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He lives in Queens, NY and is still in school.