Image Comics' [ITAL]Flight II[ITAL] shipped this week. It is an eclectic anthology of comics by quasi-mainstream artists, and younger, self-published internet talent. The first volume was a little skimpy and over-hyped, so I wasn't as excited about the second installment as everyone else. The stories in the first were short and underdeveloped; it wasn't hit-and-miss like some anthologies, just bland.
[ITAL]Flight II[ITAL] is a pleasant surprise. The stories were longer, and the number of artists involved more than doubled. Critical mass has been achieved. The result is 427 pages of unusual and original comics that have kept me reading for days.

[ITAL]Flight[ITAL] is the brainchild of its editor: Kazu Kibuishi. Kibuishi is a poster-boy for successful web comics; his comic [ITAL]Copper[ITAL] is still self-published and distributed freely online at his website [SLANT 12][SLANT 12]. [ITAL]Flight I[ITAL] was his first foray into print, and introduced a lot of previously unpublished online comic artists to print. He is also socially active in the whole comics community, and has the connections to really make these kinds of projects come true. His first graphic novel, [ITAL]Daisy Cutter: The Last Train[ITAL], came out at this past summer's Comicon and has been selling solidly ever since. His style has manga influences, like many online comics, but is not strictly dominated by that paradigm. His drawing style is very animated, and uses several techniques like stretch-and-squish and moment-to-moment transitioning. Kibuishi's contribution to the contemporary discourse on comics grows every year, and always becomes better and stronger.

Kibuishi managed to bring many famous, established comics professionals into this anthology. Since the projects are smaller in scope, and much more personal, we get a fresh perspective on the artists and their work that isn't apparent in their larger projects. Jeff Smith, the creator, writer, and artist for the entire [ITAL]Bone[ITAL] series, contributed a fun little story about two star-travelers, [ITAL]Sirius and Betelgeuse[ITAL]. Doug TenNapel, author of [ITAL]Creature Tech[ITAL] and creator of [ITAL]Earthworm Jim[ITAL], contributed [ITAL]Solomon Fix[ITAL], a bland little story, but with brushwork as beautiful as a Bill Watterson landscape. Don Hertzfeld, the infamous Bitter Films animator, creator of [ITAL]Rejected[ITAL], and host for [ITAL]The Animation Show[ITAL], contributed several surreal one-panel strips in his very unique style. Finally, Sonny Liew, the Singapore video-game designer and Xeric-Award winning author of [ITAL]Malinky Robot[ITAL], contributed a short Malinky story, [ITAL]Dead Soul's Day Out[ITAL], that still hasn't lost the powerful fantasy-world feel of the original.

More interesting, though, is the fresh meat. Niel Babra, a local Pittsburgh cartoonist whose comics I first saw in [ITAL]The Free Times[ITAL], continued his [ITAL]Taj Mahal[ITAL] story from [ITAL]Flight I[ITAL] with [ITAL]The Golden Temple[ITAL]. The gesture and caricature of the characters are interesting and original, and his use of color makes good sense both as an expressive device and as a formal visual element. He has a Gilbert Hernandez-like approach to people and places in his story that really resonates with me.

Becky Cloonan's [ITAL]Head's Up[ITAL] is a real visual feast. The characters in this sexualized Mexican standoff have a Carla Speed McNiel's [ITAL]Finder[ITAL] quality to them. The layout is very designed, however, with the background acting more like a foreground and overlapping between scenes. Text acts like images, images act like symbols, and it all weaves together in this ambiguous, dreamlike way. The colors are subdued, non-local, and surreal. Reading it as a story is straightforward, but then I turned the pages back again and looked at them just as images and enjoyed it a lot more.
Not all the comics were hits, though. Several of the them had the same kind of warm-and-fuzzy theme of friendship or happiness or tranquility that pervaded the first book. Not to sound like an existentialist, but one can only read so many four-to-five page comics in a row about ambiguous characters finding ambiguous contentment after a curt uplifting conversation with a cute animal or wise elder. Catia Chen's [ITAL]Jelly Fruit[ITAL], Jake Parker's [ITAL]The Robot and the Sparrow[ITAL], or Jen Wang's [ITAL]Destin Express[ITAL] all had beautiful artwork - especially with Parker - but they left me wishing for a deeper, more human story. Ryan Sias's [ITAL]Blip Pop[ITAL] and Amy Kim Gante's [ITAL]A Test for Genri[ITAL], on the other hand, had art that simply turned me off before I could even think about the story. The styles were lifted right out of television cartoons, and didn't really have a personal language of their own. Four-to-five page comics succeed based on how personal they are to the creator, and these didn't have that hook.

Other artists in the book that I like whom I'd never heard of before were Rad Sechrist, whose steampunkish [ITAL]Ghost Trolly[ITAL] story had a the feel of a more boisterous Miyazaki, and Richard Pose's [ITAL]Beisbol[ITAL] was a good contemplative cultural story to put near the end of the book.
As an art object, the book is pulsing with great new visual ideas. Incidentally, Kibuishi has also arranged a gallery show for lots of the original art from this book at Gallery Nucleus in Alhambra California that's hanging right now. Photos are up on his website. [ITAL]McSweeny's Quarterly Concern[ITAL] was The Book for comics last year, but this year it's totally [ITAL]Flight[ITAL].