It is an honor and a pleasure to share with you, The Furnace, the new book by Prentis Rollins, a veteran in the comics industry (Marvel and DC), published by Tor Books. I will jump in with a quick way to hook into this book and say outright that this work does indeed compare favorably with the best of the original Twilight Zone. That’s a tall order but this is an exceptionally unique work. I don’t take such comparisons lightly and I have no problem striking down false claims that occur quite often. So, yes, this is the real deal with its finely modulated pace and attention to detail. It delivers that ethereal sensation that leaves you in a deliciously questioning mood. And, with its sophisticated flair, it will have strong appeal to adult readers while still appropriate for any age.
Much like an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone, every detail is accounted for right down to the title, The Furnace. What sort of furnace could this be? Well, as in any existential tale such as this, there’s a good deal of nihilism. This furnace first comes into view as a parent tries to explain to a child a highly complex (and compromised) adult endeavor. The explanation takes on grand metaphysical proportions while also clearly playing the role of an augury of sinister things to come. Just what is this parent trying to tell this child? A machine that keeps cookies locked away?
We take so much for granted when it comes to comics. I digest quite a lot of comics, coming from a myriad of genres, publishers, and niches. A work like this is the Holy Grail of comics, to try to put it as plainly as possible. With a work like this, you are experiencing comics, both in art and in writing, at an extraordinary level. I’m sorry but work at this level is not for hobbyists. And I strongly believe that work at this level needs to be acknowledged as often as possible. It’s not only that Mr. Rollins can draw at an exquisite level. That alone will get you only so far. And the same can be said for nicely-paced prose. What stands out is a level of dedication and professionalism that results in astonishingly honest work. You view an episode of Twilight Zone running on all four cylinders and you see exactly what I mean. No one who just happens to love comics is going to crank this out overnight. No, sir. It doesn’t work that way. Here is someone who wrote and drew and colored a significant and highly-polished graphic novel all by himself. It happens–but not quite as often as you might think. And not nearly as good as this book!
What I really enjoy about The Furnace is that Mr. Rollins seems to not give a fig about all the time and effort required to tell his tale. He just does it–and he makes it look so easy. As a cartoonist who both writes and draws, I can tell you that this is quite labor-intensive stuff, especially if you do it all by hand, the old-fashioned way. Based upon the endnotes, where Mr. Rollins shares his process, he did indeed do it all by hand. And here’s the irony. While it is devilishly hard work, if you stop and think about it too much, it can be a very satisfactory activity. You reach a point, towards the end of such a project, when your skills are at a well-oiled level, that you simply don’t want to stop. You actually want to do more and so, if you’re fortunate, you simply jump on to the next project.
Each character in this book is quite palpable, a true living and breathing entity. The key bone of contention is between two ambitious young men who find themselves at the precipice of a watershed moment with staggering consequences. Marc holds the key to what comes next and also has the power to stop it, if he were so inclined. Walton, while very capable in his own right, is stuck with being in Marc’s shadow. Walton is the guy that a genius goes to for some assistance, not for collaboration. Our story is told in various pieces looking back from the perspective of a middle-aged, and bitter, Walton. He tells this tale to himself and, oddly enough, in a sanitized form, to Clara, his six-year-old daughter. To add to the tension, Clara’s face and demeanor often resemble a much older girl or woman. It doesn’t help that Clara keeps pushing the envelope for her age. For example, she insists upon calling her father by his first name. Walton’s wife sees no problem with this as she declares, matter-of-factly, that Clara simply doesn’t see Walton as her father.
You reach a point in a work when you either ease up a bit or you dive deeper. Mr. Rollins takes each dive and goes deeper. Thankfully, he is a writer who relishes in well-placed, finely-articulated dialogue and action. And, as happens deep in the process of making a work of comics such as this, the level of writing somehow blends and interlaces with the artwork. Your characters might be pensive or caught in the throes of a crisis and, akin to the background in a painting, character and environment meld together. The skies take on an eerie neurotic energy which is accomplished with crosshatching and patterning above and beyond what would satisfy a typical panel or page. And, thus, a remarkable moment is experienced…followed by another and another.
I sort of want to skirt around the issue of the actual plot because I don’t want to give too much away. In some respects, this is as much a character-driven narrative as anything else. It has a lot to do with the great distance we can create between our fellow humans, a recurring theme on The Twilight Zone. And the storytelling has a lot to do with evoking a certain state of mind, an ongoing concern, for sure, on The Twilight Zone. The Rollins touch is there in every way possible, right down to arguably the best rendered ears in the business! Yep, that little sample above of a finely-rendered Rollins ear speaks volumes. I honestly believe that the complexity and beauty of this work ranks up there with such landmark work as Watchmen, albeit on a smaller scale.
It was indeed a pleasure for me to review another work by Prentis Rollins a while back. This was his magnificent guide to drawing comics, How to Draw Sci-Fi Utopias and Dystopias: Create the Futuristic Humans, Aliens, Robots, Vehicles, and Cities of Your Dreams and Nightmares, published by Monacelli Studio. In fact, the image above is a working drawing related to The Furnace. This particular image did not make it into the book but I thought it might make a nice treat to include here. Obviously, this book is a visual delight–and, without a doubt, a literary delight.
File this book under “Awesome Titles Near Level with Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.”