It's pretty miraculous that someone with such an alternative approach to mainstream comics like Sam Kieth experienced superstar artist success. Kieth made his name with the initial arc to Neil Gaiman's ground-breaking Sandman, and went on to become part of Image's second wave of creator-owned books with his The Maxx, providing the source material for a beloved animated cult hit on MTV. His work is distorted, scratchy, at times downright sloppy, but there's a consistency of worldview that is distinctly Sam Kieth's. His characters are appealingly lumpy in form but optimistic, and the combination is weirdly comforting, as if we're being reminded that it's perfectly okay to be living in our own weird skin. We're all little odd, misshapen creatures.
That humanity has earmarked some of his best work (I always preferred the underrated Friends of the Maxx spin-off to the more surreal Maxx series), and it's back in fine form in IDW's The Hollows. On paper, the book sounds like almost like zombie manga - in a future version of Japan, an ecological holocaust has left the "have-nots" of the world surviving against all odds from soul-sucking zombie hordes called the Hollows, while the "haves" routinely loot the survivors from floating cities high above in colossal trees. That's the setting, but two issues in and this book is really more about the human experience than zombie panic or dystopian future-worlds.
Craig Mayerik is the central character, an inventor from the upper world who forgoes the looter-style jetpacks for a home-made set of mechanical bat wings so that he can fly down to the surface for supplies to care for his family. He's so surprised to see people on the scorched-earth surface that he promptly crashes and learns there are folks who are content to call the surface home, despite the daily horrors of their lives. Mayerik is touched by these people, and frustrated that he can't do more to help them, which leads him to his second experiment and a return trip to the surface world (one that goes far worse than the first).
The Hollows evokes the same proud sense of people fighting for the place they know as home, despite miserable circumstances, as the film Beasts of the Southern Wild (though not as overtly referencing real-life Katrina refugees). Mayerik pities them, but there's complexity in the question of whether he should pity them or not. Is it guilt from living high above or is it real empathy? After two issues, these questions provide the actual hook of the series.
Kieth is working with writer Chris Ryall (Zombies Vs. Robots and EIC of IDW) and the two compliment each other nicely on the book. That manga-like log-line I mentioned earlier is nothing like the final version of the comic, which reveals that the two creators are working as one seamless unit to bring this particular, unusual vision to life. One wrong writer, one different artist, and The Hollows might have become just another sci-fi riff. Once you read it, it's exactly the kind of book that you can't imagine coming from anyone else.
If you're looking for another title like Saga - an off-beat, more personal touch to sci-fi fantasy - The Hollows should definitely be on your radar. Its fantasy trappings are stronger, almost whimsical and storybook-like, but there's the same sense of unpredictability to the universe that's being created here that I really responded to well. Kieth's smudgy artwork, taken on its own, looks almost unfinished at times during the first two issues, but it just proves even more that a comic can be much more than the sum of its parts. It's imperfect, but perfect for The Hollows.
(This review is for The Hollows #1-2. The first two issues are available now.)