It’s hard to lose the initial sense of darkness. Four black horizontal panels, then another four on the facing page. Then two black rectangles of equal size, then a full black splash. Five entire pages into Charles Fetherolf’s Giants in the Earth, and readers are yet to see a single drawing. Then, the act of turning the page, brings readers face to face with a double-spread explosion — a chaotic spray of white against the dark, flattened and radiating encircled by a thin ring expanding ever outwards. This is an act of creation, a beginning, a Big Bang. And it seems to have been summoned into existence by the tense and heavy emptiness of the five black pages. Fetherolf seems to give a credible visualization to what Frank Miller refers to as ‘the essential inner darkness’ of noir fiction. While not the story of political machinations as compromised character that is the bread-and-butter of ordinary noir, Fetherolf’s graphic novel is literally noir. Giants in the Earth, is a standalone self-published comic. A bravura performance that attempts to and largely succeeds at telling a wordless history of the universe and the planet Earth from the dawn of the world to the dawn of man. Milky gasses expand and condense in a void, forming into planetoids. Planetoids attract and collide; one will become the earth, and another will become the moon.
If you paid any attention in your high school biology class, you already know the rest of the story. Out of the smoldering magma and simmering nutrient bath single-celled organisms form. They eventually become membranous sea creatures, which in turn develop into amphibians and struggle tentatively onto dry land. Reproduction, consumption, mutation, and creation; evolution carries through its mindless, beautiful, myriad pathways, and we watch in silent contemplation. Fetherolf’s skill is perhaps rendering a narrative beauty to the scientific study of life on earth. Here is a vision of evolution that is valorized through articulate storytelling.
The concept and storytelling are ambitious and admirable enough, but what really sets Giants in the Earth apart from other experimental comics is the raw, simple elegance of Fetherolf’s art, his softness and grace of his inking, the richness he finds in simple, austere images. It is as if Fetherolf achieves a kind of truth in his work. His art is out of step with the times – there’s nothing hip or modern about it, none of Chris Ware’s sleek intricacy or the photorealistic high dudgeon of recent superhero books. His work most resembles the late John Buscema: elegant, almost athletic forms, carefully observed and detailed but always spare, never any unnecessary line or shade.
The stubbornly anachronistic nature of Fetherolf’s art (along with his generally unappealing and unrepresentative cover illustrations) might go some way towards explaining why his work hasn’t been met with wider acclaim, but this is a minor travesty. Something is lost when work of Fetherolf’s does not access the broader marketing and distribution of publishers like Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quaterly.
Fetherolf’s storytelling is masterful, with his use of time and space standing out his greatest gifts. Images haunt you. The ones that stick particularly are those that are the fraught, tense ones. It is with such images that a single moment is broken into uneasy slivers: the black tentacles of a menacing octopus wending hungrily and sinuously across a stretch of panels; dinosaurs looking up past the trees at incandescent meteors that arc gracefully down towards their Triassic paradise; a lightning crack that starts a forest fire, set above the haunted eyes of early man.
Giants in the Earth is alive, evolving, in constant motion. It is a seminal text illustrating clearly Will Eisner’s idea of encapsulation; that one panel encapsulates multiple moments in time. And more, it is everything that comics — and art in general — ought to be: a world in miniature.