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"Spontaneous" Presents A Burning Enigma Wrapped in a Conundrum

Michael D. Stewart
When Intuition Burns: While Spontaneous attempts the flamboyant in investigating an unexplained phenomenon the drama remains grounded in the reality of human interaction.

Spontaneous rekindles interest in the mystery-horror genre grounded in human experience not unlike Fringe or The X-Files. In this book, lead character Melvin watched his father combust spontaneously, a tragedy that has driven him to solve the mystery that causes these sudden human burnings to happen.

Spontaneous #1-#2

Publisher: Oni Press
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Joe Harris, Brett Weldele
Price: $3.99
Publication Date: 2011-09

Last May on Free Comic Book Day, Oni Press gave away the entire first issue of its new mini-series Spontaneous. As they had done with The Sixth Gun the previous year, Oni’s hope was to stir interest in the new title. It was another brilliant marketing move. Nothing warms an audience like free. Now issues one and two are out: could the follow-up sustain whatever momentum the Free Comic Book Day issue gained?

The comparison between The Sixth Gun and Spontaneous ends there, as the two books couldn’t be fundamentally more different. The Sixth Gun is a rip roaring Western-Horror adventure; Spontaneous is a character-driven mystery, really an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. It’s the type of book that calls to mind TV shows like The X-Files, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Scooby-Doo, with the sensibilities of an indie movie. It’s a shock to the system both figuratively and literally.

Spontaneous takes its name from its central premise: spontaneous combustion, a mystery to science and medicine. Of the 200 documented cases over the last several centuries, none have been reliably investigated. This leaves an ideal plot for the works of horror, science fiction and mystery authors. The phenomenon is both thought-provoking and baffling, as to stretch the bounds of imagination yet be grounded in the inexplicableness of human experience.

Melvin watched his father combust spontaneously, a tragedy that has driven him to solve the mystery that causes these sudden human burnings to happen. While looking into one such event at a suburban shopping mall, he’s joined by quirky and intrepid “investigative reporter at large” Emily. She thrusts herself into his world, certain her nose knows a “hot” story when she smells it.

While there is a strong somber tone to the title, the pairing of Melvin and Emily provide a measured amount of witty banter as to lighten the dark mood. It’s a Mulder and Scully-esque relationship even early on, as one believes and the other wants to believe. And like that odd couple, there’s a rhythm to their dialogue, a rhythm so strong you feel its pace and timing. It’s a strong element that has to be present for a character-driven story. But it also must show diversity as to be unique to the individual characters. Writer Joe Harris certainly achieves that in these two initial installments, first establishing a rapport and then sending them off in different investigative directions.

That’s the difference between issues one and two: first issue establishes the premise and personalities; issue two takes those personalities and stretches them to their foreseeable boundaries.

For the other comic component, artist Brett Weldele works in an angular, monochromatic style that adds to the weirdness of Emily, Melvin and their surroundings. He uses loose inks with watercolors to give a washed out, indie feel. This takes what could be a larger than life plot and imbues with an indie film drama style. It’s a trick that puts readers on edge as it creates an eeriness that is nearly otherworldly. Weldele also incorporates striking points of light to his panels that work to create a threatening feel, something that works like the narrative structure and dialogue to preserve the somberness and weirdness without going over the top dramatic.

The eeriness, weirdness and somberness of its tone work as a reflection of the characters, art and execution. They are evenly balanced, creating an atmosphere that begs for re-reading. Harris and Weldele have created the comics version of an indie film version of a summer blockbuster. Follow me?

The high concept is taken from the vapid emptiness of mass produced storytelling and given prominence in a stylish package that never shoots beyond it bounds. It’s centered and balanced on the characters and artwork that match the expectations of readers as they go through the story. Spontaneous doesn’t exceed expectations, but it certainly delivers on its promise.

The momentum from issue one to issue two is certainly strong, but there is definitely a loss of impetus as the time between issues was over two months – a July release of issue two was delayed even further by printing hiccups. This is unfortunate, but hopefully the book is able to find its audience. It’s early in its short run, but by all indications, Oni Press has another indie hit on their hands. Not only does this make for an exciting conclusion to this story, but also gives a certain amount of hope for next May and Oni’s next Free Comic Book Day offering.


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