Within the comics community, Flight is something special. It’s the equivalent of the undeniable classic album or brilliant film. It’s something that draws from all corners of the medium and unites some of the best talents of each in one place, and it’s adored both critically and by comics audiences. And its gradual accrual of fame and respect has almost made the anthology series eclipse the material that it compiles.

Flight is a collaborative project at its very core, the product of a plan formulated by anthology curator Kazu Kibuishi to find a collected showcase of the talents that he’s encountered in the world of artistic illustration, particularly in those artists using the Internet to display their works. Many of these artists were working under the broad umbrella label of webcomic artists, using their artistic skills to tell stories and creating websites devoted to sharing these works.

While webcomics have always tended to band together in mutually supportive online communities, unlike larger collectives such as Keenspot that were intended to mutually promote a large number of artists online, Kibuishi’s idea was to invite friends and other strong talents to gather their work back in the print realm. Though the webcomics community sometimes has a contentious relationship with the print comics world, the lure of books is always strong.

Having sold the idea to Erik Larsen of Image Comics, Kibuishi and his collective of artists released the first volume of Flight in the summer of 2004, and it was an instant success. A collection of unrelated short stories, Flight had no central plot, no central cast of characters, and no superheroic or comedic bottom line. Instead, Flight Volume 1 featured 23 short stories, some with a suggestive “To Be Continued…” at the end of their panels, but most self-contained and focused on a single idea.

In that sense, Flight immediately touched on the comics-as-literature argument, and made a strong case for it. The stories were generally fantastical, but ranged in emotion from heartbreaking to grandly celebratory, and all featured beautiful artwork printed in lush color. And it was immediately praised by book critics, comics fans, and in comic book stores and on the Internet.

Today, Flight is recognized as one of the elite publications in the comics field, earning consistent awards and nominations for both the anthology and the artists and stories featured in its pages. However, focusing on the anthology itself is not truly the point of the publication.

As Kibuishi explains in the series’ online FAQ: “My goal was never to work to create a great anthology. I only created the anthology to house great stories. The creation of the ‘institution’ is a distant second to the creation of great work.” This explanation is given to discourage people from trying to actively get their work included in forthcoming editions, for Flight is an invitation-only community, whose mission is to draw attention to people already working at the top of their game, but it says a lot about Flight‘s goals and the level on which it should be judged a success.

So, what do we get with Flight Volume 4? Exactly what we’ve come to expect: continued excellence in graphic illustration and story-telling. Volume 4 is 25 stories and 338 pages of amazing color and an astounding variety of technique. Kibuishi’s own cover illustrations continue to be an immediate highlight, with Volume 4‘s painting “Passing Ships” — a depiction of elegant flying whales with cities on their backs bursting through clouds — possibly the most arresting so far (click here to view a large version of the spread). These covers, at once beautiful, serene, and surreal, have become a perfect, ahem, illustration of what’s inside.

This edition begins with Michel Gagn√©’s continuing “The Saga of Rex” storyline, which has had its chapters serialized in the previous volumes of Flight. The adventures of a fox-like creature with a cartoonishly cute face and a penchant for curiosity and exploration, this wordless series is a favorite among Flight readers, as the art pulls you quickly into alien landscapes and rich color, telling a story completely visually and with an inherent charm. It makes for a perfect introduction to the kind of reading you do with volumes of Flight, where the ability to use image and framing as storytelling devices are crucial, and the ability to read detail and intent into each panel is a necessity.

From there it’s a wild ride through various scenarios and lessons. Amy Kim Ganter’s “Food from the Sea” is a strange fable about competition and consumption that warns against greed with a surprising twist. In “Cyclops!”, Israel Sanchez uses a seemingly simple illustration style to tell a nearly wordless but complex story about differences in perception. Kibuishis’s own contribution, “The Window Makers”, is a beautifully illustrated tale of self-doubt and self-discovery. “Igloo-Head and Tree-Head” by Scott Campbell (up for an Ignatz Award for this story) uses dude-speak and social exchange to talk about questions of identity. Both “Dinosaur Egg” by Raina Telgemeir and “Mystical Monkey” by Ryan Estrada contain themes of not letting unrealistic expectations overwhelm your appreciation for what you already have.

It’s not a surprise that many of these illustrators have worked in children’s literature, and there’s certainly a moral to many of these tales, plus a sense that they could easily work as kids’ stories, but there’s an adult intelligence behind everything presented here. Where wonderment is present, there is also a request that readers think deeply about what they’re seeing. These are more like bedtime stories for grown ups, especially in the case of Dave Roman’s insomnia lament, “It’s Dangerous to Sleep”.

But not everything is so cut and dry, nor uplifting. A few of these stories are abstract and open-ended, such as the almost scary but beautiful “Twenty-four Hours” by Andrea Offerman. Others, like Sara Mensinga’s “The Forever Box” and Neil Babra’s “The Blue Guitar”, are steeped in the sadness of loss. Lark Pien’s “The Story of Binny”, about a woman who helps a demanding and self-centered talking binturong escape from a zoo and return home to Malaysia, aches with the solitude of loneliness, only to end on a note of abandonment. Pascal Campion’s “The Storm” might be the visuals to an emo song.

Regardless of content, each of the stories is beautifully rendered and painstakingly reproduced in the publication. If you’ve never opened up an annual guide to professional illustrators, it’s hard to truly convey the range of art that’s currently out there in the world, but Flight has always managed to capture some fraction of that in its pages. And a large part of what makes Flight popular as a publication in its own right is how well-made these books are, with heavy covers and thick, vibrant pages that really make all of the art sparkle.

Yet it’s easy to lose track of the individuals behind the works as you turn the page to the next adventure. It seems criminal to try and isolate favorites, because it’s such a diverse collection, each piece with different aims and styles of storytelling, that it’s a shame to leave anyone out. Instead, Flight gives you the sense that there are many great storytellers out there, working away at this very moment, swapping ideas and feedback on the Flight forums and elsewhere.

If you need an example of the continued relevance of comics as a medium, there’s Flight. If you want to discuss comics and their place in literature, there’s Flight. If you want to see what’s happening in the contemporary world of art and illustration, there’s Flight. These artists have each added to the visual storytelling arena in spectacular fashion, while Flight itself has helped enrich the place that graphic novels have established in bridging the gap between comics and books.

RATING 8 / 10