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Templar, Arizona, by Spike, reviewed by Larry "El Santo" Cruz

Late last year, my girlfriend and I took a nice roadtrip down the 101 to that City by the Bay, San Francisco. One of the many sights I wanted to see was Haight-Ashbury, the geographical flashpoint of the 1960's hippie movement. I was a little disappointed with what I saw. Haight-Ashbury was a rundown little ghetto frequented by people who may or may not be homeless. There were some colorful murals here and there, but nothing you couldn't see in some of the skeezier neighborhoods of Flint, Michigan. Haight-Ashbury was gritty, uncharacteristically quiet for a San Francisco district, and, most depressing of all, it failed to live up to the vibrant personality created by its own mythology.

What did I expect to see? Probably something like the town depicted in Templar, Arizona, a webcomic written and illustrated by Charlie "Spike" Trotman.

In 2006, Templar won the WCCA for Best Character Design. If there's any justice in the world, the character in question was, in fact, the city itself. The KC Green-illustrated presentation ceremony, though, seems to suggest that the award, represented by the main character Ben, went to the design of the human characters.  To cover my bases, Templar also won the 2006 WCCA for Character Writing and the 2007 Webcomic Idol. Spike herself won the Rising Star Award at the industry-wide Glyph Comic Awards in 2007.  [Editors note: Spike also won the 2008 WCCA for Character Writing]

But back to the whole "the city is a character" discussion. The fictional city of Templar, Arizona, looks like what would happen if the Burning Man festival permanently decamped somewhere in the middle of the Mojave desert. It's a city that looks like it's about the size of Ann Arbor or Madison. The cacti and adobe-style architecture remind us that this is the American Southwest. However, the residents are the main attraction. They don't look, talk, or act like people from a normal city or even the slightly more colorful denizens of a college town. They're bohemians, free spirits, radicals, philosophers, and activists, thrust together like a violent caricature of Haight-Ashbury in its heyday.

The first cover and the promotional ads, by the way, show Ben in a pair of glasses and a robe straight out of Harry Potter. A later cover shows a guy looking like a naked elf. I'll give you fair warning right now: Templar, despite bearing a name evocative of knights and Crusades, has nothing to do with magic. Not the supernatural, mystical, or paranormal sort, anyway.

I wasn't particularly impressed by some of Spike's large set pieces, like a gigantic statue of Jimmy Carter cradling a bowl of peanuts, or a large sign featuring a naked, decapitated woman (link NSFW). while they added a bit to the bohemian nature to the city, I felt Spike was trying too hard to make us gape in wonder and mimic Ben's own stupefied reactions. However, I do wonder if these piece were inspired by the odd sculptures around my hometown, which include a 16-foot tall statue of Lenin seemingly walking out of a Taco Del Mar and a statue of a troll under a bridge crushing a VW Bug. It might make me sound like a nativist, but Seattle does play a significant role in the story.

I was, though, more impressed by the various factions and divisions of Templar, who, to put it succinctly, are all oddballs. Some don wicker masks. Others dress in period wear while munching down on what looks like fried squirrel. Others wear goggles, welding masks, and jackets festooned with badges that look like cogs. Another group of people shave their heads in an esoteric ritual. It's never truly clear why these factions exist or why certain groups are antagonistic toward each other. The further Spike explores them --- and she goes rather indepth in the interludes --- the more confusing it seems.

This is probably by design, though: Templar is not the sort of city a newcomer can understand in a short span. We see Templar through the eyes of Ben, a ,twentysomething writer who has recently arrived from Yakima, Washington. Beyond his resemblance to Dumbledore's star pupil, he also bears several characters similar to heroes of science fiction and fantasy novels: he's meek, somewhat naive, somewhat bland, and very simple. A regular Luke Skywalker type, this one. And like his counterparts, he represents the ideal sort of character when exploring the nuances of an otherworldly environment. He's the sort of person who lets things happen to him.

Soon after the story begins (where we initially see him arguing with his unseen, bombastic employer over the phone), we are introduced to several of the other characters. Gene, a mellow yet mentally affected guy, shows up to pick up his daughter, the precocious and innocent Zora.