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.
They’re upstaged, though, by the arrival of Reagan, a loud, full-bodied woman who probably shouldn’t be wearing spandex or thongs but does so anyway. She also owns a a fairly distasteful porn shop in the middle of town. I think she was meant to be obnoxious, but Templar is filled with people who represent such unsavory ideologies that Reagan seems approachable by comparison. (And, I’ll be honest, Reagan does remind me of a dear friend of mine who is similarly proud in her boorishness.) However, in the strange world of Templar, Reagan surprisingly stands out.
Initially, Reagan acts as Virgil to Ben’s Dante and takes him on a whirlwind tour of the city. She also sits Ben down at a bar and explains some of the city’s strange nuances, like a whole culture of copy books. At about this point in the story, it struck me how much of Templar is all about dialogue. Spike is a fairly good artist, and she likes to cram plenty of little details in her panels that you don’t notice the first time around. (The bar, for example, allows the patrons to engage in pottery, and I hadn’t noticed that the cups themselves were crude clay sculptures.)
Spike, however, pays the same attention to her dialogue. The bar conversation happens over the span of 14 pages and boils down to two people just shooting the breeze. (And the conversation actually continues after they leave and meet with Reagan’s sensible friend, Scipio.) The dialogue isn’t trivial, and it actually succeeds in deepening the characters and the world of Templar while developing the comic’s own unique style.
That’s not to say that Spike’s dialogue can’t get downright impenetrable. Here’s a sampling of the prose from around the book:
Mr. Pierce: "I don’t consider your opinions worthy of recognition beyond that which my employer and yours force me to allow for. I may change my mind when you achieve a multisyllabic vocabulary, but I find myself quite skeptical of that. You give me the impression of an animal. A small pointless animal. Something like a shrew. In better times, you would have been fed to pigs. And I would have eaten those pigs."
Reagan: "Yeah, you like that, huh. Well, you got a real treat comin’, then. Cuz I gotta thunderhead going’ as it f***in’ well is. Gonna get so many pants pissed in this round ain’t nobody gonna bug you an’ yer old man till yer in grad school."
Tuesday: "No, you tell me. So in tune with the terrible suffering of the disenfranchised underclasses n’ all. Sh**, shouldn’t you be downstairs, blockin’ traffic with the rest of the socioeconomic avant-garde?"
Pippi: "So you gotta have stuff an’ look like sumthin’, an’ they make it so you need t’have it or you’re nuthin’! That’s what it’s like! And then y’get sad if y’don’t have it, but only cuz they tell ya t’want it! An’ it’s Sh**!"
In fact, around the end of Book One, I was ready to give up on Templar, Arizona. I admired its craftsmanship, yet, like classic opera, it seemed like something that I couldn’t put my heart into. It was just so … avant garde. Or, and this is going to be ironic, it mimics Ben’s own sentiments about classic novels: "It was trying to breathe glue. I’ve never felt more subliterate in my life." (By the way, I love Great Expectations. Screw you, Ben.)
Book Two, however, hooked me immediately. The book starts with a new character, Curio, having a phone argument that parallels Ben’s own experiences from the first book. This, I don’t care much for (except when revisiting all the things I missed, naturally). However, the true attraction is something that’s been missing in the first book: ACTION! I guess that makes me one of those poor blokes that driven by cheap, visual thrills. However, the sudden appearance of flying bottles and riot gear does two things: it highlights the ongoing conflicts embroiling within Templar, and it gives Ben something to do. One of the fugitives makes his way to Ben’s apartment, and Ben gets a crash course in diplomacy and evasion, while becoming an unwilling participant in Templar’s conflicts. But, hey, it gets him some decent street cred, so it’s all good.
But, best of all, Book Two starts to develop Scipio as a very likable character. The man is a gentle giant who seems to believe in freedom of expression, yet is frightened and shocked by a lot of the things that go on in Templar. He’s very right when he says that he’s "absolutely very normal." By interacting with his ward, Epiphany (or Pippi for short), we get one of the first inklings that the laissez-faire free-thinking culture of Templar may not be the best way to go. He’s a fairly plain-spoken guy, so his long conversation with Ben as they walk down the street actually made sense and didn’t require several re-readings. And then there’s Scipio’s rationale on why he watches the same movies over and over again, which pretty much mirrors my own obsession with MST3K DVDs.
Dammit, Scipio, you’re my homeboy.
However, the dense prose and artwork does a wonderful job adding to the general air of mystery. I guess you could say that there really is magic and wonder to be found in Templar, after all. (Yeah, I can’t believe I really typed out a line that cheesy, either.) One of my favorite early scenes is when Ben sees Pippi for the first time. Scipio and Reagan are deep in their own conversation, while Ben’s eyes are wandering. It takes a while for Pippi to spot Ben, but when she does, her face slowly transforms from lethargy to anger. It’s a scenario you can imagine playing out in real life. Spike, though, plays up on the everyday mysteries: Who’s Pippi? Why this sudden hatred for Ben, a guy she’s never met? We get some answers in Book Two, and even more answers in Book Three.
And yet … it’s such a trivial mystery. Surely, if it ever comes to play into the story at large, the events can surely only amount to a B-story, right? However, I think that Spike is throwing us a major clue, here. This is exactly how she plans unveil her main story, with small clues sprinkled here and there, mysteries being revealed only gradually, and things of small consequence turning out to be rather big deals.
The city of Templar is a big web, and even newcomers like Ben aren’t immune to becoming part of its machinations.
Templar, Arizona, can best be described as a comic of a black-and-white indie cult movie that was never made. There’s a sense that it’s well made. Yet it takes a lot of patience and a willingness to view multiple times to absorb the full effect of the story. It’s best read slowly, perhaps while hanging out at a coffee shop and listening to a soundtrack consisting mainly of Tori Amos, TV or the Radio, Björk, and The Smiths.
Templar‘s not for everyone. People looking for whimsy or goofy humor will definitely not enjoy it. It’s for people looking for though-provoking fare, and for people looking for a truly unique reading experience.