Since the independent market came to prominence in the 1980s, comics readers have grown used to the idea that, sooner or later, somehow or other, most stories will be completed in something like the form that their creator envisioned. Breaking the link to mainstream, own-all-the-rights, mass market publishers enabled creators to hew more closely to the idea that first inspired them, and to proceed with sales far lower than those that DC or Marvel would have countenanced, but which could still sustain them because they took a far greater share of the income.
That hasn’t always been the case, and there are still stories that disappear, never to be concluded.
Take the example of Journey, written and drawn by Bill Messner-Loebs, and sub-titled ‘The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire’.
Journey, and MacAlistaire made their debut as a back-up two part story in Cerebus in that period when Dave Sim was flirting with the idea of helping independent creators to improve their visibility by contributing to a successful, noticeable title. Loebs had already seen the benefit of this policy, contributing a five part tale, ‘Welcome to Hell, Dr Franklin’, a fantasy centred upon Ben Franklin. Sim and his wife Deni were impressed enough to offer to publish Loebs for a six-issue mini-series, and the two-parter was designed as a lead into that, introducing Josh ‘Wolverine’ MacAlistaire.
The setting was the frontier, the time somewhere around 1810. MacAlistaire was a fur trapper, out on his own, living off the wild, unsuited to civilization and to more than occasional human contact.
What Loebs was capable of was established on the very first page. MacAlistaire, a lone figure silhouetted against the sky of a grassland dotted by intermittent trees. Birds pour into the sky. He walks towards a stand of trees, the narrative captions slowly setting the time, the place, the pace. It’s the laconic words of a frontiersman, telling tales around a fire, years later. It ends with the words: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin… that was where the Frontier commenced back then… the old Northwestern Territories… No Civilization…No farms… Hardly any Indians… just trees and skies and considerable silence.
I can’t speak for you but that was – is – enough for me. I’m taken there, secure that I’m in the hands of someone who, like the once-legendary, but now near-forgotten trapper himself, knows where he is.
What followed that first page was an astonishingly powerful 14 page sequence that, in an era when the X-Men, under Claremont and Byrne, was the standard to which all aspired, demonstrated that the stakes did not need to be universe-threatening to be extremely intense and powerful.
Simply put, MacAlistaire disturbed and fled from a bear, exhausting himself in a fruitless attempt to escape until the bear finally got bored and turned back.
The sequence began with a bravura pair of pages in which Loebs manipulated the possibilities of comics without ever varying from a static, rigid grid and camera angle.
Both pages are identical: the ‘camera’ is set at ground level, two hundred yards or so from the stand of trees MacAlistaire was approaching. On the left hand page, the laconic dialogue, the campfire voice continues to set the scene, out there where a man has only himself to rely upon. The first two panels are empty of movement, only the narrator metaphorically settling himself down.
But in the third panel, MacAlistaire bursts from the trees, running at full pelt, his pack bouncing. He’s clearly terrified, which grows as he nears the camera, the sixth and final panel focussing on his moccasin as he passes the ‘camera’.
On the second page, we learn why MacAlistaire is running, as the bear emerges from the woods, in pursuit. But without moving the ‘camera’ an inch, Loebs emphasises the relative speeds for pursued and pursuer: the bear does not appear until the third panel of six, and by the fifth, his paw is almost blocking the camera’s view: the sixth panel is empty of everything but the prairie and the trees, and the narrator’s little joke.
It’s not until the second chapter that we get to the point of the mini-series, the MacGuffin. MacAlistaire encounters a pair of French trappers, one of whom is carrying a parcel to be delivered to a settlement the other side of Lake Superior, and agrees to carry it in return for a trade of (decidedly inferior) goods.
In the end, it would take until issue 22 and a change of publishers to deliver the parcel to New Hope. Indeed, from the very earliest of stages, it didn’t look at all possible for Loebs to get MacAlistaire to his destination in anything remotely like six issues, as his journey would take him through a series of encounters with the wierd, the wild and the strange in that empty, unimaginable land. The series became open-ended, to the delight of its readers who were having too good a time to want this to stop any time. The journey was too much fun.
As for Loebs’ art, it was obvious from the first cursory glance that he had seen Will Eisner draw before. Indeed, to begin with it was impossible to see beyond the extraordinary similarity of line work. But Eisner was an artist of the city and the streets, and Loebs was an artist of the wilds, and though his drawing was superficially close, his choice of angles, his sense of pacing was his own, and the longer the series persisted, the less Loebs looked like Eisner-manque, and the more he looked like Loebs-prime.
I mentioned earlier a change of publishers: without warning, Journey 15 appeared published by Fantagraphics instead of Aardvark-Vanaheim. The circumstances behind the switch have never been disclosed, but the hints dropped in interviews and exchanges between Sim and Fantgraphics Publisher Gary Groth paint an image of a total breakdown in the creator/publisher relationship with Loebs and the Sims, with the former apparently turning up at the printers and demanding all his artwork. There were also stories of Dave Sim shouting threats to kill Loebs in the background of a telephone conversation between Groth and Deni Sim that Sim later passed off as humour.
Either way, Fantagraphics took over. There was little change, except in the publisher’s logo, though after two issues on the standard newsprint AV used, the stock was upgraded to a whiter, sturdier paper.
Eventually, after all the diversions, after the long digressions to Fort Miami, facing attack by Indians, MacAlistaire arrived at New Hope, accompanied by the acerbic, self-superior poet, Elmer Alyn Craft (whom many have chosen to see as a stinging satire on Groth himself: though Kraft was introduced long before the move to Fantagraphics, the parallels are easy to see).
What the pair found there was a community sinking under the weight of old sins and hypocrisies. The parcel turned out to be a Bible, delivered to Elinor, who had briefly been a lover of Kraft. But there were undercurrents associated with the death of Elinor’s late Reverend husband that slowly unpeeled over an intense winter until everything was laid bare to be seen, and the community given a chance to survive, free of its secrets.
Which was the cue for Kraft to stay and MacAlistaire to move on. The series ended with issue 27 and whilst it is mostly forgotten now, it is still a masterpiece.
In what way then is Journey Uncompleted? It was always a picaresque series, dependant upon movement from setting to setting. MacAlistaire was never a man to be comfortable in staying in one place for very long. There would always be more to tell, in the same way that no superhero comic really ends. And his past lay behind him, though close to the surface: nightmares about the Dark Man, a continually shifting series of claims about what his father did, occasional glimpses of what Ol’ Josh had seen and done, all contributing but never explaining the need to move on, the desire for silence, the fear of living over his own grave.
That was, however, the intention. Despite everything Fantagraphics had done, Journey still did not sell in enough numbers to sustain itself as an ongoing project. Loebs had made enough of a splash with it that he had begun scripting series for DC: The Flash, Dr Fate. Scripting only: there was no way his art would ever be considered appropriate for mainstream comics.
But he and Fantagraphics had no wish to abandon Journey. Thus it was announced that the series would continue, but as successive limited series, the first of which was to be Wardrums, a six issue series in which MacAlistaire became involved in the war of 1812 between America and the British.
What’s more, Wardrums would be printed in sepia, to reflect its olde worlde nature.
So the series began, though a wonderful tale of MacAlistaire’s encounter with a very territorial beaver had nothing to do with the war of 1812. That would undoubtedly be a part of issue 2.
But issue 2 never appeared. Or rather it did not appear for three years, a fact humorously recognised in its indicia by Loebs. It came out without fanfare, without any being aware, in black and white, the sepia promise forgotten. At a later date, I read reference to the art for issue 3 being destroyed in a housefire. It took me until 2014 to locate a copy of Wardrums 2, to complete what there was of MacAlistaire’s adventures, even though there was no point, no earthly prospect of the series, the story ever coming near to completion.
So far as I am aware, Loebs only drew two more comics, two issues of a new series titled Bliss Alley, published by Image in 1997, centring upon a street tramp with hallucinations, named Wizard Walker. It was the most untypical thing Image ever published and I seized greedily upon it whilst expecting it not to last: there was never a third.
Loebs and his wife Nadine fell on hard times in the 2000s, forced to live in a homeless shelter. As long ago as the 1980s, I was openly stating that we fans of Journey needed to find a rich patron who would settle a private income on Loebs so that he could write and draw Journey forever. But millionaires tend to back the wrong things.
Because of Wardrums, Journey is technically and emotionally incomplete. It would always have felt like that, even if that 27 issues series had been the whole of it, because of its nature. It was a journey, and it would not be finished until Wolverine MacAlistaire reached the end of his trail. We walked beside him for far too short a time for it ever to feel complete.
Bill Loebs – life shits on those who least deserve it