This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
A prefatory note: I'm personally acquainted with Joshua Ray Stephens. I've also had professional dealings with him, which involved commissions for advertising design work during my time as a book editor in New York. That said, I'm approaching this review the same way I would any other, which is writing down my honest reactions to his book. I hope Joshua can forgive me. He is a nice guy.
The Moth or the Flame takes up the question of exploitive relationships, specifically, who is more at fault? Is it the exploiter, who simply follows his or her rapacious instincts? Or is it the exploited, who, in voluntary situations, sacrifices long-term well-being for short-term happiness? Stephens frames the issue with the story of a sugar-daddy relationship between his two main characters: the wealthy Tempest McGillicutty and a young woman named Tealeaf Rosewallow. Explicitly allegorical, it's a Faust parable at heart, and like most such stories, it's a cautionary tale. The moral is pat: the exploiter is contemptible and perhaps evil, but the exploited is responsible for her doom.
Stephens dresses up his narrative with a number of disparate elements, including absurdist satire, magic-realist surrealism, and children's-story fantasy trappings. However, he doesn't do much to dramatize it. The only dynamic literary aspect is the development of the principal metaphor, a giant black raindrop that signifies the climax of McGillicutty's masturbatory exploitation of others. The characterizations are shallow, with McGillicutty and Tealeaf existing more as ideas than personalities: he's aggressive and predatory, while she's a wide-eyed pleasure-seeker who lives only for the moment. In the most notable Faust story produced in comics, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's "Goodman Goes Playboy," the doomed hedonist gradually reveals the depths of his depravity through his interactions with others, including conflicts with jealous friends and his "angel's advocate" Goodman Beaver. But McGillicutty and Tealeaf never challenge each other, and in the instances where they're challenged by others, the scene is either extraneous (as in the office scene between Tealeaf and her friend Violet), or it didactically spells out things that one's already inferred. It's belaboring a point for McGillicutty to tell another character, "I am a hunter. For me this is the only way. We all have our role. You just fulfill yours and allow me to worry about mine." The story is so thinly realized that it often reads like an illustrated summary.
Stephens' visual treatment, though, is so extravagant that the book's narrative weaknesses almost seem beside the point. His style is extremely reminiscent of RAW alumnus Mark Beyer's. The draftsmanship is primitivist, with positive shapes and absented backgrounds obsessively rendered with their own unique patterning. Some may find his art more engaging than Beyer's. The characters are more fluidly drawn, and they're far more emotionally expressive. But Stephens' cartooning certainly resembles Beyer's in its overall effect: one is more compelled to appreciate the panels and pages as works of art in their own right than to treat them as components of a story. The lavish printing of The Moth or the Flame, which includes hardcover binding and signatures of different-colored paper, further promotes the feeling that the book is more of a monograph than a graphic novel.
I did have a great time looking at it, I must say.