Review: Xenoglyphs

Xenoglyphs by Omar Spahi (w), PJ Catacutan (art), & Steve Wands (l)

Full disclosure: some time ago, I was contacted via Twitter by the author asking if I would review Xenoglyphs. I’ll be giving a plot synopsis and commentary along the way.

This 22-page comic book is published by the writer (and self-proclaimed toy and publishing company owner) and is available through the Xenoglyphs website for $3.99 (however, you’ll notice the promo cover shows the price is $2.99; also, I like the self-promotional text below the barcode), plus, you can get all three issues that have been released for $9.99.

The story starts off with the bad guy showing us just how bad ass he is, but I did enjoy the brevity of the scene (though the poor minion may disagree). We are given just enough of the story before we switch scenes and characters.

Next we are introduced to the protagonists, Dom and Steven, who banter nonchalantly (almost like characters from a buddy cop film) about a riot in front of the Museum of Cairo as they enter the establishment. Huh? As a storyteller, you don’t want to get too bogged down in some details, but if you have people rioting (or nearly so), there’s more to the setting than the main characters just walking through the throng of people. Once inside, they talk at first in hushed tones about their needing to blend in to gather intelligence, but in the very next panel that pretense is abandoned because, apparently, we all have seen in television and film that background characters conveniently do not pay attention to what the main characters are talking about. Regardless, Dom and Steven continue to fill us in on their plan to steal a key to open the door that contains the xenoglyph. Once again we get a reference to “the” xenoglyph as if it is the only one, yet in a few pages we are told there are nine total. Granted, both the bad guy and our protagonists are referring to a specific xenoglyph, but until we get to the backstory, I took the reference at face value, Yes, I’ve entered the realm of the ultra-nitpicky, but it was a detail that grated on me.

The following page steers us to a not at all subtle introduction of a character that will undoubtedly reappear in a later issue and gives us a bit of exposition about something referred to as a sword, but looks very similar to the key that Steven mentioned earlier, yet the composition of the scene suggests that these two items are not the same, but again, why do they then look the same?

When Steven and Dom leave the museum, they see a young boy who is taking pictures of the rioters get hit by a rock. This prompts Steven to demonstrate some healing powers generated from what Dom refers to later as a magic rock, but is one of the nine xenoglyphs. After the healing, the rioters, as they so often do apparently, decide to attack the Americans for just being Americans I guess–though Dom and Steven passed by the rioters when they were about to enter the museum, and we’re shown many tourists inside the museum, so huh? After escaping to their hotel from the rioters, and Steven has received his staff from hotel security, he encounters some groan-inducing dialog. A blonde dressed as a summer school coed tells him, “My, what a big stick you have.” Oy. When Steven comments on her manner of dress, she replies, “I’m from South Dakota in the U.S. of A, this is the only way I know how to dress.” Ugh. But maybe this over the top mannerism is part of this woman’s personality and will be carried over in future issues, or maybe that’s her cover and she turns out to be some sort of spy or something (why am I trying to excuse this dialog?)….

Next we get several pages of exposition about the xenoglyphs, which I actually liked, and concludes with a denial by Steven that he’s the Chosen One, which of course means that he must be, though we don’t get that revelation in this issue. Finally, the dudes break into the museum only to find that someone beat them to stealing the key. Set up for issue two….

As to the art, I kind of liked it, but it is in no way what I would consider “polished” or ready for prime time, but that may be why I liked it–it was a bit different and rough. The Xenoglyphs website says that “Filipino penciller, inker, and colorist, PJ Catacutan, has worked in the fields of art, design, advertising, and comic books since he was a boy. Although he has no formal training in art, he is one artist to watch out for”. The lack of formal training shows, I think, but I appreciate the effort. I found myself wondering what medium Mr. Catacutan used for this issue, because there are times the art looks almost modeled (I’m thinking of the reveal of the Master), similar to Colton Worley’s work on The Spider, or most often when it has a colored pencil look to it. Or maybe it’s all done in Photoshop (this is where my not being an artist is a disadvantage)? What I don’t care for is the inconsistency. Some characters (especially faces), are drawn nicely, while others look anatomically incorrect (arms and hands in particular, and forehead shapes shouldn’t change), especially panel to panel or scene to scene. Still, the characters are recognizable throughout. The best work in the book, though, is in the pages about the history of the xenoglyphs. Catacutan’s design/advertising experience (I’m guessing) shows here, and reminds me a bit of Frazer Irving’s background work. Also, there were a couple of panels in the issue that from a storytelling standpoint were totally unnecessary, and seemed to exist just to fill up the page. Finally, I did like how Catacutan varied the angles of his panel shots, and perhaps is another reason I sort of liked his work.

Overall, while I did enjoy the premise and would be interested in something like this, the execution leaves much to be desired, both in writing and art (the most professional quality thing about this comic is the Steve Wands lettering). Plus, the cost of $3.99 an issue is too much for what I’m getting from this comic book. I rate Xenoglyphs 1.5 out of 5, but if you’re looking for something new and a bit rough around the edges, perhaps Xenoglyphs is for you.

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