In 2011, he gave us a glimpse of the strange and magnificent milieu of Missoula in his acclaimed novel Smashing Laptops. Earlier this year, he brought us a post-apocalyptic Christmas in the theatrical production of his original script Ringing Out. And now, Josh Wagner, the local scribe-of-all-trades, has re-released one of his coolest inventions of all time: Fiction Clemens. The graphic novel is a collection of three double-sized issues that have been released periodically over the last couple of years by Ape Entertainment. Now that it's bound in an all-in-one novel, you get the full effect. In Fiction Clemens, Wagner sends story seekers to a place neither they, nor typical frequenters of comic book shops, have ever gone before. To say that it defies description would be effectively understating the book's madcap brilliance.
The phrase "you've never seen anything like it" is tossed around so often these days that it's practically lost all meaning, but it actually applies here. In fact, many of the top comic book reviewers from respected sites like Newsarama and Ain't It Cool News struggled to classify this fun, visually arresting tale when the first issue hit stands in 2008. Comparisons were made to everything from The Wizard of Oz to the surreal work of writer/director Terry Gilliam. But, when viewed as one complete story, it becomes clear that Fiction Clemens is quite simply Fiction Clemens, a wholly original work with more imagination bursting from its vibrant, kaleidoscopic panels than most comic series can manage in their entire collective runs.
Critics and scholars often state that one of the strengths (and, in some cases, weaknesses) of the comic book medium lies with its potential for swift, economic storytelling, and Wagner wastes no time dropping readers into his bizarre and equally charming world. Readers are quickly introduced to the series' two idiosyncratic leads: the quiet, cryptic gunslinger Fiction Clemens and his chatty, perpetually intoxicated cohort Miss Dune Trixie, as the latter serendipitously saves Clemens from a grizzly death courtesy of the lovelorn, 'stache-twirling baddie Tiberius Kitchens.
Although they're able to thwart Kitchens's initial attack and escape thanks to the help of a stout, eye-prying driver and what appears to be his diction coach, Kitchens manages to track the unlikely duo thanks to the deep pockets of his toothpick tycoon father. Clemens and Trixie escape to the desert, where they encounter a tribe of reverse-aging oasis dwellers and must get their drag queen on if they are to avoid Kitchens and his not-so-merry band. And this is just part one! Clemens and Trixie soon become embroiled in an adventure that literally pits space against Western, as land grabs and alien abductions dovetail in a meta-fictional fashion that has become Wagner's trademark.
Wagner also manages to introduce readers to a dizzying array of quirky characters, clever concepts and converging plot threads in a way that recalls the dense, cerebral insanity of a Grant Morrison comic. The quick cut to a pair of dueling existential philosophers that occurs early in the tale and the surprising, hilarious conclusion to their story seems like something right out of the Scottish writer's seminal The Invisibles series. And the poetic, otherworldly twang-slang one might expect from characters inhabiting a world (or worlds) that deftly blends genres and styles is one of the book's many highlights. Clemens is also packed to the gills with laugh-out-loud moments. You won't be able to put it down without grinning like an idiot.
The pencil work in all three collected issues is handled by Wagner's Argentina-based collaborator J. Joiton. Originally hired to provide storyboards for the Fiction Clemens film that was scrapped in favor of the graphic novel approach, Joiton's rough, cartoony compositions look like a cross between the demented art of "Ren & Stimpy" creator John Kricfalusi and the gritty, opaque visuals found in Jhonen Vasquez's Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. There's also a dash of Coraline in there. Joiton's goofy, hyper-stylized designs mesh perfectly with Wagner's sprawling, gonzo narrative. These designs, coupled with some achingly beautiful coloring, all but guarantee that readers will struggle to take their eyes off each luscious page as they make their way through Clemens's mesmerizing journey.
As the story goes, the name "Fiction Clemens" came from a friend of Wagner's. Xian Olson challenged the writer to come up with a story based on the quixotic moniker back in 1997. The gambit seems to have paid off, and not just for Wagner but for anyone who's found comfort in the infinite possibilities that exist between panels on a printed page. Indeed, if the comic book industry is going to survive, it's going to need many more works of fiction like Fiction.