Project: Romantic

Edited by Chris Pitzer
256 pages, color
Published by AdHouse Books

Themed anthologies are a tricky proposition. First, you’ve got to have a theme that readers will find interesting enough to want to read. Next, it needs to inspire creators without constricting them so much as to make it unworkable. Last but not least, it needs to avoid being one-note, with the same basic idea getting retreaded by every story in the collection. I think all of that is why AdHouse Books’s Project: Romantic is one of my favorite anthologies to come out in a long while; it avoids all of the pitfalls associated with themed anthologies while hitting numerous highs.

Listing the high points of Project: Romantic and its love-themed stories could theoretically take all day; the number of highs that show up in this volume’s thirty-three stories is really remarkable. The book opens (after a brief and interesting essay on the history of romance comics) with Debbie Huey’s “Jumped” which features adorably drawn ninjas fighting each other. Cute ninjas? Perhaps not what you were expecting, but it not only works, but it sets the tone for the rest of the book to come. With each new story, the imagination continues to flow. Perhaps an old-school EC Comics styled supernatural avenger helping the lovelorn? A boyfriend who transformed into a bear? A woman addicted to the eroticness of flatulence? Vampires dreaming of true love? Obsessions with baseball? The possibilities are quickly proven to be endless here, and each new iteration is a surprise.

A handful of stories manage to stand out above the rest, though, as the real gems of the collection. Aaron Renier’s “Reflectors & Rutabagas” has a beautifully realized setting for the reader to discover, with unusually tall-yet-elegant bicycles moving gracefully through a world with elaborate rooftop gardens. The backdrop of the story itself is as much a love story as the two characters who meet while dumpster-diving for compost. Renier’s mix of colors amidst his designs is a visual burst of energy that can’t help but inspire and enthrall. Kelly Alder’s “In & Out” is conversely drawn with just pencil on a tan background, but his rough pencil style really brings to life his wonderfully twisted take on dominant personalities in relationships. Rian Hughes’s “iGirl” manages with no dialogue and only three splash illustrations to bring an entire relationship to life—and looks so amazingly stylish that it will make you wish once again that Hughes did more work in comic books.

Maris Wicks’s “Adventure Love Story” is drawn simply, two iconic shapes that go through a choose-your-own-adventure love story scattered throughout pages of the book. At a glance the idea might come across as irritating, but Wicks keeps too many branches from occurring as to not let the reader get frustrated, and the eventual pay-offs with the different happy endings (provided you don’t decide to bring crocodiles into the mix—almost never a way to end up with anyone but the hungry reptile smiling) are well worth the flipping back and forth through the pages as you make decisions on what will happen next. Interestingly enough, the two other contributions that are scattered throughout the book are also some of the strongest pieces on the book. Josh Cotter’s four “Kingdom Animalia, Illustrated” with different species romance are all funny, although even then there’s a nice punch waiting at the end of the final piece that says more about relationships in a one-page gag strip than some people can do in a dozen pages. Joel Priddy’s “Sweetie ‘n Me” involving a evil megalomaniac and the love of his life are also infused with humor, but there’s a genuinely sweet nature throughout them that is actually the real high point of the stories; the relationship is the selling point, not the jokes about evil and desert island lairs.

Editor Chris Pitzer mentions in the book’s indicia that this is the third and final themed anthology in the “Project” series from AdHouse Books. As enjoyable as Project: Telstar and Project: Superior were, Pitzer and his contributors have clearly saved the best for last. It’s always best to end on a high note, but after a book as artistically successful as Project: Romantic with not a dud in the bunch, it’s a little sad to see that we won’t get a fourth “Project” book for 2007. Still, we can always hope, right? The idea of another book waiting around the corner waiting for us is almost romantic, after all, and if there’s one thing you’ll learn from this book it’s that you can always hope for the best. In the case of Project: Romantic, the best is exactly what you’re getting. Highly recommended.

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