Chiaroscuro Vol. 1

By Troy Little
240 pages, black and white
Published by IDW Publishing

Back in 2000, I picked up a new comic called Chiaroscuro, self-published by its creator Troy Little. It showed a lot of potential, and for seven issues I read along faithfully. In mid-2003, like so many self-published books, it stopped appearing and I thought that was the end of Chiaroscuro. Now, it’s back as a beautiful hardcover collection from IDW, with promises of more to come. Reading through those comics again, I can’t help but think that Chiaroscuro is a prime example of an artist learning his craft while already on stage.

Steven Patch is an artist who finds himself daunted by the potential of what he could achieve. Instead he stares at an empty canvas in his living room, hangs out with his friend Jesse, mooches free coffee, and generally stays afraid of what may or may not happen if he ever really applies himself. Then a chance encounter sets in motion a different path for Steven—provided he’s willing to actually go down it.

Looking at the first and last pages of Chiaroscuro, it’s a little hard at times to believe that they’re actually by the same artist. Don’t get me wrong, those early pages of art from Little are good and they show a lot of potential. Little shows off a good eye for layout and form; little touches like the staggered, growing panels as Steven walks down the street, or the curlicues of smoke off of a cigarette are already apparent. It’s the later issues, though, that really show just what Little is capable of. Each page is carefully drawn, with gentle crosshatching that provides a great deal of depth and richness to the scene. Little’s skills at lettering get better and better with each page as well, until it’s part of the experience in its own right. It feels a lot like Dave Sim’s work on Cerebus, although to be honest I’ve always been surprised that more people haven’t been influenced by Sim’s incredibly strong skills in that arena. Add in Little’s mastery of white space and this ends up being a really impressive package.

Perhaps not coincidentally, as Little’s art improves, so does the story. What starts as a story about being creatively blocked and aimlessly meandering through life becomes so much more. (Coincidence? Certainly not.) Early events seem arbitrary, almost random, but I have to admit that I was impressed that so much of it came together by the end of Chiaroscuro. There’s still more than enough left unresolved that a second volume is necessary, but this is the kind of story where I felt satisfied with how much built on earlier pieces. Once Steven’s in the art show, you feel like the payoff is finally occurring, and it’s a strong mixture of humor and drama and strangeness that it ultimately becomes the pivotal scene of the book for me, one that everything else has revolved around to get to this point.

Hopefully a second volume of Chiaroscuro will show up sooner rather than later; Chiaroscuro was a book that I was sad to see go away some five years ago, and I’m not ready for another goodbye. With such a handsome hardcover on shelves now, let’s hope that others will feel the same way.

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