I love reading comic books, but if I’m being completely honest with you — and I like to think we’ve reached that point by now — some days it’s harder for me to really decompress from all my other drama and just enjoy a good story. There have been a few points over the years where I’ve become so obsessed with pursuing the next big crossover or Kickstarter campaign or redesigned hardcover edition that I forget to actually read the books I’m buying. Inevitably, those are the moments when I hit “burnout”; when I can no longer distinguish the books that are actually good from the ones I’ve bought simply out of habit, and so I give up on all of them entirely.
Usually it’s a couple weeks before I’m finally cognizant enough to step back and realize what I’m doing to myself, and by then it can be difficult to remember why I ever loved reading these silly stories in the first place. Fortunately, there are a few comics I can always rely on to rekindle the fire in me. Today I’ll be taking some time to briefly talk/gush about one of them.
I discovered this book in 2013, back when I was just getting out of my last major burnout but still not quite ready to get back into superheroes just yet. Don’t get me wrong, I love the “flights and tights” crowd, but sometimes you need to give something a little space before you can start to really appreciate it again. Anyway, long story short, that’s when I stumbled across a bright little comic called BUZZ!
The story, brilliantly crafted by artist Tess Stone and writer Ananth Hirsh*, is centered around a group of characters trying to unravel a giant conspiracy revolving around a national spelling bee. You see in the world of BUZZ!, competitive spelling isn’t just a fun little competition flying under the radar; it is a global phenomenon that has become part of the cultural landscape, and it is being shaped by some very nefarious characters at the top of the spelling hierarchy. Without getting into too many of the twists and turns, BUZZ! is an incredibly clever and enjoyable romp of a story with some wonderfully bizarre characters and a surprisingly insightful look at the power and history of language itself.
This is all wonderful of course, and if this was simply a fun little story about a group of underdogs trying to beat the odds set in the middle of a big sports competition I would…probably still like it? It’s definitely an entertaining little yarn, but to be frank there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of stories that follow this basic format. Granted, a story about an over-the-top spelling competition might still work as a movie or an animated feature, I believe the comic book format actually elevates the material into something greater.
One of my favorite little tricks that writer Ananth Hirsh employs during the competitive portions of the book is when the official gives the contestants their words to spell. Now in this case they could have simply written out the same word for the official and the contestants, but you’ll notice if you look at the picture above that the official’s dialogue is “spoken” phonetically. Not only is this a really clever way to differentiate the two and add some extra flavor to the dialogue, but it also encourages the reader to sound out the word in their heads. This effectively puts the reader in the same position as the contestants and draws them even further into the story.
Playing around with phonetic spelling isn’t the only tool in the storytelling team’s arsenal of course; there are all sorts of smaller instances where Hirsh gets to play around with the idea of language. He gets to make silly names for sinister organizations like “The Spelluminati” or “The Vo-Cabal-Lary”. At one point a character reads off their name to a friend, and they can literally point out the incorrect spelling in their friend’s word balloon. It reminds me of a more post-modern, Deadpool style comic in it’s willingness to play with it’s own format, which is always interesting to see. I’m somewhere between impressed and outright jealous at how the storytellers managed to balance the tone between all-out parody while still coming off as charmingly sincere.
Still, comic books are just as much about the art as they are about the words, and BUZZ! is a perfect case study for how one can bring out the best in the other. See, the thing that we often take for granted about language, particularly our alphabet, is that every letter is in and of itself a picture. Tess Stone takes that very simple idea and cranks it up to eleven here, showcasing the spelling and conversations in dozens of unique ways.
In much the same way a Green Lantern uses their ring to create whatever they can imagine, here the contestants speak the words into being as solid objects with real weight and depth to them. Some words take the form of swords or shields, sometimes they can be animals or rocket ships, and sometimes they can be broken apart and just lobbed at the other contestants like bullets. The words can be twisted and blown up into nearly any shape depending on who is speaking them, which adds yet more color to the story once the characters start competing head-to-head.
Now that I bring up color, I should mention that the story is told entirely in black and white with a vibrant yellow as the only real color being used. I would have thought this would come off as too garish or dull, but Stone constantly finds unique ways to make the yellows pop off the page. Whether it’s an action sequence where letters are flying all over the place or a quieter moment between friends, Stone really knows how to best utilize the colors and the space he’s been given here.
Lastly — and this will sound pretty obvious — BUZZ! has given me a much greater appreciation for the role of lettering in a comic and what it can be capable of in the right hands. It’s actually made a lot of other books I read look pretty tame in comparison after seeing how many tricks Stone is able to pull off here. I think of comics written by authors like Brian Michael Bendis where word bubbles fill up practically 80% of the page and I can’t help but think it would read a lot better if the artists tried more experimental techniques to spice things up a bit.
I know that’s just me rambling now, but I really believe that what Hirsh and Stone are doing in this book is some revolutionary work and quite honestly I’m a little bitter it hasn’t gotten more attention. As for me, BUZZ! has lost none of it’s impact even five years later, and I will continue to recommend it to anyone who is interested in seeing the best of what comic books have to offer. Also, it’s fun! You people like fun, right? Course you do!
Hey, just for funsies, let me put this out there: when you’re feeling crummy, is there a story that you can rely on to pull you out of a funk? Doesn’t have to be comics, just any piece of media that has gotten you out of a rotten mood. Let me know in the comments! Or, you know, don’t. I’m not your English teacher.
Disclaimer: All images used for this review are the property of Ananth Hirsh, Tess Stone, and Oni Press Inc. I own nothing.
BUZZ! is available now. Print editions can be ordered on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Oni Press and your local comic book retailer. Digital editions can be purchased for Kindle, Nook and Comixology.
*I wasn’t sure where to put this in the article proper, but you may have noticed on the copies displayed online that the authors are listed as “Ananth Panagariya” & “Tessa Stone”. While those names were accurate at the time of publishing, per the authors stated wishes I will be crediting them as Ananth Hirsh and Tess Stone.
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[…] I’ve talked about my comic book “burnout” on here before — those times where I had to step away from comics completely and get my head straight […]