“The Unemployment Adventures of Aqualung” is a book that probably flew under your radar. This original graphic novel from Arcana appeared in “Previews” without much fanfare, but did have an interesting solicitation:
Written by Alex Schumacher & Scott Tamanaha
Illustrated by Alex Schumacher
For over seventy-five years, Agent Aqualung has defended the country from supernatural forces as part of the 88, a covert branch of the Department of Defense. A pink slip and a sealed letter sends shock waves through the covert initiative – they are being permanently dismantled due to budget cuts. Collecting his severance, a new identity, suit, and fake resume, and a small orange tree (which holds the soul of St. Germain, his only friend), Aqualung must adjust to a life in the real world. His first task? Finding gainful employment, of course! With the world against him, or at least a trail of old enemies, Aqualung must navigate through unemployment, dating, oh, and evil plots from ancient gods and their flunkies. The real question is, can he stop them before his unemployment benefits run out?
Here’s the tl;dr version:
WHAT IF… the BPRD was shut down, and its most obtuse agent had to try and survive in San Francisco?
The book starts off with a page of text explaining Aqualung and the 88’s origin. It does an adequate job, then moves on to a flashback that serves multiple purposes: it establishes Aqualung as a great agent, introduces the book’s macguffin, and is a useful segue to mentioning there hasn’t been any significant supernatural issues for the 88 to deal with in 20 years. Hence, the agency is being shuttered, and its five agents cast out.
Despite not leaving the compound in the last 16 years, Aqualung is the only person in the agency unaware of this. This is the first evidence the character is too dumb to survive. All of his coworkers have saved their money and have big plans for their retirement, but Aqualung somehow spent all of his earnings on a suit and he’s politely told that no, he’s not welcome to travel with his former friends. Instead, he goes to San Francisco where, along with several jokes about gay people living there, he tries to find a job. He meets a girl, has some less-than-hilarious misadventures, and it’s all eventually tied together with the reveal of a demon-angel hybrid trying to destroy the Earth.
Schumacher and Tamanaha’s scripting is very uneven, which spells doom for a book trying to be comedy. So much panel time is devoted to jokes that fall flat, all the necessary details for the story gets crammed into very awkward exposition. Making the exposition self-aware does not make it ok to have 50 word balloons over a two-page spread. All it does is alert the reader that even the writers were aware of the problems with their writing.
The jokes… even when they make sense, the jokes just aren’t funny. Puns about multiple meanings of the word “queer” quit being funny about 15 years ago (or in middle school, I can’t be sure which). One joke hinges on a man being able to walk through walls, but that fact isn’t revealed until after the punchline.
The plot also seems to be aimless. It begins as a fantasy, then moves to romantic comedy, then finishes as a conspiracy adventure. Things happen for no apparent reason (like when Aqualung is temporarily stopped by the four horsemen of the apocalypse to be “tested” – a pointless three page exchange which accomplishes nothing.) Along the way, not one single character grows or develops – they all end at the same place they began.
Normally, when the artist is also the writer (or half of the writing team, in this case), a comic has a more symbiotic flow between the visual and the textual. For some reason, that evenness is absent from “The Unemployment Adventures of Aqualung.” Many of the jokes are slapstick in nature, which requires timing to work properly. Unfortunately, there are many instances where it seems like a panel is missing from the equation. Early in the book, there’s a two panel joke where a door is open in the first, closed in the second. However, the “joke” (made clear only by the dialogue) is that the door was slammed shut.Continued below
In addition to the art’s pacing problem, there are some other things working against it. The gutters are all black, causing all the panels to run together. Schumacher compounds this by occasionally dispensing with panels altogether and sticking elements into panels that just don’t fit. In one scene, a background character whose head didn’t even make it into the panel is seemingly also growing out a staircase in that same panel.
To his credit, Shumacher’s character designs are distinct and fluid. Peter Bagge appears to have been a major influence for him. For all the other troubles with following the action, you will never be scratching your head trying to figure out who’s involved in the action. Even as the cast nearly triples in size, every face and body shape is memorable.
The coloring and lettering were both done by Sarah Machajewski and, like the other creators of “The Unemployment Adventures of Aqualung,” she has room to improve. Her colors are mostly muted and her shadowing effects work well against Schumacher’s art, giving it more of a three dimensional quality the pencils alone would lack. The only real hiccup comes near the end of the book when the main female lead is described as blonde – her hair has fluctuated between brown and purple through the story, but was never yellow.
Her balloon placements were sometimes awkward, going against the flow of the art. In a few panels, the balloons are read from bottom left to top right. In others, text which all belongs together gets spread out over three or more balloons. Not all of this is all her responsibility, of course. There’s no way to make 50 balloons look good across two pages, and when faced with the tough choice of covering art and putting the text in a natural order or only using Schumacher’s negative space and going against it, Machajewski was already in a lose-lose situation.
Other issues are on her alone, however. As mentioned earlier, the ‘blonde’ comment was something she should have noticed as a problem, whether she did the letters or colors first. In another scene, a guard is talking about how many prisoners he counted – according to the words, he counted 2156, there should have been 2153. According to the context and the larger plot however, there were three prisoners missing. Even if the numbers were scripted backwards, this is something she (and editor Erik Hendrix) should have caught. Other times, there are papers, documents, and newspapers which are just blank because she didn’t put anything on them. Maybe that was supposed to be a joke?
Then there’s this (the plant is also a speaking character):
There are many finer points to lettering a person learns over the span of a career – kerning, spacing between the text and the balloon border, where to put line breaks, how to use font and balloon styles effectively, and many others. However, making sure the tail of the balloon points to the person saying the words isn’t a fine point; it’s a major thing that can have a huge impact on the meaning of the story. Putting words into the wrong character’s mouth takes the reader fully out of the story and draws more attention to the book’s flaws. And just look at it, without reading the text. The first bubble connects to two different bubbles. If you follow the chain, the first and last balloons both have tails, and they point to different people. It just looks wrong, and it’s another thing the editor should’ve caught.
Overall, this was a pretty terrible book. It was filled with juvenile humor but came with a warning about not being suitable for younger audiences. It had a plot that went nowhere, and characters who were generally annoying to read. The art and coloring were occasionally pretty, but failed to properly serve the story. The lettering was extremely noticeable, which is never a good thing. Do the creators have talent? Yes. But they have a lot of growing to do before they reach even average quality.
“My face may look thirteen, but I’m black from the waist down.” If that line strikes you as humorous, you may want to give “The Unemployment Adventures of Aqualung” a browse. Otherwise, stay away.Continued below
Final Verdict: 1- Pass There was nothing redeeming about this book.