[Outside the Frame] The Best of Both Worlds: Tails, by Ethan Young

When you buy a comic from a mainstream publisher, a single issue or graphic novel produced by a team of big-name writers, artists, colorists, letterers, editors, and so on, you can generally expect that the book won’t be terrible. You may not like the style of art or you might feel the story was weak – or, worse, sends the characters off in a direction that doesn’t feel true to who you think they are – but you can usually agree that some effort was put into producing it. As you venture into the land of alternative and small press comics, you can’t always be sure of what you’ll get. Will the art look like it was done by a small child who’s only recently been allowed to play with sharpened pencils? Will the story feel like it was written by someone who’s never actually read a book before?

You take chances with independent comics because that’s the best place to find something new.  There are brilliantly written but poorly drawn web comics, and beautiful but weakly-scripted art comics, and a range of titles in between. Some creators make stylistic choices, to be sure, and there are many comics by first time creators who will certainly get better. There is, above all, potential. It’s huge field. Anything could be out there.

If you’re very lucky, you stumble across something special. Tails, written and illustrated by 29-year old creator Ethan Young, is at the perfect middle of that range of indie comics. The story, which is both fantastical and intensely personal, reads as if it was created by a seasoned author, while the traditionally-drawn art is crisp, clean, and lovely. It doesn’t feel like a first book.

As it turns out, it’s not quite a first book. Young’s story of heartbreak and talking cats in NYC first appeared as a three-issue print comic, then was collected as a single graphic novel, before being reworked and reintroduced as a successful web comic. Tails has now been picked up by Hermes Press, which is producing a set of three graphic novels. It follows his eponymous alter-ego, Ethan, as he suffers through life as an angry, under-appreciated and under-published comic book artist. Ethan’s perception of his own self is so much bigger than his real world can contain, and eventually spills out into a fantasy world where he’s the superhero that the city of his dreams needs.

All of that sounds like a fairly run-of-the-mill concept, but Young’s deft handling of the story leaves one surprised and deeply moved. The character is unreliable as a boyfriend, a son, and a narrator, and Young lets us see the vast difference between Ethan’s perception and the actions of everyone around him. The character is insecure, and dark, but at the same time, there is just enough vulnerability to him that you don’t want to give up on him. He’s broken, and the reasons for that are told in flashbacks and family arguments all throughout the story, but he also wants to be loved.

He just doesn’t know how to make that happen.

Meanwhile his passion for his comic book creations, particularly his world of anthropomorphic animals, invests living breathing life into what becomes, for Ethan, another reality. But even there his inability to connect with the people around him leads to another failure.  With all of that depth and detail in the story, it’d be easy to assume that the art would suffer, but it’s even better than the text.

All pages courtesy of Ethan Young, via tailscomic.com
That’s the first page of Chapter One. Look at the use of black space, the way the captions bleed out over the panel frames, and the tiny details in the texture of the wall, the tree. These pages are also from the first chapter:

Dark, tortured, and rescues kittens?
It’s refreshing to see an artist who is willing to take risks with their use of space, light, and dark, while at the same time compiling panels with a recognizably “comic book” feel. This page from the end of Chapter 3, which shows a battle scene from Ethan’s other life, is dynamic, drawing the reader’s eye down in a series of diagonal angles, and lets us see Young’s skill in filling – but not cluttering – a classic splash page.


The print edition from Hermes binds the first installment of Tails with a full-color cover and glossy, high-quality interior pages. Young, who’s now got a extremely successful career as a freelance illustrator, is plotting out his next project but promises that Tails will be a complete story, and readers who start on Ethan’s journey will get to follow it through to the end. That’s great news because Young has produced a splendid example of what independent comics can be.

I can’t wait for the second book.

Buy it from Amazon today.

Want to read Tails online? Start here. You can also find Tails on Facebook, and Twitter.

Next time: An interview with Tails creator Ethan Young.

Want me to review your work? I’m primarily looking for comics with a speculative fiction element, in keeping with the theme of SF Signal, but if your comic is fantasy, science fiction, horror, weird, magic realism, or some other style of “strange”, let me know! You can reach me at carriecuinn@gmail.com, or leave a comment below.