When it comes to monsters, few graphic storytellers have such a peculiar kinship to the macabre as Sam Hiti. He's like H.R. Giger with a softer brush stroke and a sense of humor.
The Minneapolis-based cartoonist garnered national recognition in 2004 with his debut graphic novel, "Tiempos Finales." He followed that strange tale of a Chilean demon hunter with smaller comics, all of which dabbled into the realm of the ghoulish and grotesque.
"Death-Day" is Hiti's first major work in six years. While he has fielded offers from major publishers, he has stayed furiously independent, self-publishing the 176-page book in a wonderfully bound large format.
He is, in all respects, a monster auteur.
"Death-Day" is a sci-fi war epic. The book -- the first of a proposed four parts -- still deals in monsters, but its narrative arc represents a much grander story for the author.
Hiti parachutes the reader into the middle of a barren alien world, where waves of human battalions are waging a bloody offensive against an army of hulking beasts, each equipped with four bulging arms and a sharp deadly beak. The creatures are protecting something called the Black Orb, a dark sphere located at the top of a twisting, towering monolith. The humans need the Orb's powers to get home.
Hiti's line work is extremely loose (almost unrefined), but his wild strokes always seem to coalesce into a striking portrait of controlled mayhem. In "Death-Day," he's created an alien planet that looks like the Southwestern frontier of a Cormac McCarthy novel mixed with the mechanized contraptions of James Cameron's "Avatar." All of this is rendered in detailed black-and-white. Color, it seems, would just get in the way.
The playfulness of Hiti's artwork melds nicely with his sense of humor. The story revolves around a war-ravaged captain and his group of grunts, all of whom act more like aimless teenagers than real soldiers. They smoke Orb "weed" on the battlefield.
This might be an alien war comic, but Hiti takes the fighting seriously. The opening combat scene soon shifts miles away into the war room of the military's generals. Watching from afar on a digital screen, they radio orders to their field officers, moving battalions to their deaths like sacrificed chess pieces. While this is fantasy, you can't help but think of the U.S. soldiers being shifted from battlefront to battlefront in the Middle East.
At first, "Death-Day's" story can feel somewhat discombobulating. It's a bit episodic (and, in fact, is told in four "episodes"), yet the parts slowly begin to form a whole. Characters like the dreaded captain quickly come into focus. So stick with it.
Later, Hiti reveals a nifty little narrative trick that will have you rereading the first half of the book over and over again. It's a whirling conclusion, a cliffhanger and proof that Hiti is a major talent.
- Tom Horgen is an A&E reporter for the Star Tribune.