Royden Lepp’s Rust: Visitor in the Field, has a dreamlike feel thanks to a sepia color scheme and a retro combination of jetpacks, battle robots and an isolated farm that could’ve existed any time in the past 50 years–in a world where robots fought our great war for us a generation ago. It’s probably best suited for ages 10 and up.
The book, a handsome clothbound hardcover from Archaia, runs nearly 200 pages, starting with a flashback to war, with robots fighting human soldiers with a vague World War I vibe. The book then jumps into its present, which still feels like our past. It becomes the story of a young man named Roman Taylor who’s trying to run his family farm–and is reliant on a strange little boy with a jetpack, “Jet Jones,” who is some kind of robot (pretty much no backstory is revealed for the kid).
The story, which is very slight despite the monster page count, involves a damaged war robot that has come to “life” and is endangering the farm. Roman and Jet risk all to face it, only to have the book end on a cliffhanger as a similar new danger makes its way toward the Taylor farm. Where the plot is lacking, the book turns to character and mood, as we watch a small family struggle to stay afloat, in a world that moves slowly and quietly, and feelings come across as often in a silent gaze as through word or deed. Lepp is good at that stuff, and his art has a simultaneous simplicity and sophistication that’s a pleasure to read.
The writing doesn’t come together quite as well as the art, though. Lepp’s characters do and occasionally say things–we get into Roman’s head thanks to his letters to his father, which appear as narrative captions–but it’s like they’re good and compelling actors working with a script that’s lacking. He gets it right when he just presents us a world with robots, and doesn’t explain, any more than he explains the internal combustion engine in Roman’s tractor. He doesn’t give us an exact year for that half-century-ago war, and when the book shifts to “today,” it’s a today that could be 2013 or 1963.
However, the entire book feels like a lengthy prologue to the actual story, as not enough happens, and too little of its mysteries and themes are spotlighted. Lepp, who works by day in video games, suffers the same problem that crops up in many of the beautifully drawn all-ages comics done by animators (Amulet, Zita the Space Girl …), which is that he seems to have storyboarded out every frame of film it would take to make this a movie, and in the process, obliterated any sense of pacing. (Example: Woman is driving a pickup; figure walks into the road; woman is startled, crashes the truck and is thrown through the windshield. Spread over eight pages.) If Lepp had let the same script pace itself comfortably at maybe 60 pages, the book would have a lot more zing.
The second volume, Rust: Secrets of the Cell, was released at Christmas, and you can see a brief preview here. The preview pages in the back of the first volume suffer the same crisis of pacing as the first book, but the opening battle scene is crisper and with more tension than anything in volume one–so perhaps the first book’s prologue vibe will be borne out, and the second installment will be a little more satisfying.