Today, I'm taking a look at Rafer Roberts' Plastic Farm: Sowing Seeds on Fertile Soil from Ambrosia Publishing, which has recently begun its serialization on Ambrosia's site. The stories were originally published, as I understand it, by Roberts himself over the course of 12 issues, and garnered some praise from the likes of Dave Sim and Larry Young.
According to the site: "Planned as a continuing series, PLASTIC FARM follows the life of a man named Chester and his slow descent into complete insanity, and chronicles how that madness reshapes the world around him. Chester has had a rough childhood, has a magic cowboy that rides a dinosaur living inside of his head, and is now, late in life, sitting in a nameless airport bar during a blizzard telling his life story to a group of people who really couldn’t care less."
The book itself is divided into a prologue and three individual chapters. The prologue and chapter one were drawn by Roberts himself, but the art on chapters two and three is by Dave Morgan and Jake Warrenfeltz respectfully. While their individual styles are strikingly different, they all convey the stories fairly well. While I personally was more taken with Morgan's illustration very textured pencil style, I have to give a lot of credit to Roberts, who's able to keep his portions of the story moving along well despite some downright surreal imagery. Indeed, his story flows in out of the conscious mind, but I never had trouble determining what I was looking at or how to follow along. I think it takes more than a little talent to pull something like that off.
The overall story struck me in an odd manner, given the solicitation/set-up text going into it. The prologue does indeed introduce us to Chester "Cheezer" Carter and the enigmatic dinosaur-riding cowboy he thinks is real. (And, indeed, we get more than enough rationale for WHY Chester thinks this!) Chapter One occurs many years later, in which Chester recalls of the time he spent at an orphanage as a young boy. But, curiously, chapters two and three seem wholly disconnected to the previous portions of the book. Had I come to the book entirely devoid of any promotional information, I would have thought it merely an anthology of short stories. It's hard for me to tell at this point if it is indeed supposed to be that, and the other text I had read was simply misleading, or if further chapters will shed light on how everything connects together.
Part of my reaction, too, is that the prologue and chapter one seem much more substantive in terms of both character development and plot. Chapter two is a fairly simple tale that I could swear I saw in an episode of Twilight Zone at one point, and chapter three is just a short drug-bust-gone-awry story. I was left wondering about Cheezer and felt very much like I wanted to see more of him after the strong opening. I'll be curious to see if Cheezer returns for chapter four.
There are a handful of quotes from William S. Burroughs throughout the book. I think they're significant, not because they make an obvious point towards the actual story but because they're from William Burroughs, and it helps establish a tone of discongruity with reality. Roberts actually does this with the opening pages, but the Burroughs' quotes underscore the point, so there's no question of it just being unintentional on Roberts' part. I think that once you've established with yourself that Plastic Farm is not going to read like a simple, straight, narrative that Americans at least tend to expect with comics, a number of people will be interested in reading this.
That said, I don't think anyone should hold this up as a work that's suitable for the comic reading public on the hold. It's definitely sitting in its own niche and, therefore, not something I would uniformly recommend to everyone. It is, however, a book I would recommend if, for example, you like/appreciate the work of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, or any of their ilk. It's a book I would also recommend to folks looking for something different in comics -- Plastic Farm, as far as I know, is sitting in a place all by itself. I'm sure you won't find something quite like it at least for some time.