THIS REVIEW OF ‘PHOBOS’ & THE MACROVERSE APP CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
by Jarrod Jones. The first thing that popped into my mind when I went for my first spin (or, rather, tap) through Phobos, the new horror webcomic to be featured on the comics app Macroverse, was how much we take for granted letting our eyes fall over the panels of a comics page.
(Well, the first thing that actually popped into my head was how beautiful Phobos looked, but we’ll get into that in a sec.)
The comics-on-your-device experience is a strange one for me, being a person who clings to print-n-parchment like the velcro straps on a pair of sneakers that belong to an especially repentant ex-boyfriend. (Even when I have the privilege of reading advance PDFs for DoomRocket reviews and interviews, I have a tendency to sulk.) The feel of the paper stock, the sheen of the cover, yada yada yada, there’s an elusive charm to picking up a comic book and flipping through it that simply cannot be replicated on another format. There’s a freedom to reading comics, to move your eyes in the very specific sequential order given to you by the book’s creators—or to move them in whichever direction your wishy-washy brain chooses in the moment. (A character in a Grant Morrison book once likened reading comics to a 4-dimensional experience, but let’s not go nuts; the point, it is made.) Scrolling through comics is a concept I seem hellbent on resisting, no matter the fidelity of the application delivering these comics to me or the ease in which I use it.
I was willing to give Phobos, and the Macroverse app, a proper go, largely to ease a bit further into the eldritch season by reading Jason Brubaker’s spooky, funny, eye-popping, PG-rated horror book, but also to see how Macroverse’s format complimented Brubaker’s intention—say nothing of being able to finally confront the monster of comic-format snobbery that has dogged me since webcomics joined the industry all those years ago.
I opened the Macroverse app on my iPhone and settled into figuring this sucker out. I found, to my instant relief, that scrolling—the mindless action of shoving or nudging the progression of a story with my thumb that has long deterred me from reading comics on my phone—would not be a part of my Phobos experience. Tap the right side of the screen to progress, tap the left to go back. Glorious.
In the interim my phone screen became a fixed panel—one that filled the device’s predetermined, monolith-from-2001-shaped verticle rectangle, yes, but still a panel—one of hundreds that housed all the shadows, grain, lightning cracks and atmosphere Brubaker painstakingly placed into each image. Which is handy; Phobos, I quickly discovered, is an exquisite horror strip with atmosphere to burn.
Chapter One of Phobos begins, as it must, on a dark and stormy night, with a grim figure lurching from the scaffolds of an especially daunting castle, the rain a torrent, the skies a ferocity of lightning bolts. The figure muses on his former glory as a creature of the shadows (his braggadocious words provided to us courtesy of Macroverse co-founder Eben Matthews) and, drunk on his own nostalgia-trip, declares himself to still be… “Invincible!” I tap. The words: “Macroverse Presents”. I tap again, and what follows turns out to be an indelible moment: the aged scaffold of this crumbling tower finally succumbs to his weight, he falls with a “POOF”, Brubaker pulls back, and we watch this creature fall into the flooded moat below. I pause. The rain does not relent, the castle remains darkened by the night’s embrace. I tap.
The comic tells me that hundreds of years have passed by. I keep on tapping right.
Jason Brubaker’s Phobos seems tailor-made to maximize Macroverse’s design. His panel layouts have motion to them; they progress at times like storyboards to an animated tale and the tapping function of the app at times can give certain panels the illusion of movement. A larger, longer panel, like the establishing shot of the Phobos mansion gate in the middle of “Chapter One”, can be broken into a series of screens; in this instance, it pushes our view from the left, where a relatively safe taxi cab appears to be seconds away from absconding back to civilization, to the right, which reveals the grim, foreboding mansion beyond. Eninac, our focal character, is about to enter a portal that leads to a new, exciting (and potentially dangerous) world and the manner in which this sequence is laid out in the app underscores just how isolated and vulnerable she is in the moment.
If this were a film, this sequence would be a fixed image. Were it printed on a comics page, it would still be a fixed image. Instead the moment flows, remaining fixed only as long as we allow it to be, exactly because of the format in which Phobos unfolds. (It should be noted that this book is adapted from a print comic, which you can check out here.) It’s instances such as this that give Phobos a sinister power behind its narrative, but perhaps more crucially (to me, anyway) they also prove the strength of the comics-on-your-dang-phone format. But Phobos is also a humor comic, and Brubaker’s sense of comedic timing also has an opportunity to shine courtesy of the Macroverse presentation. (For the sake of spoilers, you’re just going to have to take my word for it.)
Jason Brubaker, who was nominated for a Best Web Comic Eisner in 2019 (for reMIND, also available now on Macroverse), has been working under the purview of high-profile geekery for 20 years. And when you take a look at his résumé, the storyboard-like function of his work makes a heck of a lot more sense. (His storyboards and development art have contributed to films like the Kung Fu Panda series, Pitch Black, Blade, highlights in what continues to be a rather impressive career.) It’s possible the app interface makes these incremental (but fluid) panel progressions feel far less tedious than if I were to work my way through them on the printed page, but I was still immersed by Phobos and genuinely wished to see Brubaker’s vision through. (The book’s moody aesthetic, found somewhere between the worlds of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey—and Playdead’s 2011 game, Limbo—is a transfixing thing.)
Which brings us back to the Macroverse app itself, which was founded by Adam Martin, Eben Matthews and Ricci Rukavina and made for “story-driven content designed to connect with audiences and fans through innovative, platform agnostic delivery,” and which features several titles from an impressive array of independent comics creators. Brubaker’s reMIND can be found there, likewise Doug Wagner & Brian Stelfreeze’s Gun Candy. I’d list other interesting creators, but one of the first snags I hit navigating the app (which could be attributed to a phenomena I suppose I’ll call “new app feel”) was finding a place where the creators of these exciting series were clearly listed. (If you tap on a title, the app throws you into an “episode menu,” which then throws you directly into a story, which may or may not have credits available right at the jump. This, however, may be more of a bother for pedantic press types like myself than the casual Macroverse user.)
I found Macroverse’s tapping interface, as opposed to the Twitter-esque parade of endless thumb-scrolling found on other comics apps, to be an engaging experience that allowed me to fix my gaze on a set image as created by the artist, precisely how they wanted me to gaze upon it. I don’t know if I’m a convert just yet, but I’ll come back for more of Jason Brubaker’s Phobos, and now that I’m thinking about it I had been wanting to check out reMIND—oh! and there’s also that Stelfreeze Gun Candy strip, and Anti looks good, and… uh-oh.
Macroverse Media / Coffee Table Comics
Written and illustrated by Jason Brubaker.
TapStory & Letters by Eben Matthews, Macroverse Creative.
Produced for Macroverse by Eben Matthews, Adam Martin.
‘Phobos’ is available to read on the Macroverse app now. For more on ‘Phobos’ and Jason Brubaker’s work, check out his website here.