Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened twice monthly to champion a book we just can’t seem to get enough of. This week Arpad recommends ‘Archival Quality’, coming soon from Oni Press.

Cover to 'Archival Quality'. Art by Steenz/Oni Press

Cover to ‘Archival Quality’. Art by Steenz/Oni Press

By Arpad OkayArchival Quality is a labor of love where the love and the labor come in equal measure. You can tell that work, hard work, has been put in by its creators, Ivy Weir and Steenz. Each page is a realization of ambition and elbow grease, culminating in a book that is understated, affecting. It’s a product of great craftsmanship that builds from likable characters with dimension into a story of heart and vision. It’s creepy, but it isn’t scary or grim. It’s gothic horror with real hope. Archival Quality ekes out its own space in the genre.

First and foremost what stands out about Archival Quality is that Weir has written strikingly strong characters. Every person between the covers, Celeste the heroine, Abayomi the boss, the boyfriend, the ray-of-sunshine librarian and her girlfriend, they each have their own unique voice. None of them are static. As the book goes on, the layers of each person in it are revealed, their interactions steeped in dramatic, emotional, personal moments that stand in authentic contrast against the backdrop of a haunted medical museum mystery.

Steenz is straight up killing it in this book. Her style is a delightful throwback to 90s small press, the Highwater Books era indie scene, with bold contours, cute aesthetics, and a devil-may-care attitude towards convention. Steenz’s work on Archival Quality feels like a zine, a bit rough, but with so much heart the lack of polish lends nothing but character to the world. The whole thing rises above the qualifiers.

Her stout bodies defy mainstream comic book anatomy and work on a vibe that is pure cartoon imagination. A bit of Harvey Comics, or Ward Kimball’s tendencies towards rounded and distinct, but thoroughly modernized. Youthful. Punk. A redux of Mighty Mouse that calls back to its references but keeps it contemporary. Lynne Naylor doing Pearl Pureheart with the gloves off. It’s a perfect counterbalance to the macabre tone of the story.

And beyond the playful character looks, Steenz has an eye for detail that gives life to each page. There are plenty of mega cute outfits and fashion points, lots of fun throwaway details, shout-outs to pop culture, add-ons that reflect the extraordinary amount of work she’s put in. Together, Weir and Steenz have crafted a piece of sequential art that uses the medium to full effect. The flashbacks are seamless, the overlap between real and unreal is cinematic, even the gutters between panels are laid out to make the timing of the storytelling resonate.

The Logan Museum itself rides the fence between gothic and realistic, in no small part from the art style. In some ways it’s creepy; there are people parts in jars, photographs of medical experiments. In other ways it’s mundane, with its filing cabinets and grey walls. It’s real, it’s surreal, and the slow bloom of a plot runs with it. The paranormal unfolds from the stacks, in dreams, with the inexplicable misplacement of museum displays. Then, building on the concrete, the dreams leak into the day, the Museum itself grows stranger and darker, and deeper into the collections we go. Personal life and phantom machinations clash.

What I’ve taken away from this book is that it is as much about personal growth as it is about supernatural occurrences. Celeste has a powerful spirit. Her strength draws other powerful spirits to her, in the form of ghosts looking for closure, in the form of men looking for power, all excellent foils to showcase our hero’s resolve. Despite her mental health issues, despite her opinion of herself, nobody is grounded quite like Celeste.

Weir has written someone who seems unsure and mousy at first with undertones of strength, who develops into a capable, independent, robust person. Level-headed in the face of the inexplicable. Sure of herself despite her flaws. Weir and Steenz keep the monomyth alive, fresh, and relevant. In the right hands, Celeste’s ascension from doubt to power can become a guide for readers becoming heroes themselves. Put it in yours.

Oni Press/$19.99

Written by Ivy Noelle Weir.

Art by Steenz.

Colors by Steenz and Deb Groves.

Letters by Joamette Gil.

‘Archival Quality’ hits stores March 7.