Webcomic Wednesday [Thursday Edition]: Cold Heat by Ben Jones and Frank Santoro

One of the few comics ever created that should be included gratis with your purchase of any My Bloody Valentine album like a Happy Meal toy, Ben Jones and Frank Santoro’s Cold Heat is a pastel explosion of emotion and sensation. It’s also arguably the great unfinished alternative comics masterpiece of the ’00s, since its double-sized final issue, promised in April 2010, has yet to materialize (and its penultimate installment is both offline and out of print). But its lack of resolution doesn’t matter a bit, I promise you. The first time you sat and listened to your favorite album as a teenager, did it involve a story arc with a concrete ending? Probably not, but the intensity of that experience remains — and it’s that intensity that Cold Heat mines for all it’s worth.

The six issues you can read in their entirety online for free tell the tale of Castle, a teenaged intern at a corporate behemoth whose CEO ends their sexual relationship, and her employment with the company, in the first few pages. Okay, fine, it’s a story about adolescent sexuality and power dynamics. But no, wait: Once she gets back home, she finds out from her dad that Joel Cannon, lead singer of her favorite band Chocolate Gun, committed suicide, sending her into a melancholic drugged-up tailspin. Alright, got it, it’s a book about the power that music exerts in teenagers’ lives, and the connection between celebrity and audience, and the way we make martyrs and icons out of the megafamous. Well, yeah, but then Castle goes to a party where a powerful senator’s son winds up dying of an overdose, and said senator declares war on drugs and wants victory by any means necessary, and before long there’s a minotaur and a murder mystery and a satanic cult and alien abductions and…hang on, what is this about?

All of those things, and more. Cold Heat uses its luscious pink-white-and-blue palette, its spectacular science-fiction plot points, and a design/layout sense that emphasizes neo-psychedelic swirls and diamonds all in the same way: to depict the overpowering romantic and artistic feelings of teenagers, even if those feelings often bear little connection to objective reality. That’s what ties these seemingly disparate parts into such a compelling whole. It’s often a very funny comic, but the laughs never come at the expense of how Castle feels about drugs, sex, music, her town. That’s all taken deadly seriously. So no matter how many times there’s a reveal that’s torn straight from a B-movie — the Kurt Cobain-esque figure was abducted by aliens and the suicide was a cover-up, for example — the sense that you’re seeing something beautiful and true lingers.

Cold Heat is the product of a unique collaboration between two established alternative/art comics makers. Writer Ben Jones, himself a visual artist, was a member of the influential Paper Rad collective and went on to create the eye-melting, sadly short-lived kids’ show The Problem Solverz for the Cartoon Network. Frank Santoro is a cartoonist-critic-retailer-raconteur who’s serving as a judge for the Eisner Awards this year and whose correspondence course in cartooning has helped spread the rhythmic, poetic style of comics he pioneered in books like Incanto and Chimera to a new generation. After this comic I’ll follow them both wherever they go.