In Templar, Arizona, Charlie "Spike" Troutman takes on a tour through her alternate Arizona, a world slightly and bizarrely askew from our own. It's a tumultuous universe, stocked with extreme subcultures, terrifying public artwork, and the legal consumption of panda.

We begin our journey through the city of Templar with fellow newcomer Ben Kowalski. Ben left his home in Yakima, Washington, under mysterious circumstances, and has come to Templar possibly to find himself, but probably to become lost in the local color. Ben has a job writing a column for the city's newspaper, a curiosity about Templar's numerous and often outrageous subcultures, and a nasty habit of never leaving his apartment. Fortunately for us, his neighbor Reagan — an imposingly plump woman who treats lewdness as an art form — quickly drags him (and us) out of his apartment and into the heart of the city.

Spike has described the setting of Templar, Arizona as "a slightly irregular Arizona that fell off the back of a truck somewhere, and now all the power outlets are a weird shape and a couple of wars never happened." It's a world where no one has cell phones, where televisions look like laptop computers and shows have always been by subscription instead of broadcast. In lieu of Judge Judy, Templarites watch Claudius Graves, who forces legal disputants to battle inside his coliseum before dispensing his verdict, and rather than protest stores that sell angora sweaters, animal rights groups protest restaurants that serve puppies and panda.

But perhaps the most striking thing about Templar, and the thing Ben himself is most eager to see, is its host of extreme subcultures, tribes that make up (and disrupt) much of the city life. There are the Nile Revivalists, Egyptian immigrants who've gone back to the religion and traditions of the Ancient Egyptians, even going so far as to give their children names like Thutmose and Ra. The Sincerists vow to be scrupulously and absolutely honest in all their words and dealings. The Pastimes make steampunkers look unenthusiastic. The Jakeskin are a survivalist cult with a knack for petty theft and a ruthless dedication to defending their own. And the Reclamationists are soviet renovators who stage coups on Templar's buildings, seizing them and repurposing them as self-sufficient housing for the masses.

It's a weird and warped vision of the world, sometimes comical, sometimes off-putting, and sometimes terribly sad. But Spike's heavy, rounded lines, combined with grayscale and sepia tones give the comic a warm and inviting quality, telling us we're quite welcome to spy on this alien version of America, at least for the time beings. And we often feel precisely like we're spying. Templar consists of a series of vignettes, some dramatic, others focused on the day-to-day, and Spike frequently drops us in the middle of an intimate conversation, pulling back the curtain on her universe and her characters a little bit more. We learn how Sincerists feel about Chinese character tattoos. We meet Curio, a flighty rich girl who desperately wants to be cool, and her also wealthy but successfully hip friend Tuesday. We witness the tension between first generation Nile Revivalist immigrants and their less devout offspring. And we frequently find ourselves back with Ben as he tries to navigate his new home and befriends the outrageous, bizarre, and often mysterious

Spike is a writer who never underestimates her audience's intelligence, and while her scenes are sometimes expository, they are always couched in the unique language of her character. Templar demands close reading, and often rereading, to fully understand what's at work and to catch all the small details and sight gags that crowd her panels. It makes for a rich experience and the sense that we are visiting a fully realized world with characters who are truly, and often frighteningly, alive.

Templar, Arizona is an always-fascinating jaunt through an idiosyncratic universe, which — while often extreme — shares enough with our own world to be both amusing and discomforting. But, while it's not a place you'll want to live, you'll be glad that Spike gives you the opportunity to visit every now and then.

[Templar, Arizona]