Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dream Jams: The Night Of Your Life

Rob reviews the new collection of Jesse Reklaw's SLOW WAVE dream comics, THE NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE (Dark Horse). He also takes a look at two minicomics of Reklaw's: SALIVATING BOX and PTNRT2.

A number of Jesse Reklaw's comics have revolved around formal problem-solving. The solutions he crafts are still conservative in terms of composition; he uses fairly standard grids and doesn't do anything especially avant-garde with regard to character design or layouts. His art has always had a certain pleasant looseness to it. His figures are sketchy and expressive, somewhere between cartoony and realistic. The information he conveys is always solidly designed and easy to follow; that looseness of line is not sloppiness and a quick scan of his work reveals how much he thinks about his designs. When I note that comics present a series of problems for him to solve as a cartoonist, I mean that he likes to find different ways of presenting old ideas. For his autobio comics series COUCH TAG, he frames his experiences around specific signifiers (pets, the things he used to do with a particular friend) to reveal deeper truths.

Reklaw recently reprinted his first minicomic (created 20 years ago), PTNRT2, a crude (in every sense of the word) stick-figure comic. This was about finding a way to shorten words by using letters and numbers, and he created an entire comic's worth of stories done in this style--a disorienting experience. Reklaw has also done jam comics as a way of sparking his mind to move in some different directions. His minicomic SALIVATING BOX, a jam done with Andrice Arp, Nate Beaty and Levon Jihanian, has someone issue a verbal prompt. Each artist then has five minutes to draw a comic about that prompt. It's a way of moving past the paralysis of the creative process and quickly solving a problem on the page. The way each artist approached each prompt revealed a lot about their creative process. The results were surprisingly coherent and funny. Having an outside "collaborator", even if that's just someone coming up with a word, obviously keeps Reklaw's pencil and mind moving.

In a sense, his long-running online and alt-weekly strip SLOW WAVE is a more elaborate form of collaboration, and in some ways even more random than the game played for SALIVATING BOX. The concept is brilliantly simple: readers send Reklaw accounts of their dreams, and he draws them in comic strip form. Dreams are a perfect spark for comics, especially someone else's. They are remembered in terms of narrative, with the person almost acting as a dominant narrator. Sorting through the convoluted logic of a dream to convert it into a single-page story presents its own kind of puzzle for an artist. Because it's someone else's dream, one doesn't have to worry about deeper meanings or interpretations.

That lack of editorializing on Reklaw's behalf (other than in the sense that he chooses which dreams to draw) is one of SLOW WAVE's greatest strengths. As a reader, one can simply enjoy the entertaining way Reklaw manages to briskly depict a narrative snippet that usually doesn't have a firm beginning or ending. One can also look at the trends one sees in the dreams and how it reflects the broader culture. Many dreams feature pop-culture figures interacting with the dreamer's lives in some way, often obstructively (like in one dream where someone has to fight Jackie Chan before he can go to bed). Animals play a huge part in many of the dreams, often acting out fantasies of being able to talk or otherwise interact with their owners at a higher level. One dreamer saw her dogs play the stock market so she wouldn't have to work!

Despite the repetitive nature of each page, SLOW WAVE actually reads much better as a collection than as a stand-alone strip. There's a page-to-page flow and sense of rhythm in this book, broken up from time to time by arbitrary chapters. While one can see some strips of a similar nature grouped together in each chapter, Reklaw is careful not to simply catalogue different dream fetishes. Instead, he varies what happens strip to strip just enough to keep a reader's interest. The reader knows that even though the grid will remain the same and each strip will feature a narrator, each one will feature someone doing something different. The chapter breaks acts as natural mental buffers to encourage the reader to pause.

Reklaw anchors his strips with thick black lines making up his panels, "trapping" the ephemeral dream images within. Another key to the success of his strips is his lettering. While this may seem like a trivial component, his clear, bold lettering gives the reader an immediate sense of access to the story of the dream. He uses a smaller, thinner line for any dialogue in the dreams, a clear signal that the reader needs to focus on the narrative box and the images to really engage each page. It's not surprising that Reklaw has been doing SLOW WAVE for so long; despite the repetitive nature of its process, it's been forcing him to solve storytelling problems on a weekly basis. That artistic curiosity and the ability to shape random thoughts of images into narrative continues to make him one of the more interesting artists in the alt-comics scene.

No comments:

Post a Comment