In years past, the release of a new edition of a Drawn & Quarterly anthology was one of the biggest events of the year for art comics. What was once an actual quarterly publication became an annual and introduced the comics world to a wide range of talents, old and new. Appetites were whetted, for example, when one volume reprinted a number of Sunday pages from Gasoline Alley in vibrant full color. Since that time, D&Q has ceased publishing their larger annual anthologies in favor of smaller collections that spotlight new and emerging talent. There's a particular emphasis on translating the works of cartoonists not widely read in English. Past editions have included the likes of Kevin Huizenga, Dan Zettwoch, Gabrielle Bell, Sammy Harkham, Genevieve Castree, Matt Broersma, Jeffrey Brown, Nicholas Robel and others. Most of the volumes have featured three artists, writing stories of around 30pages. It's a great format, allowing for a story with some depth and weight but certainly functioning as a complete short story.
My experience in reading books published by D&Q is tha there's almost a house style that artists adhere to in order to be published by Chris Oliveros. These books are always attractively designed and have a certain coolness of affect for the most part. Of course, the reality is that Oliveros is entirely a hands-off editor and publisher, giving his artists complete freedom. He publishes them because they fit into his personal (and refined) aesthetic, not because he wants to bend someone else's artistic vision to his. That's why the range of artists published by D&Q is not quite as expansive as Fantagraphics, which is a bit more all over the place. Like FBI, D&Q has prospered in recent years, opening up a retail store, expanding their line of books and adding crucial staff members like Peggy Burns (publicist) and Tom Devlin (one of the top designers in comics and former publisher of Highwater Books).
The newest Showcase features American T.Edward Bak, Finn Amanda Vahamaki and Swede Anneli Furmark. All three stories have drastically different looks and storytelling approaches, yet all deal loosely with some similar themes. Most prominent is the sense of being in alien and hostile territory and how one chooses to engage one's surroundings. Furmark's story revolves around the discomfort felt by a man visiting his lover's family without revealing that they were gay and in fact a couple. It's a simple story about levels of deception, with self-deception depicted as perhaps the most pernicious. As the story proceeds, we learn that that closeted half of the couple, David, came from a religious background and was even engaged to a woman for a time (whom he happens to see in town). His lover, Jakob, yearns to be open and feels suffocated from living a lie in every aspect of his life, yet deceives himself into thinking that things will change. David deceives Peter in a rather cruel way at the end of the story in talking to his ex-fiance, who herself is in a marriage where all is not as it seems.
This story, "Inland", is visually striking due to Furmark's use of what looks like colored pencil to depict weird lighting conditions. The colored scrawl is a perfect contrast with her black and white figures, who are drawn in a simple, loose line. The form elements of this story are simple but enormously effective and really capture the ephemeral nature of the relationships in this story. The expressionistic use of color to capture changing, fleeting light nicely matches the sense of transience we feel for the relationships in this story.
If Furmark creates meaning out of small moments, T.Edward Bak works big. Expansive layouts and lots of negative space make sense for a story that's about a loss of love not just for a couple but for his country. Bak plays with a number of different narrative layers here, as the story is told from the point of view of a woman abandoned by a man in a time of war. Bak's trademark is throwing a number of different visual styles at the reader, creating a dizzying, disorienting effect. He starts by working on an all-black sheet with a simple red line for his figures and lettering. This evokes a certain sense of mythology for this story, establishing a feeling of otherworldliness while grounding the story in a very human sense of betrayal. The female narrator recalls what happened to the lover than abandoned her, "fighting for liberty". Her lover, "the Partisan", falls prey to his enemy, "the American". "The American" is a mindless automaton bent only on consumption and destruction, a descendant of a different set of Americans who had lost their way.
When the story swings over to the Partisan, the pages are filled with white space and densely rendered figures. We follow his progress until he's frozen in place by "the American", trapped in his own memories and guilt. The irony of the story is that the Partisan abandoned her to "fight for liberty" and wound up being frozen, while his lover (knowing that she deserved better) likewise put herself in a dangerous position. There are any number of ways to look at this story: as the literal story of a relationship shattering, as a way of exploring the ways relationships splinter in an occupation, the metaphorical & emotional nature of occupations, and as a meditation on the corruption and corrupting influence of America. It's an achingly beautiful story on any level, further establishing Bak as an artist to watch.
In Vahamaki's story, the enemy territory here is one's home, as a young teenaged boy and his female best friend find ways around his father with the help of a time-altering TV remote. Living in a small island village means that the benefits they actually receive from time traveling are limited, yet they have nothing much better to do. Unlike the couples in the first two stories, these teens have a powerful connection that transcends their environment. Their connection is the only thing that makes their environment tolerable, in fact. Taking a powerful item but not really being able to use it properly is a sort of cruel punishment for the boy, yet one he absorbs with a sense of humor given that he's not alone and misunderstood. Vahamaki's pages are densely packed and bursting with vibrant color. Her style is a bit more naturalistic than either Bak or Furmark, resembling Vanessa Davis' work a bit in my eyes, only using a more standard comics grid and adding a bit more density of detail to each panel. This story is a bit more subdued than the first two entries, yet no less concerned trying to navigate the unknown as well as actually finding rewards at the end of journeys.
What's interesting about all three artists is that their line is very different from the usual sort of thing D&Q prints. No one uses a flowing line like Seth and there's no obvious influence of Clear Line styles. At the same time, each artist's way of thinking through a story makes them perfect candidates for D&Q. The design of each page and composition of each panel has a powerful influence on how we experience the story. The way the anthology invites the reader to make connections between each story is deliberately vague but not opaque. Testing the measure of a relationship in an "enemy setting" immediately changes the emotional stakes the reader is prepared to experience. This book is a series of variations on a theme regarding common fears we experience as humans and the ways in which we respond, affecting those fears.