Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Density of Dreams: Sleeper Car and 1-800-MICE

Rob reviews SLEEPER CAR, the new comic by Theo Ellsworth (Secret Acres) and 1-800-MICE #1-3, by Matthew Thurber (PictureBox).

Theo Ellsworth's CAPACITY was one of my favorite books of 2008, one that provided a road map of sorts for his fevered imagination. Many artists have felt the sensation of not really coming up with ideas, but rather acting as a conduit of sorts for ideas that are simply floating out there in the ether. CAPACITY was a series of stories, a description of method, and a warm, personal invitation to share in these ideas. Ellsworth crams an enormous amount of frenetic detail into each panel and page, leaving very little negative space to breathe. He counters what could be an incredibly off-putting reading experience with narrators who talk to and guide the reader, making sense of the page. He's literally laying the composition of each page out for the reader, gently introducing them to his world and visual language. Within a few pages, one is immersed in the style and the nearly vibratory quality of his line and crammed-in details feel normal--all part of the scenery.

With SLEEPER CAR, Ellsworth offers a much shorter comic--almost a palate cleanser for both artist and reader after the exhausting (if exhilarating) trek of CAPACITY. Included are a number of unconnected (other than by general theme) stories about a bet made by robots, an unusual journey by train, the adventures of a dream recorder, how to make a pajama tent and the many faces of the author waiting for a bus. "Sleep Study" is a recapitulation of his work, as an adventurer literally walks through the dreams of a creature and records all of the strange and wonderful things that he sees. That's Ellsworth to a T, simply relating all of the odd things he sees in his mental wanderings that compel him to draw. Ellsworth is very much an artist who writes, with the images driving the story instead of the other way around.

The opening image of two robots having tea in a forest sets "Norman Eight's Left Arm" into motion, a story about a bet about the existence of gnomes between the two automatons. There's nothing Ellsworth enjoys portraying more than journeys--the more convoluted, the better. Here, there's a journey of one robot in his quest to find gnomes and an internal journey from the other robot to keep himself entertained in the meantime. The woods he draws feel like places that are being inhabited, an indication of how real the author clearly feels these places are in his imagination. The story ends with a sight gag after cycling through a number of jokes--yet another palate cleanser of sorts for the reader. "Travel Report" takes a somewhat dimmer view of taking a journey, given its dreadful description of a train ride, yet the protagonist notes that he wanted to travel shortly after he got home. There's a pleasant restlessness to Ellsworth's comics as one senses that he can only hope to transcribe a tiny portion of what he sees in his mind, but that the comics he draws are better than nothing.

I knew little of Matthew Thurber's work (except by reputation) before I read the first three issues of 1-800-MICE, and I was prepared for a stream-of-consciousness narrative with primitivist art (the mark of many PictureBox releases). While the first couple of pages were difficult to parse at first, it quickly became evident that this was a stunning, multilayered story with a deep wellspring of themes and a dizzying array of memorable characters. It's not dream logic like Ellsworth's comics, but what it does instead is present a series of absurd premises and build an iron-clad narrative stemming from them. While there's a primitivist veneer to Thurber's art, his page composition is not only spotless in how easy it is to process, but it also rewards multiple readings as one tries to connect the various unfolding plot threads.

The story revolves around a huge cast of characters in and around Volcano Park, a city built on an active volcano controlled by sentient trees. The main tension of the story revolves around events that are about to happen: a meteor crashing into the city, a banjo contest with sinister consequences, and (most of all) the potential eruption of the volcano. Fatalism and eschatology are two running themes in the comic, as a constant state of dread stalks the characters even as they whir and buzz around their lives. Exploitation, reconciliation and conspiracy are also ideas in play, with the forces of the corrupt and immortal "Banjo Shogunate" conspiring to work against a potential rapproachment between humans and tree-creatures. Even the three members of that cabal work at cross-purposes: one as a gang lord in Los Angeles, one the personification of crazy evil coming down in the meteor, and a third as a sort of omnipresent entity that passes herself off as a force for benevolence.

There's not much point in discussing the plot any further, given that Thurber obviously still has much to reveal and that it's so tightly wound that unraveling it would take the fun out of reading it. Suffice it to say that Thurber is interested in societal roles and how they change (especially in the person of a police officer), the concept of institutions & people being poisoned, the ways in which communication is always a form of intervention no matter how far removed we wish to be (personified in a company that sends mice to deliver messages but not otherwise intervene), and the ways in which we interact with our ecosystems. Thurber isn't afraid to throw in absurd commentary on activism, either--his "Peace Punk" character is a walking pile of scattered activist thoughts and identities. He winds up at a year-long alt-music festival held in a city's sewers and has to dodge a trio of sushi-chef assassins who hilariously have to get minimum wage jobs and listen to a prescribed course of music before they were allowed passage.

While Thurber occasionally dazzles the reader with a densely packed splash page (like the one introducing the reader to the bustle of Volcano Park), he concentrates most of his effort into character design. He favors the slightly grotesque (like the wildly gesticulating Officer Nabb, with a beaklike nose, bulbous pate and pointy ears), the anthropomorphic (like the various mice) or the ridiculous (like his badass sushi chef assassins). In terms of composition, he's all over the place, rarely repeating a panel set-up twice from page to page. He goes from splash pages to 12-panel grids to a page with 4 triangular panels meeting each other, where one has to turn the page around. None of this feels gratuitous; indeed, Thurber has an uncanny sense of meeting the story's needs with the construction of the page. He meets claustrophobic scenes with small panels, disorienting sequences with skewed panels, and grander scenes with much more white space. Some panels are crammed with background details, while intense scenes between characters have a white backdrop. It's Thurber's composition in this regard that makes this such a compelling read. He may want to slowly unveil information in the style of a mystery, but he doesn't want to deliberately confuse the reader. There's always enough information to know what's going on, though I would recommend reading all three issues to date one after the other.

The biggest reason why the comic is successful is that Thurber softens his thematic points with laugh-out-loud gags and absurdism. It's as though Thurber took a few Michael Kupperman-style concepts and spun a deliberate narrative from them. The events may well be grave, but the characters themselves are ridiculous. Despite the crazy conceptual nature of his cast, Thurber has fully-fleshed out backstories for each of them, pulling tighter the threads of the story in unexpected and delightful ways. It seems a bit odd to describe a story this crazed and complex as a page turner, but there's really no other way to say it. When it's over and collected, it will create a huge sensation in the alt-comics world. For now, it's a delightful treasure for fans of comics periodicals.

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