Friday, April 29, 2011

Sequart #175: Sundays and CCS Minis

This review was originally published at in 2007. I'll be doing reviews of a number of comics by Center of Cartoon Studies grads in the coming days, so I thought I'd republish this set of old reviews.

I've been reviewing comics from the editors of the SUNDAYS anthology for quite some time. The core group of Joseph Lambert, Chuck Forsman, Sean Ford and Alex Kim produced one of the first splashy comics from the Center for Cartoon Studies, and it was one of the hits at MOCCA in 2006. Along with printing a new edition, the group continues to crank out minicomics.

Joseph Lambert is one of the most dazzling technicians in the CCS group, and the one who's the least interested in narrative at this point. His minis are cute, funny well-designed items that are simply a pleasure to look at. GRUMPUS is probably the most clever and personal of the minis in this group, about a cartoonist being lectured and yelled at by his many "selves", who then lash out at his partner. The situation escalates until we reach its inevitable punchline. YOUR MUG COMPANION MINI-COMIC is a micro-mini that shows off his absurd sense of humor, as it's suggested that mugs can be mittens, we see "Mug The Musical" and get a Chris Ware-style daydream story. It's one of my favorite of his comics. HEY. BE QUIET is another comic with an escalating series of events riffing on a single joke or premise, this time a series of fart jokes that ends with a really big fart joke.

Finally, there's his untitled and full-color comic about cavemen. The composition, rather than his linework, is the real star of this comic. The way he stages his action sequences and uses color to breathe life into his characters is remarkable. At this point, I've enjoyed most every mini Lambert's published. I'm curious as to where he's going next. I can see him collaborating with any number of writers (his THE BAIT AND SWITCH with Dane Martin was one of his best comics). I can see him simply collecting a number of short stories. What might be interesting is if he has a longer narrative in him, and how his voice will continue to develop.

Alex Kim continued the streak of CCS artists picking up a Xeric grant, and this is the first time I've dug into his work. He has an idiosyncratic, squiggly line that gives his figures a vibratory quality. It gives even quiet scenes a sort of liquid, kinetic feel. THE BIRD AND THE BEAR shows off his greatest strength as an artist: body language. His figurework is simple but expressive, but the way he positions his characters in relation to each other tells so much of his story--from where they lay next to each other in bed, how they eat, etc. This story is about a couple drifting apart who accidentally become masked vigilantes after a costume party. The way Kim shifts the story after the man is badly injured takes that body language that he carefully establishes and twists it. The way their "job" takes on a life of its own beyond them, making them wonder why they still did it (and by the same token, why they were still together) is one of those questions that the protagonists dread to answer.

Like many of the SUNDAYS editors, Kim enjoys collaborations. MEDUSA is an adaptation of a poem by Jessica Abston that once again uses posture as an important story element. Here, a woman "freezes" her boyfriend or at least tries to, as we see him leaning, stooping and bending in a swooping, trembling line. Trying to turn to stone something that's in frenetic movement is the contradiction that Kim captures from Abston's text. HEY GUY is an extremely attractive mini that he did with Chuck Forsman. One half of the mini is written by Kim and drawn by Forsman; flip it over, and the reverse is true. Forsman likes writing scenes in diners with salt-of-the-earth types, and "Fortune City" makes use of Kim's wavy lines in a diner argument and tale of woe. "Touch (Me)", written by Kim and drawn by Forsman, is a creepy but oddly touching story that makes use of Forsman's eccentric character design as we meet a healer who cannot talk to those she helps. The way the story is told as a conversation between the healer and her assistant (who talks to her "customers") is extremely clever. Kim sets up an off-panel conflict with her father while the action in the story is never explained.

Kim's Xeric-winning comic is WALL CITY. It's the story of a depressed EMS worker and a woman whose sister commits suicide, and how they find each other. Minty, the paramedic, is haunted by the suicide of his own father and his increasing inability to communicate with his girlfriend. That difficulty in communicating is a running theme of sorts in Kim's work. Eventually, Minty finds himself drawn to the woman, and she leads him outside of the city to a barren hole. This is where the story takes a sharp turn into metaphor, while still completely playing it straight.

Inside the vast hole is machinery that's stuck in there. She encourages him to join her in cleaning it out and creating a wall of electronics. When he protests "I can't help you. I don't even know what this is", she replies, "Does it matter? You can make it what you want. You can give it meaning." He wants to leave with her after a time, but she finds she can't leave the wall--and tells him that he's meant to leave. When he returns and someone asks, "Why have you come to our wall", he simply replies, "I've learned to live with it." What this means is he's come to terms with his depression. WALL CITY is about depression, desperation, the void, searching out and finding false connections, grief and the process of mourning. Kim has proven himself to be one of the most versatile of the CCS artists I've seen to date and has a promising career ahead of him.

Finally, let's discuss SUNDAYS 2. The circle of artists involved in this edition was a little tighter, with just 13 artists in 70 pages. There seemed to be a bit more editorial consistency in this edition and the result was a more coherent gestalt. Most of the stories in SUNDAYS 2 were funny. Some had gags, but most had the mark of some truly cruel senses of humor. There's more than a little hint of madness in many of the stories as well. Ken Dahl's recurring "Professor Obstacle" character teaches operant conditioning by forcing his young , annoying assistant to lick his boots or else get shocked. Dahl really sells his gag by detailing just how disgusting the professor's boots are and how fried the assistant gets by the end. Dahl reminds me a bit of Roger Langridge in this story. Joseph Lambert did the introductory and endpieces, punning on "Sunday" and creating a flowing narrative of a couple of kids interacting with their environment--and not always peacefully.

Chuck Forsman tells the story of a mad ice-breaking captain and his sorry fate, while Jeff Lok spins a twisted fairy tale. The scene where one of two anthropomorphic animal bank robbers starts to lose his mind and shoots the sun istruly disturbing. Bryan Stone details the quotidian adventures of Onionhead, a sad sack who works at an electronics store and is quite a pathetic figure. Sam Gaskin throws out the single funniest page with a straightforward "documentary" about the rapper MC Sleepy ZZZ, piling joke after joke atop a loony premise. Sean Ford does a dialogue between two ghosts where we slowly learn who they are and why they're there, creating a narrative out of the antagonistically friendly relationship between the two ghosts.

Alex Kim's entries are about the fighting eagle Ambassador Sqwaa, and work both as stylish, brooding adventure stories and parodies of same. In the first story, he is regretfully forced to kill his enemy, a fish in a robot suit. In the second, his wife is killed by a rodent in another robot suit. Alexis Frederick-Frost's story is more straightforward, using heavy brushwork to tell the story of a bird plucked out of a jungle for a woman in a shop. J.P. Coovert tells a similarly kinetic tale about a boy and his dog going through all sorts of adventures to wind up in heaven, in the form of a castle in the sky (a tribute to CCS itself). The most impressive story came from Dane Martin, an awesomely strange and violent fairy tale about fratricide and betrayal. Martin's completely loopy character design, settings and dialogue somehow make the violence portrayed even more devastating. Betrayal of the most personal kind seems to be a running concern in the few Martin stories I've read, and their visceral quality is what makes them so effective.

The format of the book was in landscape this time, which seemed to better fit most of the artists. Every artist in the book seems to have grown bolder and more confident with both their art and their subject matter since the last edition. I had a real sense that the stories in SUNDAYS 2 were done with a lot of commitment in mind, specifically for the anthology. There was very little throwaway or filler material in here, and all of the work fit nicely together, a tribute to the editors of the book. Working together seems to have brought out the best in the CCS artists, and I hope they're able to keep the anthology going.

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