Saturday, May 7, 2011
New Post: Minicomics From Aaron Cockle
Annotated #6, by Aaron Cockle and Derring-Do #5: Derring-Dune represent a new arm of elliptical storytelling and comics-as-poetry. Cockle's latest issue of his one-man anthology Annotated may be his best yet. As always, his comics are suffused with dread, paranoia and the absurd, but this issue punctuates this atmosphere with unexpected punchlines. The first story, "The Proto-Reactionaries", is about a diplomat visiting a writer held in some kind of concentration camp. The two men exchange information about some kind of monstrous world-wide conspiracy. The diplomat has a beard of bees, while the prisoner has a beard composed of broccoli. That tiny absurdist touch not only winds up defining the differing levels of privilege of the two men (as well as providing a point of tension), it also leads to a killer punchline.
Throughout this mini, Cockle uses a more minimalist line and an interesting compositional device. Every page has huge but even swaths of white space at the top and bottom, pushing the panels into a single square in the center of each page. Thick gutters make it easy to go from panel to panel, but the way Cockle forces the eye in the "action" of the page in its center is intentionally jarring. Despite the stillness of his storytelling style (indeed, this comic lacks a kinetic charge), the reader is nonetheless made to believe that every single panel contains powerful, essential information. It's a neat trick that helps inculcate that sense of dread and paranoia in the reader, making them expect the worst on any given page. Keeping his art and figures simple also allows the reader to fly from panel to panel; in the past, Cockle's deficiencies as a draftsman sometimes detracted from the atmosphere he tried to create.
Take '>', for example. This is another slice of espionage mixed with absurdism, as two agents report to giant-headed creatures about the activities of a group of people. Cockle's use of negative space and blacks here aims at baffling the reader, until the final reveal and punchline turns this into an office comedy. The figures are rendered as simply as possible, with the reveal of the giant-headed creatures coming as a shock but acting in a matter-of-fact fashion. "1-15" is a more typically grim Cockle story about a report on a woman who makes reports in notebooks. It's implied that the third-person narrative is really a first-person account of her own thoughts. Visually, it's the most interesting thing Cockle has done to date, as he dips into uninked pencil drawings for a dream sequence and mixed media combined with "text-jamming" in a panel about reclaiming old text. At its heart, this story is about the possibility of creation and being forced to deal with what Lynda Barry refers to as The Two Questions: "Is this good? Do I suck?" In the process of trying to create, these are the questions that strangle creativity and lead to despair. By simplifying his line, Cockle has allowed more complex aspects of his work to take center stage. Hopefully we will continue to see him continue to refine his line.
Derring-Do #5, subtitled "Derring-Dune", is listed as the "Science Fiction Issue". The anthology includes Cockle's '>' (here called "The Micropolitan") as well as a wonderfully sketchy story by Brendan Leach, whose Pterodactyl Hunters was a favorite comic from last year. Most of the other artists contribute wonderfully oblique stories that each touch on futuristic topics in different ways. Laura Laurus offers two "future" strips from The New Yorker, positing a kind of topical humor based on superficial future trends. Ray Bruwlheide's "work" uses Floyd Gottfredson-style art in its depiction of a future where we all wear TVs on our heads that depict our thoughts. It's a silent story that uses the the rhythms of early animation that plays out in an expected distopic fashion but is a genuine pleasure to look at. Michael Rae Grant's "Fourth Dimension" strips, which involve asking 4th and 5th dimensional creatures what it's like in their spheres, turns out to be hilarious and visually engaging.
Matthew Phelan's story and Bruwelhelde's "Party" are far more conventional narratives, with the former in particular feeling somewhat cliched in creating its high-stakes future-capitalist atmosphere. Sara Lautman's strips are scribbly to a degree where it can be difficult to engage them, though I was fascinated by the nature of that scribble. Katie Fricas' "Santa's First Christmas" is an odd duck even compared to the other stories, employing white-on-black psychedelia with an immersive quality as its letters become part of the art. All told, this is a surprisingly coherent minicomics anthology with nice production values and differing but complementary styles of art and storytelling. The only real negative is that several of these stories were the first chapters of longer stories, which is a pet peeve of mine for anthology series, with some exceptions. In what was otherwise a cohesive reading experience, leaving the reader hanging was bothersome, especially since one was left wanting more.