Sunday, May 1, 2011

New Post: The Minicomics of Steve Seck

Steve Seck is a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies who is currently crafting a slacker humor series in both webcomics and minicomics form. Life is Good can best be described as a cross between Pogo and Hate, if that makes any sense. There's also a bit of John Kerschbaum's work to be found in these pages. These comics are interesting because they're a clinic in how a young cartoonist can hide their weaknesses while highlighting their strengths as they figure things out in public. As a draftsman, Seck is competent but unremarkable. He sometimes relies too much on hatching and shading to the detriment of the page as a whole. There's something ugly about his art and figure work in particular.



Seck understands that ugly can be funny. He compensates for his deficiencies as a draftsman by rendering his characters as anthropomorphic animals and objects. His figures are expressive and bizarre, drawing in the eye with great ease. He draws his character's eyes as thick vertical lines, topped by thick horizontal lines as eyebrows. That simple technique gives him quick and total mastery over his characters' facial expressions, which is key because the reactions of his characters set up much of his humor. Mixing cartoony, expressive art with grotesque imagery has been a standard part of the underground comics playbook for more than forty years, but Seck breathes his own life into the formula thanks to the voices he creates for his characters.



The series follows the exploits of Brownie, an anthropomorphic beer bottle living in the city who has just lost his job. His best friend is Charles, a drunken alligator who lives in the pond of a public park. The series follows the increasingly pathetic and drunken adventures of the slightly uptight Brownie and the reckless & slightly stupid Charles in a manner that reminds me a bit of the relationship between Buddy Bradley and Stinky Brown in Hate. There's a friendship there, but Brownie also feels a good bit of antipathy for Charles, especially when it involves bringing in true lowlifes like the hilarious Sewer Gator, a hypermasculine idiot who loves to get drunk, get into literal pissing matches and challenge people to fights.



At the other end of the social commentary spectrum there's Dr Peace Rock and his common-law wife Unity Flower. An anthropomorphic flower and tree, respectively, Seck sets them up for a savage satire of the impotence and self-aggrandizement of lefty academic types. The unctuous Dr Peace Rock is a marvelously slimy character, manipulating and passive -aggressively browbeating his mate into "correct" action while ruining her bookstore business and mocking her for being "merely" vegan. The later issue where we see a very different side of their relationship, this time from her point of view, was surprisingly poignant and affecting. If Seck pours the invective on a bit thick here, it's clear that he's doing the same for all of his characters, who are all deeply and amusingly flawed. Brownie in particular is partly a voice of reason, but he makes spectacularly bad life choices while sitting in judgment of others.

There's a sort of rambling narrative to this comic, as Brownie negotiates being unemployed and Charles winds up as the spokesman for a clean up the park protest organized by Dr Peace Rock (even as he makes Unity Flower do all the work). Of course, Charles is responsible for wrecking the park in the first place. That narrative is mostly there to keep the characters moving and interacting with each other so as to create conflict and jokes. Seck could stand to liven up his layouts a bit in order to pick up the energy of his book. He has funny-looking characters which would allow him to stretch the limits of reality a bit (a la Peter Bagge's Hate) while still retaining the internal logic of his story's structure. Too many of his pages are static and feature talking heads. Even the pages with action sometimes tend to relegate it to the upper corners of the page, blunting their impact. When he does liven things up a bit (mostly when Sewer Gator, his funniest character, is around), his line gets a bit crazier. Those are the pages that take the greatest advantage of his particular visual style.

That style is in its best effect in the one-off The Trial of Sweetie Snake, a comic influenced as much by Looney Tunes as they are any particular comic. It's a take-off on the OJ Simpson trial by way of a snake killing a prospector after donning a number of disguises. It's jammed full of visual "eye-pops", bad puns and ridiculous situations. It lacks the slice-of-life dialogue that informs the characters in Life Is Good, but maintains a higher and more manic level of energy throughout. Seck continues to grow as a cartoonist and humorist and shows a lot of potential. Each issue of Life Is Good is stronger than the next as he is able to build on his character development and put them through increasingly weird and awkward situations. He's already done the hard part by developing his own voice and style; from here on out, it's all about refinement and increasing his own personal degree of difficulty.

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