Saturday, July 30, 2011

CCS Anthologies: Werewolf IV, Werepups, Kids, Visions of the Aporkalypse

Let's take a look at three recent anthologies by students and alumni from the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Visions of the Aporkalypse, edited by Kevin Uehlein. The theme of this very silly anthology was perhaps a bit too limiting: humans doomed by the revenge of the pigs. Most of the artists turned in the same kind of story: pigs (led by an all-powerful "swine-clops" figure) rising up, devouring or otherwise sacrificing humans. It's a pretty thin concept, made even thinner by an overabundance of pin-up pages, as opposed to actual stories. And of course, the revenge theme of an animal being bred for food makes some of these stories as subtle as a sledgehammer. That said, there were three stories that elicited a chuckle. Betsey Swardlick's "bacon-porn" story, while as subtle as that aforementioned sledge-hammer, was still funny in the extreme she went to in depicting a man sexually excited by bacon and the revenge his wife gets on him as a result. Nomi Kane's story about a pig king getting ready to sacrifice humans but being urged by a minister to spare the Jews (since they didn't eat pork) had a very amusing punchline (seems like everyone makes an exception for bacon, even pigs!). The best story in the anthology was Carl Mefferd's "Meat Is Murder", which features a group of anthropomorphic pigs liberating a human processing center...only to face a rather gruesome end when nature takes its course. All told, this was one of the lesser CCS anthologies I've seen, though as always its presentation was attractive and its design was clever.

Werewolf IV and Werepups, edited by Penina Gal, Betsey Swardlick, Josh Rosen & Nick Patten. This particular editorial collective has done a fine job of showcasing a wide variety of story types from what would seem to be a fairly limited theme. They wisely chose to end the series with their fourth volume after the third started to run a bit thin in terms of material, but piggybacked it with a minicomic aimed at kids. Given that a number of small press conventions tend to have kids looking for material aimed at them, it was wise of the editors to create Werepups. It's a lovely package, featuring (as always) glow-in-the-dark paint on the cover. It's a short anthology at just 32 pages, which again is a perfect length for its audience.

The line-up is a strong one, starting with Melissa Mendes' "Where-Wolf?". Already specializing in comics featuring the experiences of children, this story is a lark about a young girl trying to keep a bag of meat destined for grandma's house safe. When she invites her best friend to come along, she should have checked to see if there was a full moon out. Mendes' open page design is as reminiscent of children's books as it is comics. Penina Gal's "Crisis In Jamlandia" is another story with an open layout, this time two panels to a page. In her typically scratchy and expressive style, Gal tells a story of two twin musicians who befriend a group of werewolves who want to play in a band but are afraid to go out in public. Nomi Kane's clean line is a nice contrast to the prior two stories with a two pager about a wolf who is confused when he wakes up wearing a tie, only to make the horrible realization that he can turn into a human!

Colleen Frakes, who specializes in folklore and monsters, does a fun segment about "Werewolf Tips and Tricks", a handbook for dealing with lycanthropes that works because of her light touch and delicate line. After several stories that are mostly restrained, Betsey Swardlick goes broad with "Double-Team", a typically funny story featuring teen werewolves at a summer camp forced to play teen vampires in a soccer match. Her comics have a frantic quality to them, usually climaxing in some sort of loud bang-up or crash, and this one is no exception. Swardlick's work really came alive in the course of these Werewolf anthologies, mixing slice-of-life stories with the supernatural. Her scratchy pencils contrast well with Dakota McFadzean's "We Like The Moon", a Joseph Lambert-style tale of a girl wanting to see the moon with her dog but worried that it's too cloudy. This is a simple tale made clever thanks to McFadzean's page design, wherein the reader sees the moon in the top set of panels but the girl and her dog don't, thanks to the clouds acting as a very thick sort of panel border. In another clever device, everything the dog says about the moon winds up being true, including the rabbit in the moon who eventually blows the clouds away. McFadzean's storytelling solutions in this story are ingenious, making full use of the formal properties of comics without losing track of his narrative.

The last issue of Werewolf, is a solid send-off and an improvement over the third issue. What I like best about it is its varied tone, from autobiographical to genre adventure to slice-of-life humor to straight-up gag work to horror. Jesse Lonergan's "Battle of the Bands" was a cute series of riffs on genre types as indy bands, with groups like The Zombies singing about eating brains and The Mummies breaking of a Chuck-D style rhyme. The payoff gag, featuring a group's unlikely werewolf transformation, flatters Lonergan's compositional skills as well as his angular, cartoony character design. My favorite story in the book came from Annie Murphy, whose "Queerwolf" was an autobio story about going to an elementary school to teach comics and coming up against the way gender and identity get locked in at such an early age for children. She aims to break that up by working with the class on a comic about a female werewolf. There's a touching simplicity and sincerity to this story as well as a dose of humor that's not always a hallmark of Murphy's work. Murphy is an impressive young talent who hasn't published a lot of comics to date, but they're certainly all worth tracking down.

"Lock and Load" by Jon Chad is a typically well-drawn story by him that serves to provide an unexpected punchline to what seems to be a silly flub by its main character. Penina Gal's "Wolfsbane" benefits from her simple, stick-figure drawings and small panels. Quirky horror artist Denis St. John's "Mangia La Mia Carne" is a bizarre bit of fetish-fiction about a woman who is a bit too turned on by what wolves can do. Luke Eastman's "Knacker" is a visceral tale of an animal carcass collector who may not be what he seems. Only Ryland Ianelli's "The Curse of the Wearwolf" felt undercooked to me, with sloppy drawing and unclear storytelling. It felt like a last-minute submission.

Two of the series' editors, Swardlick & Rosen, have also turned in some of the most consistently interesting work in the series. The latest chapter of Swardlick's "FailWolves" serial finds the two twentysomething female werewolves meeting more of their kind but finding they fit in as well with other lycanthropes as they do with the rest of society. As always, her dialogue is witty (though a couple of spelling mistakes stood out) and her line is agreeably sloppy & expressive. She may not be a top-drawer draftswoman, but she is clearly a talented cartoonist. Rosen's werewolf hunter character is appealing both in terms of narrative possibilities as well as design, thanks to Rosen's clear-line style. At some point, a collection of the best of all four issues of the anthology would yield a strong volume. Collections of the serials from Swardlick & Rosen would also seem to make sense. The success of the anthology is a tribute to its editors' commitment to providing diverse material, while allowing each artist to do what they do best.

Kids, edited by Melissa Mendes & Jose-Luis Olivares. This is the strongest of the anthologies I discuss here, which isn't a big surprise considering that its lineup is similar to that of the Sundays anthology group. That includes Mendes and Olivares, who are the editors of this well-curated 64-page effort. The theme is simple: comics about childhood in its various incarnations. For many of the artists invited to contribute, writing about childhood was already one of their main storytelling interests, so doing a story for an anthology such as this was not much of a stretch. Mendes kicks off the issue with a wordless strip about a kid waking up in the night, quietly sneaking out of the house, and then dropping his/her pajama bottoms and dancing. The rubbed charcoal style resembles crayon and is a nice invocation of a story about a kid that involves some aspect of the sort of drawing a child would make.

Robyn Chapman's "Krissy's House" is done in her minimalist clear-line style, and it's an autobio story about hanging out at the house of a friend as a pre-teen. The tone of the story is purely joyful, even if Chapman's adult perspective makes her understand that Krissy came from an extremely poor family. Chuck Forsman's "Witch Beach" was a touching and strange story about a young girl who declares to her (witch?) mother that she had decided that she no longer needed parents and informed her of this. There's a great panel where her mother panics but decides to play it cool by telling her daughter Icky to go outside to see what her father was doing. In another heart-crushing panel, Icky tries to tell her dad the same thing but the broken man says "I'm really not up to the whole 'father' thing right now". However, Icky's proclamation makes him feel better, and the two then share a moment both absurd and intimate. Forsman's cartoony and slightly fragile line are key in how he wrings emotion from these encounters without becoming mawkish.

Nate Beaty's "LCB" is a bit of silliness about some 80s breakdancing kids busting moves, battling rivals and videotaping themselves for demo purposes. It shares the light touch found in the rest of the anthology's stories. Lydia Conklin's "The Kittens Hate You" is another story in a series of strips about the ways in which children can be cruel to each other. It's about a bunch of kittens in a barn and how two girls are each given a chance to hang out with them. When one girl's time is up, she imagines the kittens telling her how much more they like her--and a funny competition ensues as to whom can get the most affection on demand from one of the cats. As always, there's a scratchy ugliness to Conklin's style, as she refuses to idealize or make childhood seem cute in any way.

Alex Kim's story about a young girl who has an unspoken crush on an older boy who has a crush on her older sister does a lot of its storytelling without saying a word. The weird little girl has no way to verbalize her feelings in general, as she sets up a tent outside the house and growls at the boy when the boy comes around to try to talk to the girl. Kim's use of spotted blacks and his slightly vibrating line are his trademarks and they're put to good use here to lend a sense of the young girl's anxiety. An anthology about kids has to have a story by Joseph Lambert, and here Lambert contributes a two-pager about a pair of young brothers fighting sleep and each other. Lambert's lettering is a crucial part of his overall aesthetic, matching the outsized and exaggerated nature of childhood itself.

Melissa's sister Amy contributes a two-page memory of herself, her sister and their mother dancing outside in the rain. It's a lovely image, more of an illustration than a comic. The anthology then shifts from this realistically rendered story to Max De Radigues' more bigfoot, cartoony style in his depiction of a young boy discovering a witch in the forest trying to turn animals into children. It's not a scary moment, because he then reveals that he knows the witch intimately and even makes suggestions for success. It winds up being a wonderfully touching strip about familial connection with a gentle sense of humor.

Olivares' "Made of Sand" features tiny figures and small panels, mixing fantasy and magic. In it, we see a young boy who discovers a tiny princess in a sand castle who asks for a starfish. He finds one and sets out to bring it to her, only to find that the castle has been demolished. I love the way Olivares has his character close his eyes while walking, imagining a world opening up in front of him. James Hindle's "Trash Heap" is about a teenage boy who rebels against his parents and winds up making a friend on the street, and they're extremely close until the other boy tires of him and heads out of town with a rich girl. Hindle really gets at the ache of how teens attach so much meaning to the friendships and relationships, even if they don't quite understand how that attachment is frequently not reciprocated.

Once again, the anthology rarely presents the same style twice in a row, so the transition this time is to Dane Martin's scratchy, feverish line, anthropomorphic characters and absurd yet disturbing story ideas. Martin switches character perspectives in a dizzying and hilarious manner, displacing the upsetting narrative events he creates with a crazy transition. The final story is more autobio, this time by David Libens. It's another story with a fragile, scratchy line about the ways in which the roles of children and parents can switch in times of stress. Everything about this anthology is well-designed without being overly fussy; I love the touch of the photos of the contributors as children being posted on refrigerators (complete with magnetic letters that spell out "comics" holding them up) as well as the hand-stamped letters spelling out "Kids" on the cover in paint. Hopefully there will be future volumes of this anthology.

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