Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Jon Chad Comics: Bikeman and Drop Target
Jon Chad is one of the best of the Center for Cartoon Studies' grads in terms of pure technical skill. In terms of character design, backgrounds, body language and detail, his comics are a joy to look at. He creates a fully-defined world for his characters to inhabit, jammed with clearly-delineated leaves, branches and small objects. The clarity of his line and understanding of when to emphasize character over place means that every panel is remarkably easy to parse and process. He switches between the naturalistic depiction of animals, cartoonish character design and diagram-ready drawings of bicycles and makes all three cohabit the same panel without jarring the reader. In fact, Chad deliberately tries to create visual tensions in order to draw readers in, drawing characters and evoking a world that are simultaneously grotesque and absurd, realistic and silly, dense and light.
Bikeman is his fantasy series where all of these factors come together. In almost every respect, the world he creates is a familiar one: a vaguely medieval world where hard-working villagers struggle in a world filled with intelligent and frequently vicious animals and mercenaries. The kicker in the story is that everything in this world revolves around the use of bicycles, many of whom are sentient at roughly the same level as a dog or horse. As a result, fashion and language revolves around bicycles as well (there's a character who wears glasses with spokes on them), a conceit that would be ridiculous if it wasn't played straight by Chad. The first issue of the series introduced as to the young villager who's the primary protagonist, as well as the titular character. He's a bike shepherd who wears a crafted bear's head to indicate his connection to the fierce but benevolent animals he's devoted to. Each issue has widened the scope of the world to Jeff Smith levels (it's clear that Chad owes a lot to Smith's world-building in Bone), introducing a bounty-hunting human with a grudge against the Bikeman, a pack of evil wolves who also seek revenge on the Bikeman and his guardian bears, a host of villagers, an intelligent bike who can speak, and a variety of other characters and conflicts. Other than a few minor errors here and there (spelling gaffes, a few lines that could be tightened up a bit), this is a marvelous bit of fantasy storytelling. Hopefully, Chad will continue to take his time and let things play out slowly.
I also wanted to mention Chad's pinball zine/minicomic Drop Target, which he co-writes with Alec Longstreth. Anyone with even a passing interest in pinball machines will enjoy this labor of love, as Chad & Longstreth interview the owners of a pinball-centric bar in Portland (and former editors of a pinball zine), talk about their favorite game, dream up and design new games, and talk about places with good pinball machines. The highlight of the issue as a comics reader is "From Zeroes to Heroes", Longstreth's typically breathless account of how he and Chad became obsessed with pinball machines. This is a niche zine, to be sure, but it's an obvious labor of love and done with a meticulousness that one would expect from Chad and Longstreth. Chad has done illustrations for some childrens' books and has his own kids' comic coming out in 2012, and I sense that he could very well have a career trajectory similar to Smith: working in genre fiction and alternating between work aimed squarely at kids and work that's slightly darker.