Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Comics Journalism of Josh Kramer

Cartoon Picayune #2 by Josh Kramer. Kramer, like Dan Archer before him, had journalism on his mind when he went to the Center for Cartoon Studies. Unlike Archer, whose comics have a political bent, Kramer seems to prefer human interest stories. The second issue of his journalistic anthology series finds him including other correspondents, but all of them are subject to his rigid rules regarding sourcing and quotes. Even if the stories are drawn as a narrative with dialogue, Kramer makes a point of making the reader understand that his stories are "rigorously reported". The Cartoon Picayune reminds me most of Brendan Burford's Syncopated anthology, which features similar first and second person reporting styles. Unsurprisingly, Kramer's reach is a local one, with stories about a local high school ski jumping team, a gubernatorial primary, a day camp for rock, and the evolution of a local brewing company.

"Fly By Night" is hampered by being the second part of a story about that ski jumping team. The angles he was approaching did become quickly evident, however, like the young rookie girl and the team's star who was trying to beat the best jumper in the state. When Kramer is drawing diagrams or depicts motion, his art is certainly up to the task of getting across his ideas. His major flaw as an artist is depicting different faces. In this story that features so many different characters, this is a significant problem. I think Kramer is cognizant enough of this problem to get around it by emphasizing emotion through using lettering and body language. Kramer is admirable in that he doesn't try goosing the results of his story to make it more dramatic, which is especially unusual for a sports-related story. Instead, Kramer is more interested in the mechanics of the sport, how the kids got into it, and the minutiae of how a ski jump meet is conducted. In terms of the action, Kramer is best at drawing sharp angles, which made him perfect for depicting the actual jumps.

"School's In For Summer" sees Kramer change some of his approach a bit, giving his characters tiny white circles for eyes. There are still some awkward drawings of characters in some panels, but there's generally a better balance between character and background. The story itself is a quick but thorough examination of a "school of rock" summer program, going through the program's goals and interviewing some of the kids. Kramer also did a separate mini called One Place, One Cheese, which details the process two local cheesemakers go through in creating their product, as well as providing other details about their lives. In each of his stories, Kramer has a way of letting his subjects speak for themselves without adding his own editorializing as to why they're interesting or significant. The simple choice he makes to write about them indicates that he thinks they're worth of reportage.

Bill Volk's story about the history of Iron City Beer in Pittsburgh, "'arn", suffers a little from letting the new CEO talk at length without really challenging any of his premises. Volk's cartooning is quite lively, however, and the slightly grotesque touch he added to his character designs was an interesting choice. The folksy reporting style of James Sturm and the delicate character drawings of Katherine Roy were a perfect match in the depiction of a day in the life of a candidate for the governorship of Vermont, "Honk and Wave". Given that this was a story consisting entirely of talking heads, it was to Roy's credit that she made it so interesting to look at. Kramer certainly did a nice job as an editor, balancing three different kinds of stories in the sort of anthology that's quite rare. Kramer's rock-solid standards as a journalist and his editorial eye are a great foundation for his work; it will simply take time and experience as a cartoonist to bring that aspect of his work up to the rest of his standards.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Brief Comments On Short CCS Minis

Finding Moby Dick, by Laura Terry. This is "a collection of sketches, drawings and comics"; more half-formed ideas than anything coherent. I don't have any interest in critiquing the content, given that the ideas are half-formed. Instead, I wanted to mention that this little sketchbook mini (in full color, no less) is further evidence of just how far Terry has come as an artist. Her figure work is so much more self-assured, for one thing, as is her general command over line and using different line weights. Most impressive, however, is the highly expressive way she uses color. In one story snippet, she shapes the story of a shipwreck using only midnight blue and blacks for spotting. Another image of three skeletons dancing on the ocean is rendered in aqua blue and sea-foam green. Her figure work in general is lively, full of personality and edged with humor. This is an artist who's ready for a leap forward in terms of the scope of ambition in her projects.

Zee Leetle Prince, by Katie Moody. This mini is an interesting exercise in style, as Moody takes the classic story by Antoine de Saint-Exupery "as filtered through Ed Emberley". Moody turns the book into kind of a goof for kids, rendering the characters in illustration teacher Emberley's trademark simple style (everything is basic geometric figures, lines, and squiggles--things almost anyone can draw) and adding a Pepe' LePew style French patois (The first line of the comic is "Zere wonce was a leetle prince"). The only problem with the comic was that there simply weren't enough images, and most of those images were just too small. An Emberley-style book packs a lot of visual punch into each page, even if the figures themselves are tiny, and this was dominated by text. That's not to say that the mini didn't have its charms, especially since Moody never strayed from the silliness of her text, but it didn't succeed in what she set out to do.

Moose #3 and #4, by Max de Radigues. De Radigues' series takes true narrative form in these two issues. The protagonist of the series, a nervous teen named Joe, is exhibiting all sorts of odd behavior, we learn, because of the way he's harassed by a bully. He has the opportunity to talk to a teacher about it in #3, but with his tormentor standing right outside the door, he has to hold it in. This issue is all about setting up the hopelessness of his situation in conventional terms. The fourth issue is about Joe managing to hide from the bully and his crony (whom he keeps in line with threats of physical violence when he's not gung-ho about torturing Joe). There's a sweetness to this issue as Joe doesn't exactly solve his problem, but he does derive some satisfaction from frustrating his nemesis (whose self-esteem seems to derive entirely from tormenting him). As always, de Radigues uses a fragile, simple line that emphasizes angles and negative space. His characters, though simply-rendered, are lively and bursting with emotion. de Radigues' ability to portray body language is remarkably intuitive, and he seems to thrive doing this short episodes that include eye-catching covers and incidental illustrations by guest artists.

Freeloader #1, by Nomi Kane. This is a typically charming and well-drawn set of short strips about being unemployed and living with one's parents after graduating from college. Her thoughts turn from her preferred job (illustration) to slightly less glamorous pursuits (like waitress, delivery person and stripper). Kane's all about the gag in this story (her bit about being unable to jiggle as a stripper was especially amusing), though the gag covers up real stress. This comic is also about the rare opportunity she has to live with her parents for an extended time as an adult, which is both stressful (because of the limbo she finds herself in) and an unexpected delight. Kane's character design and self-caricature are enormously appealing and have always been her major strength as an artist, and this comic is no exception.

Twelve New Drawings, by DW. DW is a CCS student who is clearly heavily influenced by Fort Thunder and the old Highwater Books comics. His drawings have the raw, hypnotic power of Ron Rege and Marc Bell, without the level of craft and sophistication of those two masters. There's not much narrative at work here, but each page is worth close inspection as DW mixes decorative patterns with hidden messages, surprising images and even small narrative snippets. It feels like sketchbook work, a form of graphomania almost, in that the artist is drawing just to draw, to make marks on paper. His bold sense of design is something that will serve him well as he shapes this vision, especially since CCS emphasizes narrative structure in even its most avant-garde students. He's someone to keep an eye on.
Early, by Joseph Lambert. This is a full-color charmer that involves Lambert's typical subjects: quarrellous little kids and the sun and moon as anthropomorphic beings. This eight pager finds a kid getting mad at the sun for melting his ice cream cone and throwing a spider at him. The sun freaks out and sinks early (a lovely metaphor for the way time can pass for a child), only to reemerge later and ask the moon if she's afraid of spiders. What's interesting about this strip is that Lambert cuts way down on his typical level of detail in favor of letting the color tell the story. The back cover has the unexpected bonus of telling the story from the poor spider's point of view.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Music As Map: Beth Hetland

The first two issues of Beth Hetland's Fugue are indicative of a young artist who has taken on an ambitious, personal project as one of her first major works. Choosing to attempt to depict music on the comics page is a particularly difficult trick for a young artist, but Hetland's obvious understanding of musical composition turned this into one of the comic's main strengths. Fugue is the story of Patricia Gullo and her journey through music. Its subtitle is "a family in three parts", and that's the true focus of the book: the ways in which families support, pressure, disappoint and eventually pick each other up. While the performance of music is a key component of the story, the way music is written is even more important. A score is not the music, but rather a map or puzzle that can lead to the treasure of music once it's decoded. To go back to Dylan Horrocks' Hicksville, maps as we understand can be decoded to understand our relationship to space. Comics can be read to understand a narrative as it relates to time and space. A musical score, once played, makes the sublime audible. That is, music is not an art form that can be reduced to a privileged material structure (like a sculpture or painting) or even reproduced like a comic or book. The art form is not even the recording of the music; that is an imperfect attempt at capturing the sublime experience of hearing music in one's head as a composer does. Only the map of a piece of sheet music comes close to providing the clues that will allow a listener to pick up on this.

That's why Patricia throughout both issues is so obsessed with the composer's original intent: music isn't just about fun, self-expression and camaraderie (though these elements are important as well), it's about chasing the sublime experience. The first issue was about her having the courage to truly pursue music as her passion, to have the confidence to work hard in testing the limits of her talent. There's a great two page spread where her future boyfriend (and husband) gives her a tab of LSD and they listen to Pachelbel, an immersive experience that helps cement the idea that nothing is more important than music. Pursuing the sublime has its price, however, as she freezes up at her senior recital and is unable to perform. She's afflicted by a kind of vertigo as the fear is not of performing per se, but a fear of not doing justice to the work as it was originally scored. That fear of not being great is a paralyzing one, a fear that has nothing to do with creation or performance and has everything to do with expectation and judgment. Or as Lynda Barry puts it, the Two Questions: "Is this good?" "Does this suck?"

The second issue explores this dynamic with her three daughters. It's clear that they all have some kind of musical talent and/or interest, but it's immediately suggested by her husband that she's pushing them to do play. In other words, she wants to live vicariously through her children to finish the job of performing and grasping the sublime. But that's not what it's all about; indeed, she also simply wants to share herself with her children, to play with them as a way of expressing a mutual love for something they love dearly. Who better to play with than one's own children? And "play" is an interesting term to use, because just as playing an instrument is an expression of joy that's done with great seriousness, so is play for a young child a matter of great focus and concentration. Beyond wanting musical partners, Patricia wanted to pass on the simple joy of music to her children. It's something that keeps her in check when she was about to go too far in pressuring her children to play the way she wanted them to. The danger of inculcating a hatred of music in her children was too horrible to contemplate, and that allowed her to come to her senses before she went too far.

Still, the idea of one of her children being good enough to reach for that kind of musical mastery continued throughout the book. Her first daughter, Alison, was clearly a talented player but had no interest in learning how to read music. That was too much like work and music to her was simply a matter of pleasure. Her second daughter, Beth (presumably the author or the author's stand-in), could read and understand music (and certainly loved it), but she was much more interested in drawing than playing. It was the youngest daughter, Rachel, who shared the same gift as her mother. She was portrayed as being developmentally delayed: quiet, grim and distant, she doesn't talk until she was four (when she sneaks out of her blanket fortress to play at the piano). When everyone else noticed, she copped to learning by ear--which happened to be her first words! She grew up to have the same kind of talent as her mother, but faced the same dilemma: mastery of a certain Mozart piece was beyond her grasp, and the fear of not being able to face up to the task of performing the music in front of a group of witnesses paralyzed her just as her mother was paralyzed. She and her mother are both dreamers, something that gives both of them inspiration but also can provide the seeds of its own ruin.

I'll be curious to see how Hetland ties all of this up in a third issue, but I wanted to comment on some formal aspects of the work. First of all, Hetland repeats certain motifs throughout the comic much like a piece of music might. The most common set of "notes" she repeats is the passage of time as expressed as a child sitting at a piano bench, getting noticeably older panel-by-panel. There's also the sort of conflict and resolution you might hear in a symphony, expressed in the form of both panels and notes. Of course, the second issue resolves in much the same way as the first, providing each issue/movement with a recurring theme. The eyes of Hetland's characters are black dots, while their eyebrows are simple lines; clearly, they are meant to imitate notes on a scale. That's made clear on one page where notes and a stripped-down version of Rachel's face are presented in alternating panels. Hetland's line is simple and unfussy. The main critique I have of her work is that she's better at page design and panel composition than she is at drawing figures. Sometimes, the way figures interact with each other in space is distorted. Her anatomy (even the way she simplifies it on the page) is also wonky at times, with arms and legs bending at strange angles in otherwise normal scenes; even if this was intentional, it's a distraction to the simplicity of the story. Lastly, she relies too much on facial expression to get across body language, which has the effect of making the bodies somewhat irrelevant. It's not an accident that the pages that are talking heads and musical notes are the strongest in these comics. These drawbacks don't mar the ambition of these comics and the cleverness with which she's designed them. In her own pursuit of the sublime, Hetland has simply gone for it in a very public fashion, and I'll be excited to see how she manages to stick the landing.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Flipping the Channels: Ben Horak's Grump Toast

Of all the graduates of the Center for Cartoon Studies, Ben Horak seems to have improved the most. He always had crazed, violent and hilariously disturbing ideas, but didn't quite have the chops to carry them off. However, in his solo anthology series Grump Toast, he's proven that he is willing to do the work in order to get better. The odd twist in this series is that there are serials with recurring characters, each one quite different in tone. "Monkanonee" is Horak's quasi-autobio series, going to some rather odd places. For example, the first issue features Hoark's plans for his own funeral, which involve him being catapulted across canyon with dynamite strapped to his body as "Benny and the Jets" is being played, timed to explode at the chorus. This is pretty much Horak's sense of humor in a nutshell: off-kilter and spectacularly violent.

The apotheosis of this concept is his "Asphalt" character, a ridiculously over-the-top, deluded and quarrellous frump of a man. The design of the character is key to its success, as he resembles a 1970s detective with a trenchcoat, bushy moustache, sideburns, flapping tie and cigarette hanging out of his mouth. The first issue finds him trying to return a dog for a reward only to lose it and try to kidnap someone else's dog. The second issue starts with Asphalt waking up to discover that he has a switchblade sticking out of his side (after he initially thought it was just hunger pangs). The leads him to try to discover the source of his stabbing, sparking an amazingly visceral sequence where he tries to remember the bar he got drunk at the previous night, gets it wrong (unbeknownst to him) and proceeds to cudgel, gouge, punch and stomp every innocent person there. The payoff gag for the story is a particularly memorable one.

Horak veers between the violently exaggerated in "Asphalt" and the violently surreal in "Pinky Palms". The latter is about an anthropomorphic hand who is a Vegas-style lounge singer. In the first issue, he helps out the ghost of a fellow singer try to get back his girl, only to discover that she's become monstrous. The grotesqueness of that story paled in comparison to the story in the second issue, which finds Pinky trying to prevent the suicide of a friend on his birthday by throwing him a party, only to be menaced by pudding-spawned zombies. This story approaches Matthew Thurber levels of weirdness, and the simplicity of Horak's design and the control he has over his line makes it work.

There are other highlights, like the shenanigans of "Unfortunate Face", a serial wherein the disguise of certain characters inevitably reveals something horrible. His drawings of his toast mascot (shades of Alfred E Newman!) imitating characters from Horak's favorite movies are perfect filler. If there's a weak link in the series, it's "Giggleton Holocaust", an ultraviolent send-up of Warner Brothers characters. The strip doesn't work for two reasons: Horak's character design isn't quite rubbery enough to mimic the classic designs, and those cartoons were so incredibly violent in the first place that the parody falls flat. Fortunately, Horak doesn't linger on this strip for long, as he's only produced a few pages of it so far. There's a gleefulness to Horak's use of violence in these comics, a commitment to the sheer absurdity of these acts that eschews mean-spiritedness. At this point, Horak needs to continue to work on refining his line and perhaps adding more decorative touches to his backgrounds. I'd also be curious too see him modulate his tone a bit; he can only go over the top so often before he starts to run out of ideas. In particular, I'd love to see more of his "Monkanonee" and his autobiographical daydreams.

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.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Another Worthy Kickstarter Effort: Motherlover

I'd urge interested parties to donate to the Kickstarter fund for Motherlover, an anthology featuring Nic Breutzman, John Holden and Luke Holden. It's edited and colored by Raighne Hogan, whose 2D Cloud will be publishing it. I wrote the introduction to the book, which is unsettling and beautiful.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Comics Readers Digest: Hive #4

is an odd duck as far as anthologies go. It's not a standard anthology where all of its entries are new stories. Instead, editor Jordan Shiveley reprints stories from some of his contributors and gets new work from others. Shiveley's selections as editor are all over the place, ranging from personal & autobio stories to slick genre stories, arranged in a manner that occasionally defies rhyme or reason. Hive reminds me a bit of Josh Blair's Candy Or Medicine in that it looks like it takes all comers, from veterans looking for a venue to publish to new creators trying to get exposure. Hive is well-designed and attractive, but the size of the anthology doesn't always do its contributions justice.

For example, in issue #4, Hurk's story "Sculptor" is ill-served by the book's 5 x 8.5" dimensions. With 16 panels per page, there's a level of detail that's hard to parse given the small size of the page. The same was true for O'Shell's story, which had up to 17 panels on a page with tiny lettering. Even the strongest material in the book, a selection of Noah Van Sciver's best stories, doesn't look nearly as good as it did in his Blammo! series. There are other questionable publishing decisions, like publishing Jose' Antonio Alonso Barrueco's story in its original Spanish. I appreciate Shiveley's willingness to publish international material, but printing a story that its target audience can't read doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Another problem with the anthology is that Shiveley's tastes as an editor are too broad. Peter Richardson & David Orme's "Cloud 109" is a standard genre story, and a horrible example at that. The story is ill-suited to the anthology (it looks like this was originally a color story that was reduced to gray-scaling here), the lettering is tiny, the art is slick and soulless and the story itself trite & dull. That it takes up a full twenty pages of a 130 page anthology makes its presence all the more tedious.

That's unfortunate, because there are certainly the makings of a good anthology to be found here. Joe Decie is a real talent and the two-page anecdote he relates about his parents, New Year's Eve and toilet seats is hilarious. Cole Closser's "Sweet Sammy" looks like Shiveley took a minicomics version of the story, put it on a photocopier, and then printed the results. Strangely, that adds appeal to what looks and feels like an ancient artifact, as though Milt Gross did a minicomic decades ago. While Van Sciver's work isn't printed in a way that flatters it, these really are some of his best stories, like "Fame", "Process" and "Convention". Stories by Malachi Ward, Iain Laurie & Craig Collins were all welcome, if familiar contributions. In terms of artists who were new to me, I was impressed by John Kinhart's "Screw You" (a funny reminiscence of the consequences of swearing as a child) and Gloria's sparely-drawn strips about travel and grotesques. I'll be curious to see where the anthology goes from here; I like the idea of a well-designed entry-level anthology, but one with a sharper focus (even at the risk of printing lesser material) would make this a more consistent read.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Another Worthy Kickstarter Effort: The Strumpet

I've enjoyed Ellen Lindner's work for some time now, both her solo comics as well as the anthology she co-edited, Whores of Mensa. That anthology is being reconfigured and retitled as The Strumpet (a brilliant choice), and they're doing a Kickstarter campaign. They're only stumping for a modest $1000, and given the quality of the contributors (Lindner, Mardou, Megan Kelso, among others), I'm hoping they can meet their goal without too much trouble.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Four New CCS Anthologies

Anthologies have long been the lifeblood of the students and alumni of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Self-published anthologies are frequently the first place they publish, but many alumni continue to edit and publish them long after graduation. Let's take a look at four recent anthologies by alumni, students and faculty of CCS.

Too Far, edited by Joseph Lambert. This is a very strong anthology from One Percent Press, the minicomics and music collective that includes Lambert, JP Coovert and James Hindle. They've done a number of anthologies but this one shows both their growth as artists as well as their taste in picking new contributors. Of course, this is really Lambert's show in terms of editing and design, and one can clearly see him evolving in every aspect of comics. Hindle's piece, "Microscopic", combines the very specific pain of dealing with a one-way breakup with the sort of phenomenology of space as it applies to emotional states that Tom Kaczynski does so well. Alexis Frederick-Frost contributes a story done in his recent, more relaxed style that's not quite so heavy on the blacks. With that thinner line, he crams a ton of ornate but clear detail into a hilarious period piece about society functions and how women started wearing ever more ornate hats with live birds on them. This is a wonderfully witty story that fully exploits its premise and ends with a great punchline. Coovert's piece is one of his fantasy/autobio pieces involving an argument with his finger after he picked at it. This is a wisp of a story, but some of the cartooning involved is clever.

Jose-Luis Olivares offers a typically visually crazy story about Superman and Storm giving birth to a baby hurricane. His line is simple but dense, using thick, swirling strokes to create an atmosphere of chaos. At the same time, this story is whimsical yet strangely affecting emotionally. Even when Superman learns that Mickey Mouse is really the father (a move that scored Olivares a hat trick of copyright infringement), he embraces the baby as his own--even as it destroys the world. Lambert follows a story by one of the most original stylists from CCS with another, as we get a Dane Martin story involving his bizarre bird people. There's always an inchoate rage present in Martin's comics that matches the bleakness of his dotted backgrounds and the blank expressions on the faces of his characters.

Lambert's own story is his best-ever, perfectly encapsulating the theme of the anthology as expressed by its title. Lambert's stories tend to center around sibling rivalry and the viciousness it can entail, putting that conflict on a fantastic, over-the-top stage. This story sees a scared child literally eating his father and then the entire world (truly a "going too far" moment) and then following up on the ramifications of this action by exploring what happens to the world when it's eaten. Lambert always had flash and slickness in his line, but he's now branching out with experimental and even quirky solutions to visual problems. Finally, Alex Kim picks up on the eschatological themes present in this book with a story about a man at an Antarctic base being confronted by the end of the world in the person of a woman who shows up at his door to tell him the news. "Too far" in this instance is less about nuclear devastation than about an extra act of shocking cruelty, and the paranoia in the story is heightened by Kim's trademark wavy line. There's no question that Too Far is on my short list for best minicomic of the year.

Stranger Knights #2, edited by Bill Volk. Volk expanded this genre-based anthology from the first issue, and while there's some interesting and off-beat stories to be found, the anthology as a whole is sloppily assembled. The work of some of the contributors feels rushed and even dashed-off in some cases. It doesn't seem like any editing or proofreading was done on any of the submissions and the errors are glaring as a result. Mary Soper, for example, has a pleasant enough style, but it's hard to tell her characters apart. This comic looks like it was drawn on a computer, but in any event Soper's line lacks weight, depending way too much on gray-scaling to give its characters some presence on the page. Volk's own stories are typically eccentric, but I'm not crazy about his new style. It's cartoonier and more spare than his old style, adding some interestingly deformed character designs, but it still feels like Volk isn't quite comfortable with it yet. What is never in doubt is Volk's wit, as the story of a "future archeologist" interpreting 21st century culture entirely through tattoos was very amusing. The weakest story in the anthology was Shawn Atkins' "The Rise of Phoenix Nine": the narrative is one cliche' after another, it's rife with spelling errors (due, no doubt, in part to its computer font), and the occasionally lively facial expressions are marred by pedestrian layouts.

On the other hand, the offerings by Morgan Pielli and Casey Bohn were a cut above the rest of the entries in the book. Pielli's "A Forged Man" is visually stylish, playing on Frank Miller-style figures and use of blacks to tell a story of a hero trapped in an awful loop. Pielli is really starting to hit his stride of late. Bohn's lumpy style is reminiscent of Steve Ditko, down to the stark simplicity of his character design and clarity of action. There's something slightly crazy going on under the surface of his staid-looking comics, creating an interesting tension between form and content. Overall, I'd say Volk's desire to expand the anthology's contents got the best of either his editorial judgment or attention to detail with regard to the other submissions. The idea of an alt-genre anthology is a good one, but the overall level of craft and care is not yet up to the standards of other CCS anthologies.

Subterranean #3, edited by Sean Knickerbocker, Alex Bullett, and Andrew Greenstone. All three of these artists were new to me, but this mini was surprisingly tight and impressive. Each brings a different set of visual and narrative approaches to the table. Knickerbocker is a student at CCS, and he draws his inspiration from underground comics and contemporary cartoonists who take their cues from classic comics, like Sammy Harkham. His story "Hunters and Gatherers" is a grim take on two hunters exploring an environment, with the tragic outcome for one being mourned but briefly by the other. "Pekar" is a meditation on the great writer, done in the style of a Pekar/Crumb collaboration. His true gem is "My First Panic Attack", a (presumably) autobiographical story about a young man who experiences a panic attack when confronted with the age difference between him and his girlfriend. The attack manifests as he and his girlfriend transform into Floyd Gottfredsen-style, vaguely anthropomorphic characters and are menaced by a spider/cop. Knickerbocker clearly has a bright future, especially when he's fully processed his influences.

Bullett's story about two bumbling aliens sent on a mission to assassinate a political leader feels like a Heavy Metal pastiche/parody, and as such it's got a wicked wit. From the (subdued) spectacle of the villain wearing only a mesh tank top and sunglasses (a funny comment on the way women are dressed in such stories) to the distorted and grotesque figures, Bullett's chops are just good enough to tell the story the way it needed to be told without unnecessary clutter. Certain panels could have used backgrounds and more decorative detail to fully bring this world to life, but he certainly gets the point across. Greenstone's thick lines and clutter make his story about a vampire wage slave looking for love and inspiration at a hipster party spring to life. His cartoony style gives every drawing a springy energy, one that's contained by the generous helping of zip-a-tone effects he adds to nearly every panel. About the only problem I had with this story is that his lettering is just a bit too big and intrusive; the lettering itself is fine, but I would have preferred a little more visual impact in each panel and a bit less word balloon. All told, this was an impressive showcase for all three of these young artists, each of which has talent and potential.

This Isn't Working: Comics About Ex-Boyfriends, edited by Robyn Chapman. Chapman was never actually a student at CCS (she went to the Savannah College of Art & Design), but she's been an active part of the school in various capacities since virtually its inception. After years of editing and self-publishing her own comics as well as anthologies like True Porn and zines such as Hey, Four Eyes!, Chapman has officially launched her own minicomics publishing concern: Paper Rocket. She'll be reprinting classic minicomics series as minicomics (an ingenious idea) as well as doing new comics and anthologies. This Isn't Working is an anthology that includes several CCS folks in the mix, and it's exactly what the title suggests: autobio comics about relationships that didn't work out for one reason or another. The range of cartooning styles as well as experiences helps create a variety of stories. There are tales of woe, angry anecdotes and funny stories about crazy relationships. It's a short, tightly-edited anthology that doesn't overstay its welcome.

Cara Bean's pleasingly ornate tale of a rocky relationship she had with a man who was as miserable as she was ends with a tragic but not surprising result. Her self-caricature as a sort of walking potato was simultaneously endearing and self-deprecating. I've always admired Caitlin Plovnick's ability to use her limited skills as a draftsman to nonetheless create clear, simple and direct narratives. This story of a hideous recurring dream that turns from warm to horrible when an ex-boyfriend pops up is especially effective as she cleverly renders herself losing all definition after she wakes up from the dream. Chapman's spare and cartoony style has always grabbed my attention through the use of a thick, economical line surrounding key aspects of people and objects. Her story concerns her slight obsession with a long-ago boyfriend, wondering if he thinks of her the way she sometimes thinks of him.

Liz Prince's story of the hurt that remains long after the breakup with her boyfriend was surprisingly powerful. I thought her depiction of that relationship in Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed? was lightweight and twee, but there's a level of thematic complexity at work in this story that goes beyond the simple drama of a break-up as she ties music into the narrative in an interesting way. Jen Vaughn's "Let's Go Out" is hilarious, depicting why cunnilingus after eating hot sauce is always a bad idea. As always, Vaughn is better at depicting clever visual solutions to compositional problems than in rendering actual figures, a factor that detracts a little from the story's punchline. Finally, Mari Naomi contributes another of her "Kiss and Tell" stories of people she's dated; this time, it was a rebound relationship after she broke up with her fiance'. The stark simplicity of her line, the frankness of her confessional story and sheer storytelling momentum she manages to conjure up out of minutia make this a strong closing act for an anthology that will hopefully have future volumes. Chapman clearly knows what she's doing as an editor and publisher.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

NBM Spotlight: Yslaire/Carriere, Nix, De Crecy, Geary

Let's run through a number of recent releases from NBM.
The Sky Over The Louvre, by Bernar Yslaire & Jean-Claude Carriere. This is the latest volume of NBM's series done in conjunction with the Louvre and French publisher Futuropolis. It's also the biggest and flashiest, with the script written by legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and art by hugely popular Belgian cartoonist Bernar Yslaire. Carrier wrote most of the scripts for surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel as well as scripts for Milos Forman and Louis Malle, among others. This was his first comic, and what was surprising was how relatively spare the text was. That was partly illusory, as there are several text sections, but the creators found a way to emphasize image above all else. Yslaire is a scratchy and scribbly penciler whose line reminds
me of MAD's Mort Drucker, believe it or not. His characters have long, narrow faces, prominent and pointy noses, puckered-up lips and retain a lively naturalism even when their actions are cartoony. He wisely uses a highly muted palette so as to make the actual paintings depicted in this book really pop off the page.

That's a fitting treatment, considering that the book is about the earliest days of the Louvre right before Robespierre's Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Its main protagonists are the famous painter David (founder of the Louvre) and Robespierre himself. As a narrative, The Sky Over The Louvre is simple, as it follows the two friends as their relationship fractures in light of The Terror and Robespierre's obsession with David depicting the Supreme Being in a painting. The through-line of the narrative focuses on a mysterious young boy named Jules Stern, whose presence becomes the catalyst for the conflict between the book's protagonists.

Thematically, this book is complex. The precise relationship between Jules and David is unclear, though the homoeroticism surrounding the aesthetics of the Revolution is quite evident. The intersection between art and politics is another major theme, as David is happy to act as official portrait propagandist for the Revolution (painting portraits of martyrs and training
future generations of artists). Robespierre is portrayed as a somewhat sympathetic figure despite the paranoia of the Terror; he's an idealist given absolute power. Still, David is willing to along with this until Robespierre becomes obsessed with depicting the new Supreme Being, reintroducing the specter of religion back into the culture. Once the guillotine caught up with
Robespierre, it didn't take long for David to glom on to his true model for Supreme Being: the "handsome like antiquity" likeness of Napoleon.

The book is filled with people facing a vacuum of morality, as the Committee For Public safety's reliance on "reason" becomes just as capricious and merciless for the people of France as the old monarchy. As a result, it's easy for Committee members to attempt to justify their actions in the interest of rooting out traitors and protecting the Republic, a story that doesn't have to be presented as a history lesson for it to become instantly familiar to a modern reader. At the same time, David's willingness to sell out the revolution and Robespierre's absolute devotion to his principles (no matter how insane) muddies the waters as for whom the reader should feel sympathy. At just 66 pages, The Sky Over The Louvre moves along at an economical clip, quickly & efficiently setting up its protagonists and their conflicts. That efficiency allows for long looks at historical paintings, while the oversized album size provides a proper format for appreciating the sumptuous art.

Salvatore Volume I, by Nicolas De Crecy. This compendium of the first two translated volumes from De Crecy is slyly charming both in terms of its narrative and its aesthetic appeal. The story follows a dog mechanic named Salvatore who surreptitiously steals parts from his customers in order to build a strange vehicle to take him to his true love, half a world away. De Crecy uses an anthropomorphic style that's both cute and slightly disturbing. The character design is disturbing because De Crecy clearly finds it funnier to draw his characters closer to animal than human, and as a result his choices of pig, bull and cow lead to hilariously grotesque and bloated figures. The narrator of the story is frequently harshly judgmental, so much so that even the characters comment on the narrator from time to time when it explores and sometimes condemns their questionable moral decisions.

What I like best about this comic is the way De Crecy slips between whimsical flights of fancy and harsh naturalism. One of the main characters in the book is a myopic pig named Amondine. Her husband worked at a slaughterhouse until he was downsized--and the form that this downsizing took was his being turned into meat! It's one of many quietly grim gags in this book, like a piglet of Amondine's being captured and strapped to a cross by a group of goths before he's rescued by a teenage anthropomorphic cat. While there's a definite narrative to follow in this book, what makes it delightful is De Crecy's willingness to follow a tangent for a long time. There's an extended sequence where the half-blind Amondine drives her car off a cliff but doesn't realize she's in great peril as the car bounces on an airplane, soars off a ski lift, and crashes on a roof. This is one of many such sequences in the book, and that incidental character material winds up being the true meat of the book. The rich colors by Ruby & Walter mesh perfectly with De Crecy's scribbly line, complementing the relaxed energy of the pencils without overwhelming them.

The Lives of Sacco and Venzetti, by Rick Geary. This is the latest in Geary's "Treasury of XXth Century Murder" series, and each volume tends to have a different theme depending on the historical event he chooses to cover. Famous Players was about the ways in which the magic of Hollywood was truly founded on lies and illusions that in many ways poison the art that proceeds out of it. The Terrible Axe-Man Of New Orleans was about the ways in which fear can spin out of control, take on a life of its own, and wound the psyche of a city. Sacco & Vanzetti is the rare Geary book that's more about the trial than it is about the crime (though there's certainly a great deal of detail about that as well). As always, Geary editorializes as little as possible, but this case was considered worldwide to be a matter of red-scare blaming and a railroading of two innocent men.

Geary does acknowledge that there's at least the possibility that the gun that killed one of the victims of the crime could have belonged to Sacco (thanks to advanced ballistics techniques), but the fact that the judge was quoted as delighting in punishing the two Italian anarchists and the legal system made it impossible for any appeal to have a chance of success certainly demonstrates that the prosecution lacked anything near the sort of proof necessary to earn a conviction. The case was a simple matter of xenophobia and a fear of the anarchist movement driving the legal system and derailing justice, and there is an obvious resonance between this story and the current xenophobia in the US. As always, Geary's pencils are incredibly tight, as he's the master of hatching. The detail on suits alone makes this book a visual feast, but it's the way he brings people alive that's truly impressive. The facial expressions and body language of the men and women in court is what secretly tells the story; a sneer from the judge, a raised eyebrow from a lawyer tell much more than their actual words. I'm eager to see what he intends to tackle next.

Kinky & Cosy, by Nix. This translated collection of gags about marauding teenage sisters is billed as "shocking! disgusting!" as well as "darkly subversive". It's certainly mild in comparison to actual shock humor, and the gags themselves are more hit than miss. That said, there's a certain self-possessed weirdness about the whole enterprise. The hardback cover has cut-outs for the googly-eyes that pop out from underneath it. There are bizarre, entirely self-indulgent fumetti segments in the book featuring various men dressing up as Kinky, Cosy or their parents. There's an entire section devoted to "Brain Teasers": mazes, matching images, and assorted counting games featuring the strip's cast. Of course, they do things like throw anvils at the teacher, so it's not quite a typical activity page.

Nix's work reminds me a little of Joe Daly, only without the existential ruminations and level of detail in his art. The best way to read it is not to expect shock or killer gags, but instead to settle in and enjoy the strange rhythms of this book. As silly and absurd as this world is, it's clear that Nix has a great deal of genuine affection and enthusiasm for it. He seems to enjoy dropping in on these characters to see what odd thing they're up to with little concern as to either traditional comedic set-ups or lock-solid punchlines. Instead, we get strips about the mother's various forms of vibrator (including buying one from a roaming vibrator truck and finding a miniature alien space probe) as well as her falling in love with a recycling bin. Kinky & Cosy is a singularly odd entry in an increasingly crowded market of edgy humor books, one that's gentler in nature than one might think at first but is not distinctive for its actual jokes.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pleasant Distraction: Frog & Owl

Frog & Owl is a webcomic collection by the talented Molly Lawless. Lawless is best known for her baseball history strips that combine a nice, tight line with a wry take on baseball's less glamourous moments. Her upcoming book, Hit By Pitch, will go into detail about one of the sport's darkest hours. While not drawing men in ill-fitting uniforms holding bats, she lets off steam with her webcomic, which is entirely continuity-free. The titular characters are essentially a joke-delivery system: sometimes they're lovers, sometimes they work together, sometimes they're strangers and sometimes they're enemies. The strip is an excuse for Lawless to draw some funny-looking animals doing silly things while dropping bon mots.

Lawless works strictly in pencil, and the simplicity of her characters allows her to add all sorts of detail around them. There's one strip where Owl is wrapped up in a quilt that has a delicate checkerboard pattern. There's another strip where Lawless comments on the simplicity of her figures by drawing naturalistic versions of her characters who note that "something is amiss". Most of the strips don't rely on visuals to tell the joke; Lawless simply makes each strip nice to look at as a matter of course. In many respects, Frog & Owl is a throwback strip, something that might have appeared in the newspaper forty years ago in terms of its size and aesthetic qualities. Of course, by throwing out any sense of continuity, Lawless simply makes it about the gag every time, slapping a different story on these two blank slate characters in every strip. As far as the quality of the gags themselves, Lawless has a pretty good hit to miss ratio, with most of them being pleasant chuckles rather than laugh-out-loud guffaws. Frog and Owl is the epitome of pleasant if forgettable, though if no particular strip was especially memorable, I still wanted to read more of them.