Let's take a look at some comics from current students and alumni of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Some of these cartoonists have recently signed publishing deals and others are just getting started, but they all have differing techniques and approaches.
The End Of The Fucking World #3-6, by Chuck Forsman. I was going crazy trying to figure out what artist Forsman's figures reminded me of in this series until I hit on it: Dik Browne drawing Hi and Lois. The way Forsman draws eyes, hair and most especially big, bulbous noses reminds me of the simple but effective style used for years in that most conventional of comic strips about a family. TEOTFW is about a makeshift and dysfunctional family of two. As a sociopath teenage boy and his eager girlfriend leave town in his father's stolen car, they manage to create their own utopia of sorts in a lavish home left vacant by a vacationing college professor. Those moments of beauty prove illusory when the boy finds some disturbing photos implicating the professor as a merchant of horror, but they really serve to give the boy an excuse to kill. This changes the relationship as the couple are forced to flee, but the girl finds that she has little choice. Each issue flips the narrative voice between the two leads, with the boy narrating issues 3 and 5 and the girl 4 and 6, and each issue fills in certain emotional gaps in the form of catch-up. Forsman does quite a job foreshadowing the potential violence in the series and then ratcheting it up quickly, but defuses the visceral nature of the acts with this deliberately cartoony art and languid pacing. It's the first major story that he's done without a fantastic element of any kind, but it certainly doesn't suffer for the shift away toward grim naturalism--especially since it seems to share the same sense of inevitable doom that his other comics possess. He's hit upon a loose, sketchy style that works extremely well in telling the sort of psychologically disturbing but slightly absurd stories he seems most interested in.
Lou #1-2, by Melissa Mendes. Like Forsman and Max de Radigues (in Moose), Mendes is crafting a minicomics series, 12 pages at a time. Mendes is a master of depicting family dynamics. In her Freddy stories, Mendes focuses in on a single child and the way she relates to the world as a cheerful outsider. Lou is a story of three brothers of varying ages and their various concerns. The youngest loves to antagonize his pre-teen older brother, while the oldest is thinking about heavy metal and smoking cigarettes. The second issue throws in a dinner-time conflict between the younger brothers punctuated by their father's haltingly discussing maybe bringing home a puppy, to the chagrin of his wife. There's a scene at the end where the middle child walks into his brother's room right before bedtime in order to rock out with him; it's a perfect depiction of the ways in which younger siblings seek out and absorb their older sibling's taste, as well as the way that such experiences create bonds and memories. Mendes has a way of depicting family dynamics with warmth and sincerity but without the slightest trace of sentimentality; the ragged expressiveness of her line is a key to the success of this depiction.
The Man Who Built Beirut and Two Stories, by Andy Warner. These are three different exercises in storytelling for Warner, who has highly polished chops. His character work is subtle, and it's obvious he can draw anything. What's also clear is that he's trying to find his voice as a cartoonist. The Man Who Built Beirut is part Joe Sacco-style reportage (his hand is heavily felt in this piece), part autobio. Warner tries to make sense of why the death of a Lebanese plutocrat and politician could spark a new civil war that draws in any number of other countries into the conflict and finds that he can't come up with a pat answer. I found that realization to be refreshing, actually: that an outsider has no better chance of understanding the complexity of a Middle East conflict than an expert or native. The problem in this comic comes with Warner trying to link his own experiences to what he observes. For example, when he talks about trying to repair a relationship via email in Beirut at the same time the politician, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated, the former feels like extraneous information. There's no compelling reason to care about Warner's life or struggles at this point of the story, especially when he unleashes a massive Sacco-style crowd scene on the next page, pulling the reader out of Warner's story and into a different one. Throughout the comic, he talks about his love of Lebanon and is clearly disturbed by the conflicts to seek out more information, but there's no synthesis of personal and political elements.
In Two Stories, Warner has more success with "Squirrel", a visceral and emotionally powerful story that seems to lead with the climax (his pet cat killing his pet squirrel), but it cleverly ends with Warner's later recall of that incident and the way in which he unexpectedly reacts at a public event. It's a quiet, restrained story where his grief is a palpable thing, but Warner wisely doesn't linger on any one image or memory for too long. "A Ghost" is the story of a childhood friendship unraveling as one boy has moved on to a private school and left his friend behind, despite his protestations about how much he hates it. The friend left behind is naturally resentful of this, and concocts a story about a kid-seeking ghost to frighten his friend, which works. This story's dialogue feels emotionally manipulative and predictable, as Warner simply spells things out too plainly with regard to their relationship. Warner has a strong sense of design (I love the way that black smoke dominates the cover of The Man Who Built Beirut) and imbues his characters with a highly expressive quality, even when he's telling a story naturalistically. One gets the sense that he's trying different narrative styles out, looking for something that fits him as a cartoonist. Once he finds his niche, he has an interesting career ahead of him because of his skill and work ethic.
Kid Clampdown, by DW. DW is an unusual CCS student in that he's almost entirely disinterested in narrative and is more in the tradition of Fort Thunder-style mark-making. These minis are collections of sketchbook and blog drawings, and while there's no narrative per se, they all bear the stamp of the artist in particular and peculiar ways. In some respects, these drawings represent his own process of cycling through and exploring his influences while putting his own stamp on them. On some pages, one can sense the heavy hand of Ron Rege' in the intricacy of his pattern-making and the design of each page. On other pages, one can see the raw power and ratty line of Gary Panter. On others, the absurd sense of humor and detail of Marc Bell seems to be what DW is exploring. Throughout the comics, there's a particular set of visual motifs that repeat: a sort of psychedelic set of semi-circles that form a maze pattern. There are moments of Sam Henderson-inspired gags, random commentary and inspired bits of lunacy. I don't have a sense of where DW is going with all this. These aren't purely abstract bits and it seems clear that there are germs of narrative on nearly every page, but it seems as though DW is working through style before he actually tackles a true narrative. For the artists whose work he admires, there's virtually no division between style and story. The question for DW will be not what style he settles on, but if he hops between styles to tell different kinds of stories.
Oak & Linden #5, by Pat Barrett. This issue of Barrett's one-man anthology features the next two chapters of his odd serial "Petrified Girlriend", which is part relationship comic and part dystopian sci-fi/horror. The premise finds a young couple who seem to be an unlikely match wind up in an unusual situation: she simply freezes up and petrifies. Initially freaked out by the situation, he simply goes about his business as usual and even picks up a woman from his job and brings her back to the apartment. (In a brutally funny bit of disrespect, he starts piling his dirty clothes on top of his petrified girlfriend.) Meanwhile, the girlfriend wakes up in a terrible world where she's pursued by a monstrous bird and winds up being pinned under its corpse. Those moments where she's trapped allow her to reflect on her relationship, both when she cheated on him but he stayed with her and the many times he was whiny and selfish. Barrett doesn't spell out the relationship between the two worlds, nor does he need to at this point. Instead, he allows the details of the relationship to spill out in a way that successfully frames the story and throws in volatile story beats that jolt the reader at the end of each chapter. Barrett's another cartoonist with tremendous chops who doesn't let his drawing get in the way of his cartooning. What I mean by that is his naturally eccentric character design is given free reign in this comic, but the drawings possess a vital and kinetic element as they lurch, reach and stumble across each page.. The way he draws the girlfriend's bushy eyebrows and squarish face provide her with an unconventional kind of beauty, whereas the male lead is constantly in search of a look that makes sense for him, setting on an unshaven look, horn-rimmed glasses and slightly poofy hair. Barrett also threw in an interesting art object with this comic: a flip book that doubles as the world's thickest business card, promoting his website with a vomiting frog.