Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Anthologies: Lies Grown-Ups Told Me, Cartoon Crier

One of the priorities at the Center for Cartoon Studies that's pounded into its students' heads is the need to publish. Publish minicomics and work on your short-story chops before you can get to that ambitious graphic novel. Better yet, band together and publish anthologies. From the very beginning, CCS students and then alums have been publishing anthologies, many of them themed. Sundays is the best and probably the best known, but there have been a couple of dozen other CCS-related anthologies that have seen print. For the most part, the quality and professionalism of each anthology has improved with each passing year, as alumni continue to improve and the best young students contribute as well. The reader gets a sense that these aren't just filler stories, but rather examples of cartoonists truly putting their best foot forward.

Lies Grown Ups Told Me, edited by Nomi Kane, Caitlin M, and Jen Vaughn, is yet another quality anthology assembled by two CCS alums and the former Schulz Library librarian (Caitlin McGurk, now at Ohio State). Not everyone in the anthology is or was associated with CCS, but it's a good 90% of the book's contents. The anthology's theme is simple, yet proves to be fertile ground for its artists. There's not a single clunker in the whole book, even those strips whose draftsmanship isn't in the same class as the best artists in the books. Some of the very best CCS draftsmen are featured here, including Nomi Kane, Dakota McFadzean and faculty member Jon Chad. All three members of that trio do not disappoint. Kane's story is hilarious, as she repeats as a matter of fact that pregnant women shouldn't swim with dolphins because their sonar can detect the gestating baby, leading them to corner the women and kidnap the babies to raise them as their own. Until she says this out loud to her friend, she believes it to be true. Kane's figure work is pure eye-candy: expressive, amusing and packed with clever details. Speaking of detail, McFadzean's story about his grandfather's claims of being able to draw the best Donald Duck is both warm and wry, bringing past and present together in a simple satisfying manner. There's a clean elegance to his line that nonetheless always conveys warmth and emotions just below the surface. Chad's story about his parents inadvertently realizing that a television show that signaled bedtime meant putting him to bed whenever they wanted is a pretty simple one by his visually lush standards, though he still manages to throw in some clever flourishes.

Most of the contributors play the theme for laughs, and the sheer variety of lies they later discovered makes for a lively book. Some are a bit more sobering than others, like Tom Casteel discovering that hard work and dedication doesn't always pay off in "Patrol Boy of the Year", or Cody Pickrodt wondering why on earth he thought his dad thought it would be funny to pretend that he died after a rough-housing session with his two young children and no other adults around. Saying things to scare kids is another running theme, as Beth Hetland's sister freaks her out with tales of the "The Undertoad" living in the ocean, Bryan Stone's grandmother keeps him from exploring the forest by telling him that "Red Eyes" lives there and will eat his dog, and (worst of all), Andrew Greenstone's parents keep him in line by telling him of his "other brother" Igor whom they killed and buried in the backyard because he was a naughty boy. Ben Horak's "Sweet Trap" was along those lines but even better because the threat was silent. He and his brother kept raiding the cookie jar, and his frustrated mother put up a bunch of wires and other junk on it, saying "Now I have to do something drastic!"  There's a hilarious two page spread of Horak and his brother imagining what kind of trap their mother might have set, when the reality is that it was just a hoax.

Overall, the tone of the book is breezy and affectionate. That's best encapsulated by Lena Chandhok's "Earth Girls Are Easy", an account of watching that movie as a preteen with her grandfather and younger sister. It's a lovely story because it captures the moment when Chandhok realized that she was suddenly on the other side of the divide of adult and child, knowing something that her younger sister didn't. I liked that the editors reached out to plenty of non-CCS artists as well, like letterer/caricaturist Rick Parker's illustrated story about being accused of cutting up a garden hose, Jesse Lonergan's hilarious account of being duped as to the origin of broccoli, and the superb Scottish artist Lorna Miller chiming on in on the reasons why she was told not to pick dandelions as a child. The editors do a nice job of alternating the truly silly stories with the slightly more contemplative or serious ones, though the tone throughout is fairly lighthearted. 

Another CCS anthology with precisely the opposite tact is The Cartoon Crier, edited by Cole Closser, James Sturm and R.Sikoryak. This is a free, 36-page comics broadsheet that's a collaboration between the National Cartoonist's Society and CCS, with the theme being sadness and crying. This is a fascinating snapshot of contemporary newspaper cartooning and the next young wave of cartoonists, as the editors plumb the depths of veterans like Mort Walker to find those strips that defy conventional punchlines in the service of expressing misery. I imagine this project owes much to the Comics Editor of King Features Syndicate, Brendan Burford, who is also a small-press cartoonist. He contributes a strip theorizing how cartoonists transformed from garrulous men-about-town in the early part of the 20th century to the more introverted and downbeat characters of recent years, and guesses that the influence of Charles Schulz had the biggest impact. It's obvious that the hand of Schulz can be felt in many of the modern strips when they do turn away from gags.

Consider Lynn Johnston, whose series of strips regarding the death of a family dog is absolutely shattering. Like Schulz, the strips have the rhythm of a comedic strip, but she eschews punchlines in some for portents, while the punchlines in other strips later take a dark turn. Sturm provides an example of a brutal strip by the Family Circus' Bil Keane that technically contains a gag but only in the bleakest of terms. In general, the strips by the CCS cartoonists are more interesting and daring than the NCS strips, which is understandable given the total freedom they have. While there a few CCS veterans and some other outside artists, most of the contributors to this comic are either current students or 2012 graduates, and they give a fine accounting for themselves given this format. April Malig's simply-drawn strip about her difficulty controlling her tendency to cry is clever, especially given her solution. Sophie Goldstein's full-page "Potato Baby" is hilariously depressing as it doucments the ridiculous travails of the tile character. Rachel Dukes' slickly-drawn "Lucky Dog" is even more over the top, as it addresses the side issue of the lonely life of the cartoonist. Closser's own "Little Tommy Lost" and his activity page are evocative of classic newspaper cartooning. The former is an homage to Milt Caniff-style adventure strips, while the latter goofs on being maudlin. Donna Almendrala's Nancy pastiche is hilarious, expertly evoking the cadence of that strip while staying on theme. (She also had a strong strip in Lies Grown Ups Told Me.) Max Riffner and Dakota McFadzean are two cartoonists whose slick draftsmanship is clearly strong enough for syndicate work, even as their strips here both take enormously dark turns.

The lineup of veteran cartoonists, CCS alumni and CCS fellows here is killer. Sturm's autobiographical strip about getting older, drawn in the form of a superhero comic, is thoughtful and smart. Sikoryak, the comics/literary mashup master, this time around puts together Dilbert and Herman Melvile's Bartleby The Scrivener, an inspired pairing given that both address workplace ennui and forms of rebellion. Scribbly autobio specialist David Libens contributes a marvelous strip about a kid visiting the grave of his dead pet and telling her a secret: that he no longer uses a potty seat. It's a strong use of detail, as Libens has a knack for translating how little kids talk into comics form. Melissa Mendes has a typically strong but understated story about a girl who sees her dog die in an accident, with the last panel showing her back to the reader as she processes the grief by drawing pictures of her beloved pet. Jon Chad goes literal with an ingenious, thin-lined strip about a "scientist" who takes us through a series of background sight gags about how and why humans cry. Joe Lambert's "Retainer" is yet another example of the artist's increasing complexity and maturity, even as he continues to explore the dynamics of children and teens. Ariel Bourdeaux, the 90s comics veteran who recently graduated from CCS, contributes a funny strip about crying listening to children sing, and the embarrassing feeling of being spotted in public in a bright room, crying uncontrollably. Laura Park's story about someone recalling their mother being sent away before their fifth birthday because of mental illness is all the more heartbreaking when the final panel reveals that she was glad because she knew that she'd get the biggest slice of cake. Robyn Chapman's story about a woman who is unable to cry after a childhood as a crybaby is restrained yet powerful.

The broadsheet also contains commentary by Shaenon Garrity on the saddest comics she's ever read, while Andrew Farago compiles the results of a survey of cartoonists about the same question. Overall, The Cartoon Crier isn't necessarily a compelling read from page to page and strip to strip, as many of the syndicated strips are still rather banal. This comic is better read like a regular newspaper section--with some brilliant strips, some reliable favorites, some interesting discoveries, and a good deal of dross. Its goal of comparing and contrasting two entirely different worlds of cartooning and finding common ground was an interesting one, especially since Schulz is an influence on nearly every cartoonist. What's most impressive about it is that the youngest cartoonists really took this assignment seriously and did their best work. It's not unusual to be impressed with CCS cartoonists after reading an anthology, but it's rare that every contributor does their best work. It's this group that's the true backbone of this anthology.

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