Friday, August 31, 2012

Comics-as-Poetry and Stylized Comics: Badman, Adams, Shrestha

MadInkBeard #1 & #2, by Derik Badman. Badman is an artist who specializes in repurposing previously existing text and images for poetic effect. This is his new (mostly) one-man anthology comic that's a catch-all for his shorter projects. The first issue uses text from Henry David Thoreau's Walden journals juxtaposed against Badman's recreations of comics by a variety of cartoonists, including Charles Schulz, Mike Sekowsky and a variety of other romance comics artists. He did this as part of the "30 Days of Comics" challenge that Allan Haverholm participated in (which I reviewed on 8/20/2012), and the results are understandably mixed given that restriction. His strip on 11/3/2011 was a great one, with the text reading "They will occur with/some essential difference/though at the risk/of endless iteration" and each of the four panels depicting the very outside edge of a house. The last two panels originally come from Schulz, and this is an example of one of Badman's comics working because of the way he was able to match text to image while creating a sort of poetic narrative with the actual images themselves. Things pick up again when he switches to using romance comics art that totally repurposes Thoreau's original text. Badman creates something lively and spirited with his use of spot color, adding hues in an almost abstract manner to create atmosphere and contrast. From there, he switches to near-abstract uses of color, grounded only by the text which suggests fires, breezes and at times extreme close-ups. Badman also includes a page each from Haverholm, Warren Craghead and Simon Moreton, all of whom did their own variations on the challenge. Craghead's drawings on leaves were fascinating, while Moreton's use of smudging and water effects reminded me of some older Craghead comics.

The second issue is all photocomics (what we tend to call "fumetti" in the US even though this term is not quite accurate), including a long essay on the history of the technique and its general lack of favor in the US. Badman tries a variety of approaches here: anchoring the photos with poetic text that tells a vague story, wordless pages that coalesce around types of images, and a visual photo narrative of sorts that dips into abstraction. Of the three approaches, I thought the first was the least interesting. There's a rigidity about the photographic image that for me resists poetic text; it's almost intrusive to see words with these images. I thought his attempts of the second sort were interesting, matching angles, shapes, colors and textures in each photo to form photo patterns. I thought the visual photo narrative was the most interesting, as the reader is led along a leafy path, up a set of stairs and into a dark forest. Here, the concrete and "real" qualities of the photos work in their favor, as the reader is led somewhere that seems to actually exist, until they are confronted with alternating images of pure light and darkness. I wouldn't mind seeing more experiments of this sort from Badman, who certainly opened my eyes to the possibilities of the photo comic, even if it seems clear that he's struggling to discover them himself. As always, Badman's comics fascinate and raise questions about the formal nature of the art.

Period, by Christopher Adams.  Adams is an up-and-comer whose first book is about to debut at SPX, published by the folks over at 2D Cloud. His work is all about stillness, quiet, and everyday experience as a kind of marvel. This comic follows a family as they go about their day, pelting the reader initially with a 4 x 8 panel grid that emphasizes the ways in which our morning routines blend into each other. Adams jumps back and forth in time as memories take over the narrative for extended periods of time and fantasies (like flying on a hammerhead shark) intrude on work rituals. Adams explores the family unit as one that is stultifying in its boredom because of the repetitive nature of its interactions but at the same valuable for that very reason. There's an extended sequence where a father players his young daughter in Wii tennis while her mother looks on that's remarkably true to life in how toddlers interact with their parents. From there, we see vacations, garbage day and other either memorable moments or quotidian rituals burned into memory, before consciousness recedes and we see mountains, just as the comic opened with a seahorse floating around and smoking a cigarette. This comic works because of Adams' chunky line and attention to detail; the reader is drawn to every panel as an event worth watching, even as Adams draws the reader's eye across the page quickly. Adams' work looks even better in color, and I'm hoping that his new book will fall into that category.

Genus #1 & #2, by Anuj Shrestha. This mini reminds me a lot of Adrian Tomine's work, if Tomine wrote conspiracy/mystery/sci-fi stories wherein a significant number of people had had their heads replaced by grotesque, bulbous plant-like organisms. Shrestha's line weight, character design and overall restraint as a storyteller all seem to be in Tomine's balpark, but the Lovecraftian body horror that runs throughout the series is heightened precisely because of that distance and restraint. The first issue is entirely silent, as a man wakes up from a nightmare where a spore organism is vomited out of his mouth to go to a job interview. From there, he begins to notice that a number of people have had their heads replaced, only to be confronted with the dead corpse of a "plant man", as he's discovered with the body a la an Alfred Hitchcock scene out of North By Northwest. At the end of the first issue, he discovers that his nightmare is coming true, as he feels protuberances on the back of his neck. The second issue is driven by narrative captions and a chase scene that feels a bit like The Matrix, as the hero is guided by a mysterious caller on his cell phone on how to escape his pursuers, down to drinking special hot sauce that cures him of the condition, or rather, allows him to control his transformation. I love the way that Shrestha plays around with familiar genre tropes while not alighting upon a particular genre; instead, he keeps the reader as off-balance and bewildered as the protagonist, who must wonder not only what he's up against, but who's helping him and why. This is a wonderfully clever and smartly designed comic that looks like it's headed in some interesting directions.

Coin-Op #4, by Peter & Maria Hoey.The brother and sister combo return with another comic's worth of the surreal and the mundane with a crisp, beautiful line and rich sense of color. It's no surprise that one of their strips was printed in an issue of Blab!, given that that publication is well-known as the intersection between the art world and the comics world. Once again, the stories are a mix of modern and postmodern, with an art deco feel representing the former and a fractured storytelling sensibility representing the latter. The highlights of this issue include "An Occurrence at Pont Neuf Bridge", a story that playfully riffs on the Hoey's own cinematic tendencies by providing three layers of storytelling. First, there's the wide-angle shot of a director screaming at a runaway actor to get back. Second is the highly cinematic series of small panels in the middle of the page which emphasize both motion and the actor's own dreamy, dazed narration. Finally, there's a series of single-page panels emphasizing particular story elements from classic films, abstracting a motion picture down to a few static elements. It's a funny story both about the obsessiveness of directors and the feeling of detachment the actor feels from reality--fueled in part by being in a movie.

Going back to the art deco/Max Fleischer feel are "Valse Mecanique" and the latest installment from "Saltz and Pepz". The former reminds me a bit of Metropolis, given the robot society and how it works within an oppressive government, although this strip is more about creativity in such environs. The latter story's anthropomorphic dogs once again get in trouble with the law, this time over a Thelonius Monk record. Naturally, this leads them to travel back in time to meet Monk himself and steal a wallet from an associate of the jazz musician's. It also wouldn't be an issue of Coin-Op if there wasn't at least one story with fractured storytelling,as "The Slippery Lobster" sees the Hoey's use a 4 x 3 panel grid both as a single image and as a series of panels telling a propulsive story. This story is about motion coming in a number of different directions: left to right, right to left, upper left to lower right, upper right to lower left. That motion is given real stakes when boats threaten to run into each other and a lobster fisherman eventually loses his catch. It's a tremendously clever, witty comic that uses formal innovations to tell a very simple story, incorporating both movement and simultaneity into a page that makes it static and dynamic at the same time, depending on how the reader approaches it. This is a fine showcase for two illustrators who are also top-notch cartoonists.

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