Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Minicomics round-up: Viola, Echavarria, Fitzpatrick, Shapiro, Cullum

Rabbit Shadows, by Jason Viola. I've always preferred Viola's side projects to his gag-oriented Herman the Manatee webcomic, and this silent comic is no exception. It's about an anthropomorphic rabbit leading a humdrum, lonely life who is somehow able to freeze and isolate his shadow, which he uses to become a famous artist. When his one gimmick is rejected by the public for being passe' and he's accused of being washed up, he retreats in despair to the forest, where he accidentally finds new inspiration. This is perhaps a statement about working on the same strip for a long time and finding one's inspiration drying up, as well as the sheer joy of being in that moment where creativity starts to flow again. In that moment in the forest, Viola suggests, is the purest form of being an artist: creating for its own sake, without consideration of audience, fame or money. Viola's drawing is lovely here, as it's a bit fuzzier and denser than his webcomics, giving it a warmer overall atmosphere.

Jerry's Journal, by Neil Fitzpatrick. This is a single-page gag version of Fitzpatrick's quasi-philosophical musings, done off-the-cuff in his sketchbook. This is a format that flatters Fitzpatrick's art and writing. His line at this stage of his career is fully formed, and he does a nice job using thick but simple black lines to quickly set up his cartoon bird for a series of gags. This comic is mostly about loneliness, the sort of cutesy navel-gazing that James Kochalka might have done if he hadn't had a girlfriend/wife. Fortunately, Fitzpatrick doesn't seem to mind mocking his own character's self-absorption, as in one funny strip when Jerry starts droning about how he's "into stickers right now" and the giant words "NO ONE CARES" appear in the sky. The one page format allows Fitzpatrick to quickly move on from the gags that don't land without miring the reader in a nonsensical narrative that's going nowhere. At the same time, there's just enough continuity between strips to make the whole thing cohesive, if very slight.

How Do I Know Who I Am If I Forget?, by Luis Echavarria.I reviewed a bunch of Echavarria's earlier comics in a High-Low piece.This comic is a big leap forward in terms of writing, characterization, depth, subtlety and overall skill. Echavarria dials way back on the gimmicks that marked his earlier work, presenting the reader with a simple, beautiful silkscreen cover of a young woman as a cutaway drawing of her insides. It's a funny, creepy story about an introverted teenage girl named Camila who is trying to connect to the world in her own bizarre way. The comic starts innocently enough, as the slightly OCD Camila fastidiously tends to her aquarium and all its inhabitants, spending hours staring at them. Echavarria slowly reveals increasingly strange details about her, like staring at her own excrement, "just like a crime scene investigator would examine a piece of evidence". Her boyfriend breaks up with her after she suggests they try drinking each other's blood. (That scene was cleverly staged against the couple watching the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is all about memory and identity.) Finally, when one of her "eel-shaped fishes" dies, she swallows it whole. Shortly thereafter, she winds up in the emergency room, where all is revealed as to her bizarre behavior, which has an internal logic all its own. Echavarria does a fine job of mixing the mundane with the strange, as Camila is very much an innocent scientist looking for the best way to establish her own identity while connecting to the world. The alienating way she goes about this gives the comic its narrative charge, especially since she's not deliberately trying to freak anyone out; her methods simply seem to be logical for her socially tone-deaf mind. This is a great character study by an artist who's hitting his stride, and the lush, naturalistic style he employs adds a lot to the proceedings. Some of the pages look a little rougher than others (especially in the beginning), but he pulls it all together quickly to create a horror book without any supernatural content or violence.

Hotel Le Jolie, by Jared Cullum.This is a sweet, low-key comic that takes its time in unraveling the ways in which a man and woman missed out on a number of opportunities to connect as children. Cullum somewhat heavy-handedly has the woman as a girl give him a love note, asking for a drawing. He responds by giving her the drawing in public next to her friends, who ridicule him--and she feels forced to go along with it. Years later, peer pressure causes the boy to do the same. Now at a conference and finding her at the front desk, he once again has a choice to make. I liked the structure of the comic and the character details, even if it all seemed a little familiar. Cullum is a decent enough craftsman working in a naturalist style, but there are lots of tell-tale tics that betray a lack of experience: over-rendering in some panels, under-rendering in others, a shaky understanding of how bodies interact in space. Cullum has a lot of potential, especially thanks to his command over dialogue and solid storytelling skills. This is simply a case of an artist needing to get back out there and continue to draw more comics in order to get a better feel for their own style.

"Popular", Crushable: Mary Tyler Moore and  Crushable: Neil Young, by Janice Shapiro.I've greatly enjoyed the various episodes of Shapiro's autobio-by-anecdote "Crushable" minicomics. A smart way to do autobio is to parcel it out or mediate it through something other than the author; in this case, it's a list of the pop culture figures Shapiro had a crush on. The Mary Tyler Moore comic is hilarious because Moore represented this idealized figure of perfection, one that she dreamed of emulating until the cool girls came around and pressured her into drinking, doing drugs, etc. Seeing teenaged Shapiro literally wearing a Moore-style turtleneck and scarf and then seeing them disappear in a cloud of smoke was funny and effective. The Neil Young comic is even more deranged, because it involves a complex plot to become Neil Young's girlfriend by way of her best friend becoming Jackson Browne's girlfriend (note: both were fifteen years old at the time) after seeing the latter in concert. The epilogue to the story is even more embarrassing, detailing the fleeting moment Shapiro actually did get to meet Neil Young years later and what a disaster that was. "Popular" is about the way popularity as a teen shifted from being nice and clean-cut in the early 60s to detached and slovenly in the early 70s. In her typically self-deprecatory style, Shapiro notes that she had the slovenly and nice parts down pat, but couldn't make the transition into being a good 70s cool girl because of her innate dorkiness. Shapiro's line is crude, but she's undaunted in the way she attacks the page, even if drawing certain figures and things is out of her reach as a draftsman. She makes it work because of her scribbly style and distinct voice as a writer. Indeed, her scrawl is a confident extension of her own handwriting. I'd love to see her continue to refine this.

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