Let's look at some recent work by grads and students from the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS):
Fugue #3, by Beth Hetland. This is the third and final chapter of "a family in three parts" and the ways in which creativity and performance intersect in the lives of many of them. The first chapter focused on Hetland's mother, an aspiring concert pianist who freezes up before a big show and abandons performance. The second chapter focuses on her having children and how each of them related to music. Beth and her older sister never quite had the skill, but the youngest daughter, Rachel, was every bit as talented as her mother. She unfortunately suffered the same fate: freezing up before a big show and abandoning the piano. Both comics were heartbreaking in their own way, and the third chapter is both epilogue and a chance for healing. This chapter circles around to Hetland herself and her younger sister's graduation, dancing around her recent reticence to play. One thing I love about these comics is how saturated they are in music; for this family, it is very much a second language, a way of communicating. Even non-experts like Beth can't help but know and truly appreciate so many complex pieces, something that she cleverly weaves in and out of the comic by using a sort of erasure technique on musical notes. Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" is the piece most often always in the background like this, which is fitting considering its highs and lows. There are two killer pages in this comic. The first is a 3 x 3 grid where each row sees each child at the piano in the left panel, an empty piano in the middle panel and each child as an adult sitting upright doing what it is they really have grown to love as adults. It's a beautiful, succinct way of summing up the family's relationship to music and the ways in which their individual passions were nurtured and encouraged. That's recapitulated on the last page, when watching the film Little Women with her mother, and transforms the line "Now it [a piano] will make music again" into "you will make your own music." What is life but finding one's own rhythm? Hetland's character designs are simple, which helps make her occasionally complicated page designs all the more easy to immediately apprehend. Her anatomy is a bit wonky at times (a number of drawings needed to be tightened up), but never to the detriment of the story's flow. This is a fine first major solo work for a talented and emotionally perceptive artist.
Betsy and Mothership Blues, by Sophie Goldstein. Despite using sci-fi trappings, these comics by Goldstein are really about deep and abiding loneliness and alienation. Mothership Blues is about a couple of glorified space janitors aboard a sort of living slug spaceship, going about their day. One of them is in love with the captain, while another makes friends with these ghostly mold creatures. Goldstein uses a clear, bold and cartoony line to propel this story of an unrequited crush and an unfulfilled desire to create family. She even uses a seemingly throwaway plot element to good use in the book's final act, adding a sense of doomed poignancy for one of the two janitors who realizes the other is his only friend.
Betsy packs an even stronger punch. Skimping on details, Goldstein slowly reveals a young woman living in a futuristic society where she has to wear an atmosphere-tight suit just to go outside who works at something called "Future Inc." She cheerfully greats a lumpen creature (one of many) called Betsy. It's clear that this is a child and the woman is trying to train her. Goldstein's understanding of body language carries this story powerfully, Details like the way little Betsy reaches up to the woman to be picked up, the way she clings to her, the way she smiles when praised and the way she ambles along indicate an artist who has a real understanding of what children are like. These scenes of tenderness make the end of the story all the more gut-wrenching, as the real purpose of the creature-children is made clear. In just twelve pages, Goldstein gets at the heart of an ethical debate that rages today, regarding bio-engineering our children and what we would do if we knew a special-needs child was going to be the result. The story just makes that debate all the more pointed. Goldstein's work reminds me a bit of Eleanor Davis or Dash Shaw in terms of the way they use sci-fi trappings to express complex emotional truths.
Terror Terror Terror, by Max Mose. Channeling his inner Rory Hayes (not to mention Al Feldstein), Mose does off-kilter horror stories with a touch of the ridiculous.His balance of genuinely scary ideas with grotesque art and a touch of parody reminds me a great deal of Rob Jackson's genre work. The opening story features death being pissed off at a bunch of people permanently on life-preserving machines, musing that he was going to reincarnate one of them as a scorpion. Like a Lewis Trondheim story, there's a lot of ridiculous dialogue surrounding a very sound idea. The same goes for "Welcome to Castle Gorgon", a Gothic potboiler about a marriage doomed to a snake-bitten end. "The Cap of the Wolf" is a fantasy story about a top-notch archer who kills a tribe of marauding wolf-skin clad men, including its lyncanthropic leader. When he kills the leader and takes the titular wolfskin cap, he naturally goes crazy and unleashes a greater evil -- only to be exploited in an ironic fashion at the end of the story. Finally, "Space Terror Maggots" is exactly what it sounds like: a grotesque story with wooden leads and stilted dialogue (not unlike a 50s sci-fi flick) who discover a series of asteroids inhabited by brain-eating maggots. The revelation in this comic is the way Mose is using color to create a sort of queasy, over-the-top and non-intuitive series of effects that really drive the emotional core of the action.