Monday, May 6, 2013

Cartoonist Utopia: Breakers

Breakers is less an anthology than a snapshot of what was obviously a magical experience for a number of cartoonists. Every other year, the Atlantic Center for the Arts in the barely-there town of New Smyrna Beach, FL invites a couple of dozen cartoonists for a three week arts residency, with three master artists selected to run individual groups. This year's master cartoonists were Dean Haspiel, Megan Kelso and Ellen Forney--three cartoonists with very different approaches to the art of comics. Breakers is divided into comics done by cartoonists in each of the three groups. Each of the leaders wanted different things from those under their instruction. For example, Forney wanted everyone to keep a comics diary and perhaps try a different formal approach than they usually use; in her case, it was adding more dialogue and using fewer narrative captions. Most of the comics here are really just snippets, exercises and sketchbook work. Don't read this comic as you would most anthologies, where an editor carefully constructs the flow of the work to manage the narrative thrust of each entry. Breakers is more about the way our work reflects our surroundings and co-workers.

The Forney group, "Team Zeppelin", is not unlike the others in that the group's common experiences and in-jokes shaped their work. A day at a nude beach where an elderly man approached them and started questioning them was used by almost everyone on her team as a touchstone. Forney really pushed her team to draw that incident and the bodies they saw at the beach in general, and that was obviously a clear bonding moment that pushed individual boundaries of comfort in a positive way. Lara Antal, the editor of this collection, leads off with a long, personal story about her career that's formally very ambitious in terms of the way she sets up panels, uses negative space and creates detailed close-ups that are emotionally powerful.  Rebecca Case's smudgy and cute style is all about the use of shapes rather than lines to tell a story, but they're no less expressive than Antal's more naturalistic style. Jean Chen's simple line in her one-page, punchline heavy strips is also quite appealing and makes for a nice contrast. Julie Condon's story "Married to Dick" looks a bit like the sort of thing Liz Baillie used to do and is hands-down the funniest story in the book. It's one long nightmare/fantasy where the artist and a friend see this kind of douchey-looking guy at a fruit stand and she imagines what life would be like if she was married to him. The stakes grow continuously hire and more ridiculous as the story proceeds, perfectly amping up the ridiculousness of it all. From the concrete we move to the abstract, as Gabrielle Greenlee's painted account of diving underwater is all about waves and motion. Boum and Lynda May both share simple stories of their Florida experiences from entirely different points of view: passive (Boum was pregnant and unable to do things like go on hikes) and active (May was constantly on her bicycle). K-Fai Steele rounds out the group with an interesting childhood strip, a story about a runaway monkey and her own take on the beach and the encounter with the naked old man. Forney's own strips are very stripped down and even scrawled out in comparison to her more refined typical line.

I'm not sure if it was because the Forney group was Antal's group, but that section was by far the most cohesive and interesting in the book. Kelso's group ("The Field House Gang") had some fine veteran cartoonists in it like Lark Pien and Gabrielle Gamboa) features some intriguing glimpses of work (especially from Nusha Ashjaee's haunting story of an encounter in a forest), but most of the cartoonists here submitted just one or two pages each. The reader only gets a taste of their experience as a group. Kelso's own strips, on the other hand, are absolutely superb. They're very much in Kelso's cartoony, long-limbed style, but there's a dynamic looseness in her line and in these stories about connections, beauty and lust that's not usually present in her work. What she emphasized to her group was trying to regain the simple pleasure of drawing once again, and it does seem clear that there's a looseness as a group with her artists.

Dean Haspiel's "Team YOLO" played on his interests in formal experimentation and collaboration. He gave his team an assignment to draw, in whatever fashion they saw fit, a story with his text called "A Letter Lasts Longer". Christa Cassano's take on it was very clever, using a honeycombing approach to panels that contained memories with the text alongside them. What I thought was interesting was how many of the cartoonists went to exactly the same narrative well: revealing that the letter being read was at a gravestone or funeral in the final panel. It made some of the strips in this section a bit repetitive, feeling like the exercises they were. An exception was Meghan Lands, whose anthropomorphic rabbits and landscape drawings were pitch-perfect for Haspiel's text.  On the other hand, the strips involving the "Shifty Goth", a character they made up and shared, were absolutely hilarious--especially Haspiel's account of the SG in prison. JP Pollard's sci-fi vision of "Shifty Godth" was also amusing.All told, Breakers allows a reader to get an understanding of what that experience must have been like for the artists while providing a wide-ranging and ambitious number of styles and approaches to making comics.

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