Friday, May 17, 2013

Comics-as-Poetry: Rothman, DW, Thomas, Bean

Abzernad, by DW (Hic 'n Hoc). DW's first full-length comic is like a cross between Gary Panter, Will Elder, Jim Woodring and psychedelic art (what he calls "psychedoodles"). Each page is its own puzzling mix of psychedelic wave drawings, scratchily-drawn and slightly amorphous characters, found text impositions, and eye-pops hidden in wave after wave of drawing. There is a kind of narrative carry on from page to page, as the main character is featured interacting with both words and images, but the effect is almost like discovering a series of mysterious cave drawings. Some of the text is random, but much of it obliquely comments on the action on the page, especially the many excerpts for a sort of mask to be worn at night to help with one's skin commenting on the waves of destruction on each page. The comic also has a densely visceral quality, as there are many scenes of cartoonish violence, predation, and other ordeals.  At the end, it feels like the main character (and the reader) have survived a harrowing rite of passage that was as much about the psychological makeup of the main character as it was about its physical presence. It's DW's most ambitious work to date, to be sure, and it coheres in a way that's surprising

Dodo Comics #3, by Grant Thomas. This is an all-abstract comics issue, as Thomas carefully uses panel placement and design as a kind of anchor for the abstract images he places into each one. Much like John Hankiewicz, he uses panels and marks to create a kind of visual rhythm, something that's emphasized by titling each piece as a sonnet or "untitled poem". Thomas especially seems to like rising and falling of lines and splotches from panel to panel, "rhyming" them throughout the piece in a complex and intuitive manner. The reading experience is explicitly shaped by the number of panels and tiers he uses on each page. The first "sonnet" has four tiers with 3/2/3/3 panels on each respective tier; the second page goes 3/3/3/3, the third page 4/4/4/4 and the final page has two tiers going 4/2. That rising and falling of each mage allows one to think of the lines as water, wind or anything that flows. That's even more explicit in the other pieces, where a definite sense of motion is implied from panel to panel, even if that motion is ultimately static. I don't get a sense that Thomas is going after provoking an emotional reaction (despite the use of the nomenclature of poetry), but is rather more interested in a more visceral reaction to the way lines on paper react against other lines and the expectation of the reader for a sequential narrative when we see one panel placed after another. These are explicit abstractions, and what they're abstractions of is entirely up to the reader. That's what makes comics like this so interesting to read.

Watching What You Say, by Alexander Rothman. This is a "versequential" book of comics-as-poetry by Rothman, who very carefully tries to balance word and image off of each other in a series of short, snappy works. Rothman spares no expense in this limited run of minis, using full color for every strip. Some of the poems are narratives: I love the phrase "On the last day of the Great Depression"; it reifies an amorphous historical period in a visceral way as a farmer drowns his no longer utilitarian bees. The story/poem "Still, Small" cycles through a group of people sitting in a church pew, "waiting in a field of quiet fires for a glimpse of the flowering fern". The illustrations here are a bit on the nose with relation to the fantastical, metaphorical language of the text, but they nonetheless get across that anxiousness one feels in trying to connect with the divine. On the other hand, the text for "Muses" hilariously acts against the text, introducing the author both as a kind of monkey and someone who draws inspiration from a certain kind of thought. "Praise Poem" uses a nearly static image of a turtle to depict a quick deceleration and a sense of awe as the narrator runs into it. "Processing" takes some sensitive prose and drives it way over the top with the page-stuffing depictions of a chicken getting gutted. It's not that the images themselves were inappropriate, it's that Rothman unnecessarily lays it on a little thick. All told, there's an enormous amount of potential to be had with Rothman's technique. His best works are those where text and image don't repeat each other, but instead reveal different aspects of the same event in interesting ways, like in "Euglossine Bees". In his work, Rothman is trying to reveal something about how we relate to nature, both intentionally and inevitably. That's an ambitious topic to tackle, and this comic is the result of Rothman experimenting with any number of different methods in getting at that elusive relationship. Some succeed more than others, but he's certainly on to something here.

Gorilla Year #1-2, by Cara Bean. This is an amusing stream-of-consciousness series wherein the author gets involved in a series of gorilla-related situations. In the first issue, Bean writes a short auto-bio strip that basically answers the question of "Why Gorillas?" When in art school, she decided to observe gorillas as part of an animal behavior class, an activity she found comforting in the face of anxiety. It wasn't until years later, when she started making comics, that it occurred to her to incorporate these images into a sequential narrative. The results remind me a bit of the surreal storytelling one sees in an Eric Haven comic: there's a slightly sketchy but naturalistic line telling a story where strange events flow into other strange events. The main character watches a movie starring herself turn into a gorilla, which leads that character to witness Mount Rainier erupt and a giant gorilla emerge. Then we see her back in the audience, where her fellow audience members are squirrels, gorillas, cats or dogs. There's a nice fluidity in the story, as Bean's stand-in is always moving forward, leaning at an angle that keeps the reader's eye propelled along the page. She later gets literally swept up by music, boards a bus that says "Finish Art School" and finds herself surrounded by gorillas. I took these images to mean that she surrounded herself with positive and comforting images and events in the face of doubt, fear and even loneliness. Drawing them in a story is almost a way of summoning these comforting feelings and concretizing them in a way that's funny but still very personally meaningful.

The second issue goes into more depth regarding that tumultuous time in a variety of clever ways that still manage to eschew a lot of standard narrative devices. The first story sees Bean walking through an art museum where all the pieces have narrative captions aimed directly at her. Most of the pieces are scenes of nature, but some include drawings of alcohol, food ("secret sadness snacks") and coffee leading the uncomfortable narrative that essentially zeroes in on her every weakness and attempt to mask those weaknesses. The piece segues into her feeling trapped, as though in a cage, which leads back to the narrative of drawing gorillas becoming a therapeutic method of dealing with the tumult in her life and the fact that she is unable to discuss it with anyone. The next story involves gorillas explicating an essay about conceptual art in her fluid but dynamic style, a juxtaposition that I found amusing. The last pieces in the book deal more directly with her art school difficulties, like being forced to live in her school art studio in secret. It's written in a sort of deadpan, matter-of-fact manner in the present tense, even as her being unable to sleep leads her to become unhinged. There's a great scene where Bean shrinks in size at dinner, beds down with a napkin and kisses the fork goodnight as she falls asleep. It's this kind of whimsy and magical realism that makes so many of her stories so memorable.While her comics have more straightforward narrative trappings than the other comics on this list, there's no question that her use of imagery and the way she juxtaposes it against text act to create an entirely different kind of meaning than either one on their own.

1 comment:

  1. Cara Bean's work continues to fascinate and amuse. Her story lines are so varied and imaginative and her drawings pack a tremendous punch. Looking forward to more!