Monday, May 27, 2013

Odd Corners: Van Gieson, Evans, Shen

Eel Mansions #1, by Derek Van Gieson. This one was a bolt from the blue. I was familiar with Van Gieson from his work in the anthology Mome; I found the "Devil Doll" serial he drew (but did not write) to be a mostly incoherent mess as it tried to mash up war comics and horror. This comic is a far crazier and more successful attempt at combining supernatural, autobio, kid's comics, spy genre stories and action stories into one delirious stew. Van Gieson's dark and moody art mimics 50s horror in much the same way that Dan Clowes does: importing the strangeness of it without also importing the cliches. The story follows a diverse cast of characters as they all seek their individual goals. There's the former head of a Crowleyean cult, reduced to doing magic tricks at auto shows, who is recruited by a shadowy government agency to do one last job, because his family might still be alive. There's the dumb rookie spy who badly flubs his first assignment but lucks into a treasure trove of information. There's the boozy cartoonist whose wacky Moomintroll-inspired minicomic touches on Pink Floyd and her own alcoholism, along with her best pal who draws disgusting horror comics. There are assorted monsters, killers and agents with unknown allegiances and McGuffins like the demon-stopping power of mayonaise. Van Gieson's Tove Janssen mimicry is impressive and funny; indeed, his comic timing is sharp as it takes the reader through any number of surprises. Van Gieson manages to blend a lifetime's worth of influences into one heady brew that is enjoyable as an individual entry as well as part of what will hopefully be an equally frantic whole.

Stumpy and the Living Stone, by James Evans. This is a full-color effort about a poor pigeon missing several toes and how this happened. Evans has an exceptionally crisp line and a bold but restrained color sense, which gives this mini the feel of a children's story, up until things become horrible. (Example: a mouse Stumpy befriends accidentally gnaws on one of his toes). That tension between cute and horrible is what drives this comic, along with the pigeon's confusion as to why all the food went away (which leads this once-successful pigeon to ruin, as his family abandons him and children find a new dad they like better). This is a great sad-sack story with an open ending, so I suspect Evans will be back to heap more abuse on his hapless protagonist with the same level of skill and precision.

Party Plans #2 by Zejian Shen. In Shen's crazy serialized stories, the shaggy dog aspect of her storytelling is also the substance of the series. That is, every turn that introduces a new character doing something strange isn't an aside from the thin main storyline, it's the structure that keeps it stable. After checking in with the brutish but sensitive Victor Volcano where he erupts with pleasure in a geological and physiological sense, most of the issue is spent examining the fate of Doraemon Disguise, aka Malcom Mouse-ears. He's a snooty subway-car operator who gives the cold shoulder to Betty Boulder, aka Vic's girlfriend. Shen's specialty is the silent transition scene, where she builds up suspense in the mudane on page after page of beautiful, warped and strange character designs. Most of the comic consists of Malcom's dread in knowing that Betty is going to do her best to get bloody revenge on him for his slight, and Shen's muscular & visceral character designs highlight flopsweat and terror in a manner that is hilarious. When she finally gets to that revenge scene, she goes to a full two-page spread to illustrate Betty's elbow crushing Malcom's cheek, and then following it up with an indignant "Asshole!". Shen's storytelling chops are rock-solid; she simply chooses to go in unexpected directions for uncertain periods of time, carrying the reader along. In the middle of the book, she inserts a list of charaters introduced to date, which serves both to help readers identify these characters on the fly as well as try to figure what they're doing. At the same time, she doesn't forget about the main plot, alluding to it at the beginning of the book and returning to it more explicitly at the end. Shen's comics are best enjoyed without that destination or plot in mind, allowing her detours and tangents to simply play out. I suspect she's going to get a lot more attention when her book with Retrofit debuts later in 2013.

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