Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Minis from Forsman, Ford, Glidden, Smith, Mardou, Overby, Latta

Time to check in on the world of mini-comics.

Snake Oil 1-2, by Chuck Forsman. This is a really excellent, unusual mini that combines slice-of-life slacker life with a truly demented fantasy narrative. It's told in a series of vignettes as a garbageman named Tim is kidnapped from a diner by several mysterious figures using some kind of magical powers. His best friend Bob and fellow garbageman tries to pursue them but is outfoxed. The lead sinister figure stops him by asking him his name, and then says, "Bob, quit doggin' me" and then laughs maniacally down an alley and disappears. Meanwhile, Bob's son Darryl is getting high with his friend Kim, who smokes what's in a mysterious pipe. She suddenly goes catatonic for no apparent reason. Tim finds himself in a mysterious land populated by nudists, while the bull-headed men who are driving him away in a van freak out on pills. In the back-up story, "Mickey The Man", a man goes from a state of being a human and then being an anthropomorphic duck and finds that his baby is stolen from him by unidentified, sinister forces.

It looks like Forsman is cycling through his influences in this mini, spinning them through his own unique point of view. I can sense early Chester Brown as an influence in the first story and his character design is very similar to Sammy Harkham's in the second. The way he mixes humor, fantasy elements, a gnawing sense of dread and everyday ennui as components in his story make it quite memorable. I like his character design and composition, though his line isn't quite assured enough to pull off every trick he attempts in this book. His ambition is impressive, as is his restraint in not overrendering his characters. Forsman is an student at the Center For Cartoon Studies, and it's obvious that he's developing rapidly as an artist. He's definitely one to watch.

Only Skin #3, by Sean Ford. This series reminds me a little of Gilbert Hernandez' work in some respects. The ensemble cast, the wide-open spaces, the eccentric character design, and the looming but enigmatic sense of menace that pervades the book are all reminiscent of a lot of Hernandez' recent work in particular. This issue starts to fill in some of the blanks regarding some of the key character's (Cassie) backstory, as we learn why she left the tiny, dusty town. She's confronted by a person who was the catalyst for her departure, who may play a significant role in the mysterious and brutal disappearances that are occuring in town. We also see more of my favorite character, the Pac-Man looking ghost that follows around Cassie's younger brother and nearly gets him killed. Some of the series' themes are also beginning to coalesce, especially mortality and the nature of human connection. I'm not sure how long this series is slated to run, but it quickly has become a favorite. Like Forsman, Ford has an excellent sense of composition and design but is still mastering the quality of his line. It's not always entirely assured, as though rendering certain scenes seemed to take an enormous amount of effort (especially character-to-character interactions). But also like Forsman, Ford avoids the pitfalls of overrendering.

How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less, Chapters 1 & 2, by Sarah Glidden. Glidden is best known for her journal comics, and in these comics she takes her wry perspective to describe her journey to Israel on a "birthright tour". She took advantage of the Israeli government (combined with private donors) funding a program that brings young Jews to Israel from around the world. Glidden took the trip from a quite skeptical point of view, as a non-religious Jew whose feelings about Israel were ambivalent, to say the least. She was curious as to what kind of people she'd meet on the tour, if those running the tour would truly engage the tough questions regarding the Palestinian conflict, and how much of the trip would simply be an exercise in propaganda.

The best thing about these comics is Glidden's forceful and unapologetic presence as a biased narrator. She is not Joe Sacco in Palestine, submerging his own ego in order to get the stories of others. These comics are about Glidden's feelings and point of view about this experience. Despite her strong opinions going into it, one can sense that the mixed emotions she feels about being in Israel cause her to really think over everything she sees and hears. There's a liveliness in how she depicts characterization that allows the reader to fly through the story, and one can't help but wonder how Sarah will react to what she encounters next. Her position as someone who leans to the left who has enormous sympathy for the Palestinian cause can't help but be tempered by the complex realities of everyday life. Glidden also livens up the proceedings by depicting the wanderings of her imagination: as she confesses that she doesn't know how the Six Day War was fought, she starts to imagine soldiers mounted on dinosaurs attacking each other. Another sequence finds her experiences "on trial" in her mind, as the prosecution attacks what she sees as propaganda while the defense notes how open-minded the guides are, halting when the judge declares a recess for a bathroom break at the next gas station.

Glidden's line is on the primitive side, more concerned with capturing gesture and expression than a meticulously crafted stylization. For the purposes of a story that is entirely about the emotions and expressions of her characters, her art is more than up to this task. She sticks to a rigid 9-panel grid on every page, which serves to keep the story flowing but cramps things a bit. That mostly plays out in her lettering, which is a bit too small on the page and seems rushed at times. It's the only thing that interrupts the otherwise seamless flow of the comic; one rarely notices lettering unless it's a distraction. One could actually see the lettering becoming much clearer at the end of chapter 2, and her pages in general opened up a bit and started to breathe a bit more. I admire Glidden's ambition in tackling this project and think that her combination of wit, outrage and skepticism will make for a fascinating personal account of one of the world's most controversial areas. One can already see that the challenges inherent in telling this story are making her a better artist.

Small Bible,  by Shannon Smith. This is a clever mini that's about points of view and description. Taking key portions of the Old Testament, Smith quotes extensively from Stephen's Defense in the Book of Acts, then quotes the original scripture, then provides an illustration--all in just 9 pages. It's a clever comic that's both a straightforward depiction of an event, and a commentary as an interpretation of an interpretation of an event that may or may not have happened--but has enormous importance. Joann Sfar's Rabbi character in THE RABBI'S CAT described Judaism as different from Western (Hegelian) thought, which is thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The history of Jewish thought, he explained, is thesis, antithesis, antithesis, antithesis, and so on. This mini is another step in the argument, providing a visual interpretation of the events that is action-oriented on nearly every page. An angel dramatically swoops in to prevent Abraham from sacrificing Isaac; Moses gets a magic glowing staff from god that cures snake bites; various epic battles are fought. Smith gets across the quite visceral experience of reading the Old Testament, a tact that is quite different from the purposes of either Stephen or the original Torah. It's quite a clever little project.

Washing Machine, by Mardou. I really enjoyed this slice-of-life mini because it subverted expectations at every turn. A story about a 20-something woman who breaks off an affair she's having with an older married man, Mardou sets up a situation where her protagonist Rachel seems to be on the way to finding an exciting new boyfriend. Instead, Rachel's night ends in disaster as the wife of her ex-flame confronts her, her potential new boyfriend drives the hysterical woman home, and her dumpy roommate actually finds a potential love interest. Mardou's character design and dialogue are clever and serve well in drawing in the reader's interest. The ending of the story serves to offer up a bit of justice to a character that is actually a bit vain, shallow and conceited, and the way Mardou brings these threads together in one explosive ending was quite satisfying.

Jessica, by Jason Overby. This is an unusual mini printed with a thick cardstock cover and heavy paper. While this is essentially an anecdote about a missed connection with a woman, what makes it unusual is Overby's visual approach. He alternates between a Paper Rad-style primitivism, pure iconic abstraction, and Frank Stack-style scribbly expressionism. The story drifts in and out of the anecdote, as Overby sometimes digresses to past memories and experiences. This mini is stream-of-consciousness and attempts to get across the experience of one's own consciousness visually. I especially liked the iconic abstraction that represented himself; ironically, his most abstract representation is the most straightforward in relating the narrative. This was certainly an interesting amalgamation of ideas and techniques, presented without compromise to conventional narrative concerns, and it'll be interesting to see how Overby develops his talent.

Rashy Rabbit #4, by Josh Latta. This is an outsized slice-of-life comic told in classic funny animal fashion. Indeed, Latta's skill in rendering his characters in that classic style is so considerable that the first page of this comic, featuring a sex scene, caught me totally off guard. The title character is a familiar 20-something loser, constantly (but often unsuccessfully) on the make and getting high. That opening sequence, featuring a sex scene and a stunning death, was quite a darkly hilarious introduction to this issue. Rashy as a character is a sad sack, without much ambition of his own and is thus easily manipulated by others. While the dialogue has a sort of sleazy verisimilitude that's amusing (especially Rashy's dirtbag stoner cousin), Latta takes a risk in having a protagonist that's so passive in this issue. Not having read the first three issues of the series, I'd be interested in seeing how Rashy interacted with other characters, and how that influenced the narrative.

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