Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #21: Luke Healy, Max Riffner, Mathew New, Simon Reinhardt

This time around, I'll be discussing the work of three current students, set to graduate in 2014, as well as one graduate from the class of 2013.

Luke Healy's Of The Monstrous Pictures of Whales is one of the more fully-realized comics I've read from a student. Starting with the beautiful, silkscreened cover, continuing with the whale-themed endpapers and into the confidently rendered, simple clear-line style, Healy creates memorable and distinctive characters as well. Healy's watchword is restraint, as he slowly reveals the reason why two Irish sisters and their mother go on an ocean voyage taking off from Iceland while quickly establishing their fractious interpersonal dynamics. The ship is a whale-watching voyage, and one of the daughters, Liz, is an acerbic young woman who winds up being a sort of object of affection both for a whale (it only surfaces when she's out on a particular deck, soaking her every time) and the slightly buffoonish son of the ship's captain. Moby Dick and Herman Melville are name-checked a number of times, as the comic is indeed about a kind of obsession. In this case, it's about Liz's troubled relationship with her father. The end sequence, which uses larger panels at the bottom of the page to slowly relate in real time Liz's emotional reaction to having pitched something valuable at the whale "following" her and smaller panels on top to flash back to the history of the relationship with her father, is emotionally powerful. Indeed, Healy seamlessly incorporates humor (both absurd and sarcastic) into a comic that at its essence is about grief. I haven't read much else by Healy, but this comic establishes him as part of the very top rank of CCS artists.

Mathew New's Billy Johnson and His Duck Explorers is a Tintin-inspired bit of nonsense. Borrowing a bit of Herge's character design, the story mixes in aspects of Indiana Jones as well as Bill and his talking duck Barrace Wilcox open the comic with absurd dance moves that's a result of a competition performed at random for someone who came to deliver a package. New's sense of silliness goes from there, as they must deliver a trident to the middle of the ocean, Billy angers the statue heads on Easter Island by picking their noses, causing them to get up and walk into the ocean, and the intrepid duo encounters a Lara Croft-style explorer when looking for a valuable artifact. New's line is decidedly unfussy and utilitarian, aiding the gags in the simplest manner possible. The mini itself is an amusing trifle of perfect length, as I'm not sure the concept could sustain a narrative that was much longer than a few pages.

Simon Reinhardt's comic, Crime Planet, is a graphically bold, if extremely silly, comic about the rise and fall of a gangster that brings to mind classic crime series like Crime Does Not Pay. Reinhardt makes up for limited rendering skill with a bold, dynamic sense of page composition, employing dense blacks on some pages to draw in the reader's eye and carefully spotting blacks on other pages so as to move the eye around the page. Starting with a boy who declares that "Crude entertainment has eroded all my moral fiber", Eddie Ford "turns to a life of crime" as a result, He gets recruited to a mysterious criminal organization called Crime Planet, and his subsequent success and eventual downfall are documented in a manner that slips between deadpan and directly comedic. Inbetween, there are various "public service announcements" for neighborhood watch announcements with secret codes and a corpse protection service. Like New's comic, it's all good dumb fun. Reinhardt doesn't quite have the chops to pull off every visual gag he attempts, and that's a strain on the reader at times, but the boldness of his storytelling does offset this difficulty.

Max Riffner graduated in 2013 from CCS, but he's had a long career as a webcartoonist. He did a strip called Lydia that I quite enjoyed. The comics I'm reviewing here were part of this CCS thesis packet and include the minicomic Doomsday Democracy and the book The Crippler's Son. Using a sketchy, expressive style that reminds me a bit of a slightly less scribbly Jeff Lemire, The Crippler's Son is about a professional wrestler nicknamed "The Crippler" (a name he took from his wrestler father) and his much younger brother, James. James is an ER resident whose entire education was paid for by Jack ("The Crippler") and the success that his wrestling career brought him. The Lemire comparisons extend to his Essex County trilogy, which is a story about familial relationships and misdirection regarding same. It's also about James seeking an identity as a gay man who grew up without real family relationships or close bonds. It's also impeccably researched, as Riffner did a fantastic job researching the back story behind wrestling and the kind of terms that only insiders tend to use, and made it part of the book's vernacular. Whether or not someone knows what a "shoot" or "kayfabe" are isn't important, because the technical aspects of the sport are akin to the behind-the-scenes nature of being an ER doctor. Indeed, Riffner makes pointed comparisions between the ER doctor locker room and the wrestling locker room, even if what happens afterward is obviously different. The point Riffner makes is that James learns only too late just how much he means to Jack, and why, even as he tries to open himself up. While the relationship between the two becomes obvious at a certain point, the way Riffner ends the story gives it a powerful sense of emotional ambiguity.

The mini Democracy Doomsday is a far more labored (and labored-looking) comic using zip-a-tone and other visual effects, printed in blue ink. It's about a Nazi-smashing robot that wakes up in a world where the Nazis won World War II, and finds a way to wipe out every Nazi and everyone under Nazi occupation. While nicely drawn and designed (the tall, angular and slightly goofy robot is an especially great character design), the end of the story is a bit heavy-handed. Riffner's use of restraint in The Crippler's Son is what made it such an effective story.

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