Luke Howard is an artist with a considerable amount of talent who is rapidly cycling through an array of influences that reflect his rendering skill and sharp sense of design. To be sure, Chris Ware's combination of precision and emotional vulnerability can be found on these pages. Gabby Schulz's witheringly cynical point of view and grotesque character design may be seen on others. The single biggest influence seems to be that of the angular and colorful design qualities of Lilli Carre, an influence that's even clear with the level of ambiguity Howard seems to enjoy inserting into his narratives. Junior is his longest work in this set of comics I received, and it's like a weird Ware/Schulz matchup. It concerns the titular character on a trip to visit an aunt he never knew he had (he was adopted by a lesbian couple) to sign over the estate of the father he never knew. The issues of having a missing father and the painful attempts to make any kind of connection with a relative obviously suggest Ware, but the hilariously awkward but strangely self-aware and lovable nature of Junior suggest Schulz or even Peter Bagge. Junior, with a wispy blonde mustache and the sort of ballcap and shorts that a ten year old might wear instead of a grown man, is the sort of character incapable of not saying every single thing on his mind. Ranging from asking another man to hold his hand during a plane take-off because he was scared to vocalizing the real tension between himself and his aunt, things get delightfully weird when he starts a dialogue with a cardboard box. That bit of magical realism is never explained, yet it made total sense in the context of the story. Junior a sad, funny comic that punctures its pathos with weirdness and tinges its humor with longing and despair, and this dynamic plays out both in terms of the story and the illustrations.
Howard's also published a trio of flip-comics, containing two stories apiece. She Me You/Goldfish Day is a good illustration of the different sort of styles Howard works in. "She Me You" is a heavily Carre'-influence story about a man who confesses his attraction to another woman to his wife, which causes her to move to the ceiling, away from his life and other people entirely. With characters that possess sharp, angular features and a blue wash as part of another magical realist setting, one can sense Carre's similar preference for stories about alienation. The main difference is that Howard's approach is slightly warmer and more direct. "Goldfish Day" features a more tremulous line and character design that's closer to Joseph Lambert. Indeed, it's about young girls experiencing the joys of goldfish ownership (and camaraderie in general), until one girl's goldfish simply doesn't die like the others do. That sense of survivor's guilt and rejection by her friends as a result is presented as a traumatic event, yet one that the reader an't help laugh out.
Forms/Copy shows off two more sides of Howard. "Copy" is about two small magical beings, one constantly yapping and complaining about the other's general perfectness. As they walk through a forest that's at once gritty-looking and clearly shaded with computer effects, Howard keeps ramping up the annoying qualities of the one character, until he's given a surreal comeuppance that wouldn't seem out of place in a comic by Brian Chippendale. "Forms" returns to the more angular side of Howard, coupled with that slightly cartoony character design, as it tells the tale of two men, ignorance, fear and the cyclical destruction of beauty as a result. Howard frequently writes about characters who put themselves into difficulties because they are unwilling or unable to perceive their own mistakes and tendencies; he punishes them because they punish themselves.
Finally, How To Be Shapes/Best Seller is Howard's most design-heavy comic in terms of how the design affects the narrative. "How To Be Shapes" involves a curious toddler who wonders about what happens to the blocks he pushes into a cube toy once they enter, and so magically squeezes himself inside. However crossing over changes him into a spectral creature that slips in and out of people--eating their food, seeing what they see, etc until they die of starvation. Howard's use of color is crucial in telling this story, especially in terms of the transition from child to creature. "Best Seller" is a love story between two books at a store, one a work of historical fiction and the other a sci-fi novel. It has a funny, strange ending that makes sense in context with the rest of the story. Both stories, which rely so much on color, have sort of a NoBrow aesthetic to them, as though they were first cousins to Jon McNaught or Luke Pearson. Howard's understanding of how to use color as a form of narrative is every bit as sophisticated as theirs. These comics are funny, clever and technically accomplished, but I still get the sense that Howard is rooting around and dabbling in a variety of styles as he endeavors to find his own voice. It's clear that that voice will have a degree of sweetness to it but an even larger hunk of cruelty, cynicism and grotesqueness to it. It may also be the case that he never settles on a particular visual style, instead preferring to match his art to his subject matter. In either case, his work ethic and chops both indicate that he's a cartoonist well worth watching.