Friday, June 20, 2014

Catching Up With Jon Chad

Jon Chadjurian is one of the more versatile and talented draftsmen in comics. He's also remarkably prolific, which is surprising given how detailed his line can be. Chadjurian (or Jon Chad, as he's known for some of his projects) has written and drawn two children's books, a huge compendium of disgusting humor, five issues (50 pages each) of a fantasy series involving bicycles and the first mini with bits and pieces of a science-fiction epic. On the side, he does a zine about pinball and contributes to anthologies. I get the sense that "workshopping" each of these projects with minicomics ahead of time allows him to stay fresh and interested. Let's take a look at each.

Leo Geo and the Cosmic Crisis. This second book in his Leo Geo series is Chad's most "commercial" work, but it's clear that this one is just as near and dear to his heart as his less commercial work. Published by Roaring Brook Press, Chad uses his talent for formal playfulness to guide the reader's eye across the page while deluging them with dozens of "eye pops" on each page. The first book in the series saw him go to the center of the earth, and so the book had to be held at a 90 degree angle so as to scroll down the page. When the reader and Leo reached the center, the book then had to be flipped 180 degrees so as to climb back up the other side. In this book, Leo goes to warn his brother Matt Data about a comet heading his way, taking his sentient computer along for company. When you flip the book upside down, we see a brand new title (Matt Data and the Cosmic Crisis) and a different mission: Matt going to warn Leo that his computer was infected by a virus that will make it perform bad experiments instead of "rad experiments". These books are tremendous fun because they dispense actual science fact along with goofball craziness (the action reminds me a little of the Johan Sfar/Emmanuel Guibert Sardine series) and give the reader a number of options on how to read it. Indeed, Chadjurian gives the reader a list of things to watch out for while reading the book, or the reader can simply follow the progress of the rocket (and the word balloons) across the page and ignore everything else. Of course, the eye pops are the best part of the book; they're bits of tiny punchlines crammed into a book that relies heavily on its formal structure to create reader interest. That's a deliberate strategy, as the highly simplified forms of Leo and Matt are rendered such as to keep things simple for the reader when tracking them across the page.

On the other hand, The Bad-Ventures of Bobo Backslack is Chadjurian's chance to cut loose on every filthy, unpleasant and just plain gross character and gag he could think of it. Bobo is kind of a pathetic nebbish in the mold of Todd Margaret from the TV show The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. The main difference is Bobo's insane lack of guile and self-awareness; they're so irritating that one can't help but laugh out loud every time something horrible happens to him--which is on virtually every page. The character design of Bobo, with those glassy eyes, upswooped hair in the front, annoying bow tie and sweat constantly flying off of him is perhaps the least endearing I've ever seen for a protagonist. In the course of the book, Bobo eats some cursed alphabet soup that causes him to vomit it up in offensive phrases, including puking a number of insults into the face of the girl he has a crush on. Sequences where he pukes things out like "Ha ha just kidding. I would never like you. Your loathsome personality and looks disgust me!" get funnier and funnier as they keep escalating. Chad doesn't spare a single grotesque detail; indeed, virtually every character in the book carries at least a touch of the grotesque, like creepy next-door neighbor Ted Sickness. This unblinking, stupidly-smiling, Weeble-shaped character is weird enough on his own, but when he starts making out with another potential love interest at a kissing booth (and when his cat joins in for a three-way kiss), Chadjurian achieves an amazing level of squirming comics absurdity.

Bobo later gets ingested by a giant snake who puts on a wig and takes over his life; gets horrible allergic reactions to cats and milk (the latter after being dunked in a tank full of milk), gets chased by dogs and savaged by birds; is manipulated by an insane Japanese terrorist (who for some reason keeps a cat in his drawer and feeds it beer and chips); is scolded by a friend of his mother's to clean up his house; and is captured by the US government both for potentially causing a breakout of a virus as well as the unforgiveable crime of copyright infringement. Each character is more insane (and weirdly drawn) than the next, like a group of counter-terrorists who can't stop talking about how hard they are. Chadjurian is less interested in upping the ante on a page-to-page basis than he is simply maintaining utter anarchy in a manner that's still remarkably easy to follow. He very carefully structures Bobo's adventures in a conventional manner; it's just that the characters and the outcomes are hilariously gross. One gets the sense that Bobo is his outlet for these kinds of ideas that tend to lurk beneath the surface for him. I am generally not the target audience for these sorts of gross-out gags, but Chad's sheer enthusiasm in delivering them in the most deliberately bland of packages is infectious. Combined with the fluidity and clarity of his line, Bobo's misfortunes are almost beautiful to behold.

Bikeman is Chad's ongoing fantasy series. There's the expected wide cast of characters, the lushly-drawn forest settings, and requisite weird and grotesque character design. Of course, because it's a Chad comic, things are off-kilter, as the inhabitants of this particular world ride quasi-sentient bicycles. Chad's facility in drawing machines gives the bikes a real presence in each panel, making the fantasy world feel remarkably real. The fifth issue features the young protagonist hunted down by a vicious character named Brasko and his gang. The essential triangle of the book is with the young man, Brasko, and the mysterious Bikeman. The latter character appears in flashback in this issue, as we learn that he was raised by wolves, a relationship that was not entirely benevolent for him. After a number of skirmishes and light-hearted moments that marked the first four issues of the series, this is a serious patch of trouble for the boy, who is being used by the villain to find the Bikeman. The action sequences in this issue are thrilling, as Chad cleverly uses blurring to depict the speeds at which the bikes are flying through the forest, flipping the reader from panel to panel. When the action stops, Chad uses two vertical panels per page, with close-ups on the terrified face of the boy followed by the sneering, toothy grin of the monstrous villain. While Chad's storytelling style and attention to detail is similar to that of his friend Alec Longstreth, the more whimsical qualities of his narrative remind me more of Max Badger's excellent book Oak. All three cartoonists share an ability to work in a particular genre and deliver a narrative that fits within its rules while still applying their own idiosyncratic ideas and storytelling methods.

Chad goes even further afield in the introduction to Mezmer, his space fantasy epic. In some ways, this is his craziest work to date. Rather than tell a single, linear narrative in this issue, Chad instead tells a series of vaguely connected short stories. Some of them are heavy with backstory, like the robotic Maxer giving the reader a bit of history. Others come in toward the very end, like the confrontation between the heroic man/machine Mumfot and the roguish Ferls, which ends with the hero destroying a "Doombox". Ferls is rescued by his extremely cheerful sentient craft Bluebell, which constantly shouts out things like "I'm Bluebell! Now you're on me!" It's sort of like if a dog could talk but also had lasers and could fly. This is further reinforced in a supplemental mini where Bluebell is first created and becomes friends with Ferls. Drawn a bit like his Leo Geo comics, Bluebell explores space in side-scrolling fashion until he meets his new partner. Included with the mini is what looks like a child's drawing; it's a drawing that Bluebell made for Ferls. This level of absurd detail in a sci-fi story approaches Ryan Cecil Smith's insane devotion to world building in his S.F. series. Back to the main mini, there are also tales of the War Rock, a giant, sentient rock-like creature that participates in and is a fan of war. Bluebell appears and gets a day off. More backstory is thrown in here and there, creating a sense of history and depth that is nonetheless quite deliberately silly. That said, Chad seems best suited for science fiction above all else; there's something about the way he draws machines, ships and power-rays that makes it look like they simply flow out of his pen with no effort. One senses an avalanche of characters emerging from his imagination that he can barely keep up with.The fractured narrative style allows the reader to concentrate on these details without worrying too much about a conventional plot. To be sure, the plot is never the thing when it comes to Jon Chadjurian's work; indeed it's all about the ride.

No comments:

Post a Comment