Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chicago Week: Linework

Linework is a student & alumni anthology from Columbia College in Chicago. As befits a student anthology from one of the cartooning capitals of the world and with a great cartoonist like Ivan Brunetti as a faculty advisor, Linework is unusually strong and coherent for student work, and each issue has grown bigger and more ambitious. The magazine boasts strong contributions from its alumni, including the likes of Onsmith and Lilli Carre', along with recent grads like Nick Drnaso, Kevin Budnik and Andy Burkholder. Let's go issue by issue and highlight the most interesting work in each one.

Linework #1, edited by Onsmith, Madalyn Merkey and Andy Burkholder.

Burkholder, Onsmith and Budnik are three of the anthology's cornerstones, though Drnaso would contribute remarkable work in the next three anthologies. He hadn't yet developed his mature style in his submission here, and it shows in the way it's a bit of a muddle. Burkholder is absolutely fearless in the way he experiments with different styles and cycles through influences. In this issue, his story interpolates sharply geometric figures and a sort of Paper Rad-style character design, along with smudged ink effects to indicate to the reader that everything here is constructed--even the moments of visceral violance. Budnik's self-flagellating strip is more in-your-face than his later, gentler style, echoing the work of David Heatley. Onsmith's strip about two kids finding a dead cat is brutal and then turns a magnifying glass on that brutality. He has a way of getting at the white trash living experience and its shocking and casual embrace of violence but is also empathetic enough to delve into the minds of these characters.

There are a number of fine stories by artists with whom I was not already familiar. Kyle Harter's "After These Messages" features a man who can only relate to others in so far as they remind him of television; the cartoony line and the use of TV sets as panels is clever. Rachel Duggan's reminiscence about her father telling her about his rough childhood was fascinating; her rough line and use of colored pencil gives the drawings a child-like quality, even as the stories she was told were entirely inappropriate for children. Kiyomi Negi-Tran's piece comparing the way she relates to her mother to the way she relates to her boyfriend is bracingly honest and heart-rending. She makes great use of color in splitting up her story and uses the cute super-deformed style of character design to powerful effect.

Marc Filerman's "Sasha" is strongly derived from Chris Ware's design style but does have a funny punchline. Jonathan Wilcox's narrative about a man buying increasingly fancy clothes and accoutrements and then getting mugged works because of the small panels, the rhythm of the grid and the simplicity of his character design. Regina Rotondo's "Family Gossip" strip, on the other hand, works because of the idiosyncratic way she draws characters and settings, though this was a story whose impact was blunted a bit by its use of color. Joyce Rice's strip about the hell of working in a convenience store and the desperate need to get out is aided by its mostly steel-blue monochrome approach, which helped to sell monotony. Finally, David Alvarado's strip about a brain on a desert island is whimsical and well-drawn.

Linework #2, edited by Kevin Budnik, Nick Drnaso and Max Morris.

Burkholder leads off the issue with "Let Us Go Out", a surreal journey written in the language of reading primers about a young boy encountering a dog, visiting a sick man and refusing to help a girl because only god can do it. The small, claustrophobic panels and spot use of a sickening orange add to the sense of disorientation that the strip builds. Alvarado switched styles and this time around went for larger panels and figures and brighter colors, though his characters maintained a primitive quality that dovetailed nicely with the weird, gross-out gag about hallucinagenic chicken nuggets. His other strip, about a man who dies on a camping trip, is even better, as it screws around with time and narrative using a beautifully clean line. Budnik eschews dialogue entirely in a detailed strip about exploring an abandoned, wrecked house that nonetheless carries emotional weight and strong connections between its two characters. Joyce Rice contributes a strip where the main character's brother has just died, and she uses a surprisingly bright color palette to get at the weird and conflicting emotions surrounding the event. Drnaso's strip about a depressed clown is staggering; the first page is depressing because of the clown's attempting to buy into corporate while discouraging his son (after it's too late); and the second is just a total meltdown in front of kids. Drnaso has mastered his clear-line style and uses a cheerful palette that belies the darkness of his work. Betty Heredia's strip about her compulsive needs to get and peel away scabs is not only compelling and disturbing in equal measure, it's even philosophical, as she asks what she's doing is self-mutilation if it gives her pleasure. The stark and simple black and white and the small panels move the reader from image to image quickly, as she's less interesting in dwelling on specific images of torn flesh than she is in exploring how she gets there.

Filerman's strip about eating cat food as a child and vomiting is funny and weird, especially as he ties it into the anxiety of being punished by his father. Rachel Duggan's sketchbook drawings are excellent, reminiscent of Eleanor Davis' work. Claire McCarthy's "Robert" is a cleverly-design series of small anecdotes about a local homeless man that's surprising in some parts and sadly predictable in others. Angela Caggiano's "House on Lombard" is designed to look like a photo album in her tribute to her grandfather; the character design and overall presentation reminds me a bit of Carol Tyler. Michelle West's "The Receiving End" is crudely drawn but sharply conceived, as she relates an amazing roommate horror story that's also hilarious. Liz Gollner's smoothly-rendered story about a pilot crash-landing and losing his memory makes skillful use of greys and a restrained, fragile line in its tiny panels. It's in many ways a more traditional comics story than most in this anthology, but it's artfully done.

Linework #3, edited by Kevin Budnik & Nick Drnaso.

This is probably the best all-around issue of Linework, thanks in part to contributions by Brunetti and Carre'. Still, the students and other alum acquit themselves quite well here. Both of Drnaso's features are strong. The cover features four cheerleaders, and the flaps tell their life stories, with selected images from their lives charted to a graph that measures "happy" or "sad" over time. It's an ingenious idea that's well-executed. "Chatter" is a far more low-key effort, as Drnaso transcribed an interview with someone who placed a "Missed Connections" ad and drawing it as though the two of them were sitting across from each other. The level of awkwardness he achieves with body language belying speech is remarkable. Alvarado hit on his preferred style in this issue: flat color with Ben Day dot effects. That style allowed him to get really weird, as one strip features a kid making an impromptu sex doll whose face he accidentally tears before completion, and the other strip features two weird kidnappers and their obsessions while navigating the fate of their captive. Both strips offer strange and brief glimpses into their characters with a unique and powerful visual presentation.

Matt Novak's hilariously awkward story about mangling sex-related language as a youngster is another highlight, especially thanks to the crudeness of his line. Brunetti's autobiographical story about coming to terms with diabetes is typically excellent, as he manages a remarkable level of detail in a strip that's supposed to be stripped down. Equally good is his profile of designer/artist Alvin Lustig, a restless fellow who succumbed to diabetes. Budnik's story about crushes is more in line with his current, confessional style, and the use of black & white and a more restrained line allows him to inject more emotional power into his drawings. Carre's panel-less story about forgetting someone's face is fascinating, as she shows a drawing slowly mutating into something recognizable after twenty iterations. It ends by talking about how only the present moment is at all recognizable. Onsmith similarly contributes a strip about the mutation of form in the face of comfortable tedium, employing those sharp and askew angles that disorient the reader.

There are many different visual styles at work in this issue. Michelle West keeps it simple with another horrifying encounter with a neighbor in "G String Man"; she really has a way of working up disgust and contempt in her strips. Max Morris' "Tsar Bomba" is a color-soaked account of the microseconds that go by in a nuclear blast and what happens to skin, buildings and bones in the process. Heredia's dream about a freeway that becomes a rollercoaster is sharply angular and claustrophobic, and it winds up being about finding out how to let go. Filerman's gender-bending space opera is over the top from the word go, using his simple character design, bright colors and a rhythm that doesn't let the reader ask too many questions to push it along. Burkholder's long, weird office reverie (done in conjunction with Dan Rhodehamel) is not his strongest work, as it meanders and is dominated by narrative captions in a way his work usually isn't constrained as such.

Linework #4, edited by Marieke McClendon, Erik Lundquist and Pete Clodfelter.

The fourth issue switched to an entirely new editorial team and got even bigger. Alvarado's strip about a couple running over a man in a furry suit is hilarious and unsettling. He has a way of starting strips and throwing a monkey wrench into a very particular and defined set of social interactions and expectations. Burkholder's "Mm" is fascinating on a formal level, where spoken words have a physical presence in the world he depicts. The way he plays with panel-to-panel transitions as the reader pans across the page is hilarious, almost parodying the use of a grid to create story rhythms. Budnik's strip about the "Mayan apocalypse" is typically thoughtful and smart, as it addresses his obsessive need for ritual. Ryan Duggan's gag about tattoos, "Permanent Solutions For Temporary Problems" is well-drawn and hilarious. Joyce Rice's "Hoosier Valley" finds the artist in peak form in this slice-of-life teen comic that cuts close to the bone with regard to the way relationships and friendships can suddenly shift and implode. Her use of color enriches the reading experience, especially at the end when one of the characters takes a long look at the night sky in awe and wonder.

Brunetti's strip about fearing he might have oral cancer is neurotic, self-obsessed Brunetti at his best; the panel where his head swells to dwarf his body is especially funny. Sam McMorris' strip, "The Adventures of the Oblivious Sexual Conqueror" is hilarious in its depiction of awkwardness around the opposite sex; the verisimilitude of the dialogue is especially painful, while the cartoony style allows him to warp faces and still keep the strip recognizable. Onsmith's bizarre strip about a man made out of paper who has a phone inside of him that is used to call a help desk is both funny and unsettling, primarily because of his angular drawings and the slightly sickening color palette he used. Matt Novak's tremulous line gives his strip about being dumped, finding a slightly unstable person for a rebound relationship and learning that he had a brain aneurysm both a humorous and emotional sense of resonance.

Drnaso is once again the biggest stand-out. His "Play Pen" is a masterfully created, subtle and unsettling story about a police officer who deciphered a seemingly innocent toy catalog and realized that it was peddling children for sex. There's a level of detail that's almost mundane, reflecting the nature of the investigation, but there's also a level of nausea in this strip that's palpable. Other strong strips in the issue include Betty (credited here as Beatriz) Heredia's strip about encountering an old man, a crow and a chair that caught her foot when she went inside. Her brush really went wild in this strip even as she continued to use small, cramped panels to maximize that sense of being trapped, even when outside.  Chris Dazzo's strip about an awful roommate is cleverly constructed ala Chris Ware, where the drawing is meant to be looked at panel-by-panel as well as a single gestalt. Pete Clodfelter's manic, detailed drawings and sense of the grotesque are enabled by the sickly orange-yellow color scheme he employs. Max Morris' Gary Panter-stylings and musing on punk get at the heart of the "now" nature of the music and scene and how quickly disposable it is. Sanya Glisic wavers between sharp angles and grotesquely melting flesh in a story about escape, confrontation and change.

Every detail is considered carefully in the anthology. Even details like endpapers (a clever visual call and response between Drnaso and Budnik) are given maximum effort. Not every entry is of interest, but it's been interesting to observe the evolution and improvement from issue to issue, because every artist is obviously trying to pitch their "A" material as much as possible. I think by this time the tradition of the anthology has created a culture of excellence and pride surrounding it, with every new editorial team trying to outdo the next.

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