Friday, August 21, 2015

More Autobio: Durham Comics Project, Give Thanks, Grant Thomas

Give Thanks, by Philip Weiss. This is the first published comic of an artist who spent time at SAW (Sequential Artists Workshop), and while aspects of it are raw, it's clear that Weiss already has a few things going for him as a cartoonist. First, he's embraced his own style of cartooning and focuses on what's important on each page. Second, he understands how to depict body language, especially his own slumped body posture. Third, he understands how best to use restraint as a cartoonist. He doesn't over-render or over-explain this story. It's about Weiss avoiding his mother for some unspecified reason and spending Thanksgiving by himself. After watching TV and puts a lasagna in the oven, he goes out on a bike ride and eventually comes face-to-face with a bison. When he comes back home, he calls his mother and starts to unpack why he was avoiding her. The reason is never stated, nor was it necessary. The life-and-death nature of encountering such a huge and majestic creature and silently acknowledging each other's presence is not discussed, only depicted. Whether it was fear, or awe, or shock or some combination thereof, this was an experience that motivated Weiss from avoiding emotions to feeling them. It was obviously a potent enough memory to commit to the page.

The Durham Comics Project, edited by Amy Godfrey. I wrote the blurb for this anthology, and I think it's worth reprinting here: "The stories submitted for The Durham Comics Project range between whimsical observations about daily life, personal demons that make every day a struggle, a child's delight or disappointment in learning something new about the words, and an adult realizing that the world they live in is bigger than they think. Encouraging non-artists to express themselves on paper as well as publishing seasoned cartoonists, The Durham Comics Project is a fascinating mix of styles and visual approaches. In each case, the joy of self-expression and the opportunity to relate personal stories is evident in both the scrawled cartoons of young children and the fine lines of experienced artists."

To add a little background, Godfrey is a children's librarian here in Durham, NC. She's also a cartoonist. She's organized countless Drink 'n Draws and comics-related events at the library, including the yearly Comic Fest which has brought in the likes of Jason Lutes, Raina Telgemeier, Nate Powell, Nick Bertozzi, Willow Dawson and many others. She commissioned the creation of a device known as the Comics Contraption, an "infinite jam comics machine" that advances one panel at a time, so each person draws a single, large panel on a long scroll. The Durham Comics Project was born out of her interest in giving people who had never told their stories a chance to do so in comics form, as she ran classes and encouraged all comers to draw, regardless of ability. The end result was an anthology that's a snapshot of a particular group of people at a certain time and place. It's less interesting as comics qua comics than it is as a cultural document, since so many of the pieces were drawn by absolute newcomers, but it is intriguing nonetheless. The pieces by experienced cartoonists like Eric Knisley, Jape and M.R. Trower were unsurprisingly the best, but I loved Jesse Crossen's account of being recognized as the reincarnation of the friend of a famous Indian musician for its matter-of-factness in the face of weirdness. Bernard Liles' stick-figure account of just trying to hold on to his sanity is powerful; one gets the sense that he has rarely had an outlet with which to express himself. It's less an anthology of results and more of an anthology of process, which in itself worthy of interest.

Dodo #4, My Life In Records #3 and #4, by Grant Thomas.  Thomas is a comics formalist, interested in how the plastic qualities of the comic itself affect the narrative and reading experience, as well as how different narrative tricks play out. In Dodo, Thomas, uses a brush and ever-splotchier ink to tell a story about how the raven and the loon got their colors, which involves a brush getting disturbed and flinging ink. "Oblique Strategies" is a palindrome, in which the drawings in the panels read the same backward and forwards, with only the text changing. Then there was a strip, heavily festooned with decorative flourishes that play up the religious art quality of the subject, that's about a monk who "for 3 years kept a stone in his mouth in order to teach himself silence." Thomas uses this as a chance to rapidly cycle through variations on this idea. Here, you can see Thomas stretch and explore comics in clever ways that don't outstay their welcome.

He turned his autobio-by-way-of-music into what he describes as thinly-veiled autobio in his series My Life In Records. Each square-bound mini is meant to mimic an old fashioned CD booklet. The concept of each issue is fascinating: the third issue is about how Star Wars proved to be a formative experience in different anecdotes surrounding relatives, music and pets. It's less about the movies than it was about those memories being with his grandfather and brother. The fourth issue is all about growing up Christian and being taught that rock and roll was the devil's music, but also finding inspiration and solace in Christian music. That slight veil of fiction works well in this regard, allowing Thomas some poetic license with regard to specific events and feelings to create a narrative that has an emotional honesty. The problem with these comics is that going to color was a disastrous idea. His color scheme is at once too conventional and way too all over the place, and his line simply isn't strong enough to withstand it. Every page looks like a mess, especially when he tries to draw famous rock stars. This is a case of the production values overwhelming the work rather than enhancing it.

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