Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #24: Sophie Goldstein

In the span of just a few publications, Sophie Goldstein has distinguished herself as one of the top cartoonists to ever graduate from CCS. What's interesting is that the work that garnered her so many accolades, The Oven, isn't nearly as accomplished or complex as her other ongoing work, House of Women. Let's look at each in turn.

Originally serialized in the Maple Key Comics anthology, Chris Pitzer's AdHouse picked it up for publication, giving it a sort of 70s sci-fi image with the spare cover and choice of font. The Oven starts off with a mild sci-fi twist: a couple travel to a remote commune on a planet with two brutal suns in order to have the opportunity to have a child, something denied them in mainstream society because of increasingly-stringent and absurd laws. What they find is either utopia in the form of a pathetic, glorified garbage dump or something of pure and noble intent inevitably corrupted by outside influences.

In terms of theme, her sense of storytelling restraint and general subject matter, the closest thematic comparison to Goldstein is Megan Kelso. Both are interested in the personal and political implications of motherhood, both in terms of raising children and having them. Goldstein has become a more accomplished writer as she's let the characters act as flawed humans instead of mouthpieces, allowing the reader to make their own interpretation of the work. There's also a spare and beautiful quality to Goldstein's line (not unlike Kelso's) that's bold, confident and crisp.

Goldstein's themes also dovetail a bit with Eleanor Davis in terms of using science fiction tropes as a way of dramatizing certain themes, but only as a way of setting the stage. While Goldstein has an eye for detail and the reader gets a strong feel for the character of each fantasy setting, she's not so much interested in world-building as she is figuring out how her characters will react to the restraints and possibilities each environment provides.  In terms of the quality of the line itself, The Oven's characters were clearly influenced by the Archie artists in terms of cartoony simplicity. A sleazy, lazy drug dealer looks like Jughead Jones if he grew his hair out, for example.

The book's title refers to the deadly environment the couple comes to live in, as it's unprotected from the double sun's deadly rays. It's also a double-entendre, as "oven" also refers to a woman's uterus, especially when she is pregnant. There is a lot of push and pull here in terms of the choices characters make and the kind of life they think they are leading. Some are dirtbags simply there to live outside the law. Some are idealists there to raise families in natural environments, though the way the politics work out seem regressive. Life in the Oven is hard, farming work; this raises the question of whether it's worth it.

The key piece of information that Goldstein gives the reader is that Eric was the reason why he and his partner, Syd, weren't allowed to have children. When he found out about the Oven, he suggested moving there to realize their dream (or was it his dream?) of having children. In the end, he chooses a life of disconnection as he gets high and misses the technology that made life so easy, but he simply can't stand the nature of the community he has found. She chooses to stay and create a community on her own terms. One gets the sense that she's not going to become "one of them", as he fears, but rather has figured out a slightly different path.

The Oven is nuanced and well-executed but ultimately a relatively simple story. It is no knock to say that it's not as complex as House Of Women, because the latter story is remarkably intricate and even more ethically ambiguous. The second issue continues the story of four women sent from The Empire (which combines both church and state in the manner in which it colonizes other worlds). Goldstein's skill as a designer and providing intricate, decorative flourishes that don't interfere with her actual storytelling is remarkable. With a double die-cut cover that features three separate images as the reader turns the cover and the first page, Goldstein imparts the reader with both the sense of warmth the Empire's emissaries feel and the lingering sense of menace on the planet.

Once again, Goldstein is quick to establish that the protagonists are not necessarily heroes. The book thoughtfully but subtly examines the dynamics produced by colonialism, paternalism, science without empathy, religious dogmatism and the way that sex throws a monkey wrench into everything. Above all else, the book is about the nature of gender and motherhood. Once again, the science-fiction tropes of having four-eyed, feathered humanoid aliens as stand-ins for any number of oppressed and exploited people during history allows Goldstein to go to extremes in exploring the logical outcomes of certain experiments in creating a new society.

Goldstein creates easily-understandable, almost archetypical characters for this story, ranging from mother figure to crone to seductress to the main character, who is something in-between. The only male-identified character first appears as a sort of fantasy figure for the main protagonist but also becomes an object of obsession for the scientist character who is cold with regard to their subjects but almost sociopathically obsessed with the male character. The second issue rudely brings reality crashing down on the all-female environment the Empire has created, as the aliens they're working with are all women--because the men are warlike. Goldstein layers conflict on conflict here, with the smaller interpersonal conflicts being every bit as important as the larger plot.

Goldstein's stunningly crisp, clean line is elegant but also functional. Her use of black and white contrasts, especially in depicting long shots of environments, is used to often dizzying or menacing effect. Despite these visual pyrotechnics, her use of gesture and expression is what's most remarkable about her art. Harkening back once again to the Archie influence, the art here has the precision of Jaime Hernandez with the wild expressiveness of Gilbert. When this book is inevitably sold to a publisher, I hope that they're able to retain Goldstein's DIY flourishes and print it on paper that best shows off the sharpness of her images.

QUICK UPDATE, 3/24: Goldstein is selling the original art from The Oven on her website.

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