In the sixth volume of the premier CCS anthology Irene, editors DW, Dakota McFadzean and Andy Warner continue to bring together established but overlooked talents, up-and-coming cartoonists, and artists from all over the world into one challenging volume. The fact that each of the three editors has a totally different aesthetic (both in terms of the contributors they bring in as well as their own work), yet they somehow work together to create something coherent and disquieting.
Part of that coherency is the use of two different sets of interstitial material. One is a silent narrative from Jai Granofsky, wherein a rabid man running from a rabid tiger is eviscerated, creates a smaller version of himself, is eaten by a penguin, gets the penguin sick and comes out as an ice cube and finally gets put in a drink. It's a funny palate cleanser of a story, as each panel gets one page and plenty of negative space around it so as to create clear divisions between stories. The other recurring feature is a series of one-page strips from Kramer's Ergot veteran Leif Goldberg in crisp, cartoony and silly pencils. Each of the strips is about consumption in some way, be it squirrels collecting nuts, police eating sentient hot dogs after a crash, a robot collecting bananas for a rave or a man pondering a love potion.
Marta Chudolinska's "Genesis" splits neatly into bored aliens working a shitty job and the life they accidentally create on the backwater planet they visit, combining greyscaling with cartoony figures. Carolyn Nowak's "Girl Town" starts off with the premise that three young women started living together after being "kicked out of astronaut school for being too good-looking to be sent into space". Mixing slice-of-life narratives, ritualistic oddness, and painful romantic feelings in an amusing and heartfelt stew, Nowak's confident and sharp line fits both the strange and mundane aspects of the story.
Tillie Walden's "Dreaming" is a completely different aesthetic approach: a naturalistic line that employs an extensive use of negative space surrounding the protagonist's face. It's a series of interlocking nightmares that bleed into each other and daily life, as Walden makes the clever move of not differentiating the visuals from nightmare to nightmare. Lebanese cartoonist Lena Merhej's story mixes a dream-like reverie with abstracted women's bodies that focus on genitalia.
While Irene is certainly anchored by narrative, there are certainly more abstract and non-narrative pieces as well. Natsuko Yoshino's drawings feature swirling human bodies interacting with each other, while Marc Bell's typically loopy drawings are pointedly titled "Not Comics Department". Bell's sly sense of humor is certainly on display here, both in terms of how he titled it and the hilariously daffy internal logic in each drawing. Ben Juers' "Flowerpot Heads" features beautiful, strange figures juxtaposed against each other in a fluid manner. Of course, there's DW himself, whose piece combines his intense pattern work, simple figures and repurposed text.
There are several works that touch on personal reportage and political issues. Nick Cartwright's "Station Life", for example, is a funny and sometimes unsettling account of life in an Antarctic station during both summer and winter. His thin and scratchy pencil drawings in an open-page layout add to the sense of vast whiteness, stillness and isolation, with funny visual interpretations of text leavening the sheer anxiety of life at the South Pole. Warner's own "An Unravelling" encapsulates the idea of "the personal is political" as he relates a story of travel during his stay in Lebanon. With his typical naturalistic style, he drew parallels between old civil wars in Lebanon, the current civil war in Syria (including a town he visited with friends) and the real collateral damage that's been done to his friends who are still there, all while connecting it to his own career and ideas. It's one of his best stories to date. Egyptian artist Shennawy's scribbly and distorted silent story concerns the real human cost of political demagoguery. Ben Passmore's funny "It's Not About You" is about a guy being introduced to a female-appearing person who goes by a they/them pronoun, provoking a paroxysm of anxiety, doubt and resentment that is only resolved in his head when his inner mentor tries to eat him. I love Passmore's sweaty and cartoony line that nonetheless has rock-solid fundamentals.
It's hard to describe McFadzean's own aesthetic sometimes, but "personal and unsettling stories set in isolated locales" comes close. His "Good Find" is a slice-of-life story about two kids looking for stuff in an abandoned (and possibly haunted) house. What goes unexplained is that every character is grotesquely disfigured, with various boils and growths on their bodies. It's meant to throw the reader off-balance, to given them something to think about in addition to the pleasant little escapade they just read. Along the same lines is No Tan Parecidos' "Indian Rope", which is a story about waiting with each character rendered in a distorted and elongated fashion. It's more a fragment than a story, but it adds to the book's atmosphere.
Luke Howard's "You Come To A Strange Town" is the book's best story, and it certainly fits in the McFadzean wing of aesthetics. Drawn using a minimalist and angular style that recalls John Porcellino and Warren Craghead, Howard spins vignette after vignette about a small town and the weird things that happen in it. From the woman who can't get off a swingset to a taxi with no driver to a hotel that traps certain of its guests to the hilarious story of the Ghost Bike (it shouts "Human Blood" while threatening no one at all), Howard nurtures a bunch of disparate gags, images and characters into a single, coherent environmental narrative.
There are also a number of more personal stories. Norwegian cartoonist Froydis Sollid Simonsen's "Siberian Stillness" cleverly transposes an anecdote about life in ancient Siberia with a turbulent relationship. Katie Parrish's "Drink More Water" smartly uses word balloons to describe thoughts gone awry in a relationship with a scrawled, intense line. Lucy Bellwood's "Salt Soap" and Jackie Roche's "Hopes Up" are more conventional slice-of life stories, with the former being about slowly recovering from a bad break-up and the latter about the continual disappointments of being in school. Both employ a smooth, naturalistic line. Sean Knickerbocker's "Killbuck" excerpt shows him at his best: depicting the hopes and fears of young people in small towns who are desperately hoping for something better.
Finally, there's an in-your-face, underground inspired piece by Kevin Uehlein called "Dozens of Cousins", which features anthropomorophic characters doing disgusting things. Uehlein's own sense of self-awareness has him doing meta-jokes about hillbillies that turn into a series of hilarious running gags. It's a scatological romp with brains. It also points out that the editors may have their own tastes, but they've gone out of their way to include as many different approaches to comics (in terms of style and aesthetic as well as making sure it was balanced in terms of gender and had an international bent as well) as possible.