Thursday, May 26, 2016

Youth In Decline Week: Frontier 10-12

Frontier #10 (2015), by Michael DeForge. I've read a lot of stories by DeForge, but this is the first one that I'd classify as heartbreaking. The premise itself is absurd but has a germ of paranoid plausibility that makes it such an effective work of satire. It's about a woman who's a former radical who now works as a kind of deep cover agent for a real estate company. Years ahead of developing quiet neighborhoods, they send her in to blend in and become part of the local community, and then to reshape and ultimately destabilize any attempts at protesting or resisting the ultimate encroachment of developers. On page after page, the nameless, faceless (we see her only in profile) woman lists detail after detail of her method, as she starts off as shy and "blossoms" thanks to the aid of her neighbors and husband, whom she meets and marries as part of the plan. The level of detail and disassociation necessary for her to succeed is almost psychotic, as DeForge paints a photo of a false transformation. That fact that she was a radical but is now a willing servant to an especially brutal and exploitative company shows a very different kind of transformation, one where money and status for one's employers is all-important. However, she reveals that the lives she creates and the tears she sheds are real; she is not unfeeling. Indeed, it is the fact that she can simultaneously live a life that looks and feels authentic while living at different life at the same time that makes the story so devastating and enraging. Visually, DeForge decided to continue with full page illustrations with text at the bottom, not unlike First Year Healthy. There's still "DeForge Detritus" on nearly every page, but his figures are now so pared down that they're nearly abstract. The brightness of the colors and generally pleasing quality of the shapes belie the coldness of the narrative text, as it becomes clear that not only does she feel emotions while on the job, it may well be the only time she is capable of doing so. DeForge's writing is becoming more sophisticated even as his use of imagery is becoming more simplified.

Frontier #11 (2016), by Eleanor Davis. Another issue by a comics heavy-hitter, this story is simply titled "BDSM". It's about appearance vs. reality, identity and (of course) sexual expression. On the set of a porn set, Victoria plays a dom and Alexa plays a sub. The director demands that each actress pay better attention to the details of their roles (Victoria must be crueler, Alexa must be more innocent) in order to create a better scene (for which he's ridiculed by a co-worker). Throughout the rest of the issue, there is a tension between the two actresses as Alexa's obvious delight in playing a servile role in real life bothers Victoria, even as Alexa sloughs it off as liking to be nice. In the final third of the story, Alexa loses her keys and has Victoria drive her home, where Alexa seduces her. Throughout the entire story, it's obvious that Alexa was engaging in "topping from the bottom", wherein the submissive partner is actually in control of the situation and manipulates the dominant partner. In this case, the reason she was doing this was spelled out quite clearly at the end: Alexa wants Victoria know that it's OK if she wants to hit her--and it's OK if she wants to be hit. Davis clearly sets the story on a porn set as a way of first establishing these acts under the auspices of a sex as a pure act of objectification--a job, as it were. Alexa is a character that transfers and transforms an act done for the pleasure of others (especially men) into a private, intimate and emotional act that is still highly charged. That she teaches Victoria to do this for her own pleasure and embrace this side of her sexuality is the truly transgressive act, and that's what makes this such a sharp commentary. Davis' figurework is brilliant in the way it recapitulates the essence of the main characters: Victoria is all harsh angles, and Alexa is doe-eyed and all curves. The way Davis spots blacks and makes extensive use of negative space further emphasizes the differences between the two characters and sets them apart from everything else in the comic. Davis prefers an economy of line in most panels, but her use of gesture and body language is so direct that she only needs a line or two to pack in a lot of information.

Frontier #12 (2016), by Kelly Kwang. This issue is a return to earlier entries that didn't have conventional narratives, per se. Instead, Kwang explores issues of identity in the guise of the "Space Youth Cadets", a heavily video game-influenced concept that allows for the idea of exploring a space or an object rather than focusing on a particular character as a narrative hook. Kwang uses a dense pencil style that fills up a number of the pages with tiny panel insets, decorative computer screen icons, random characters talking in the corner of the page, and other eye pops that enrich the overall experience. When she wants to concentrate on the action at hand, like when a character wants to be encased in "internet jelly", the details suddenly fall away in favor of Kwang's crisp, rich shading. The epic story references that are only hinted at remind a bit of the sort of thing that Ryan Cecil Smith does, but Kwang's approach is almost an archaeological one, as the reader is given bits of information second-hand, as interpreted by the "screens" that attend so many of the images. Like video games, we get to see a roster of different character types, their vital stats, and their overall aesthetic (which is as important as anything else here). What we might see from page to page is unpredictable, as once the concept is introduced, we simply see snippets of the lives of various cadets. It's a clever experience in turning a digital experience into analog.

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