Friday, July 1, 2016

Catching Up With Hic & Hoc: Tsurumi, Aulisio, Kelley

Hic & Hoc's publication rate has slowed down a bit in the past year or so, but Matt Moses still releases all sorts of interesting comics. Let's take a look at recent work.

Why Would You Do That?, by Andrea Tsurumi. Somewhere between Lisa Hanawalt and Kate Beaton lies the content of this book, though this book is most interesting when Tsurumi focuses on a particular obsession and just runs with it. Early features about how to go to one's local pool and the secret greatness of poodles, feel labored over, pounding an underwritten joke into the ground in the hopes that repetition would make it funny. It's only when Tsurumi abandons more conventional humor and decides to get really word that the book starts to take off. Take "Yup/Nope", for example. It's a hilarious and bizarre satire on the arbitrary nature of sports fandom, or really any kind of competitive activity that creates opposing camps by its very nature. The eccentric and monstrous figures combined with crass consumption and the ways in which fans fostered self-esteem by way of identifying with a group made this story funny, strange and pointed.

A gag where the food photographer for a newspaper is forced to take over as primary news photographer sees Tsurumi at her best, as every single story somehow manages to focus on any food-related images that are nearby. There's a fine line between beating a gag to death and escalating humor through repetition, and Tsurumi here tops herself in image after image. Speaking of food, "Cake Vs Pie" combines the antagonism of "Yup/Nope" with a certain kind of wartime photojournalism, creating visceral and even hilariously disturbing images of various dessert items doing horribly violent things to each other. The scene where a medical surgeon pours out a surgical pan filled with pie fillings is somehow simultaneously heart-breaking and hilarious, due in no small part to Tsurumi's considerable drafting skill. The book gets even better as Tsurumi quotes and illustrates the astoundingly cruel 19th century children's book The Peep Of Day, which reads sort of like a Jack Chick tract, only even meaner. The last big story in the book is the epic "HMTown", which is about growing up as part of a tourist trap town that prides itself on being haunted. It's a funny and sweet meditation on the ways in which the town's "ghosts" provided a memorable upbringing and gave the protagonist a sense of connection that she deeply felt despite her urgent desire to leave as a recent graduate. It was interesting to see Tsurumi pair her wacky imagery and conceptual gags with a more emotional, quiet and thoughtful premise. One gets the sense reading this book that Tsurumi is just getting warmed up as a humorist and storyteller, because it's obvious that she has the chops, delightfully skewed perspective, keen observational eye and clear ambition to continue to evolve as a humorist and storyteller.

Fedor, by Patt Kelley. This is a bit of historical fiction about Fedor Jeftichew, aka Jojo the Dog Faced Boy, who was one of the world's most famous and wealthy circus freaks. In sepia tones that ground the story in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and character design similar to that of Jay Howell (most famous for the character design of Bob's Burgers), Kelley spins a lovely and heartbreaking romance about Fedor and Helena, whom he met when he was a young man in the circus. The daughter of the bearded lady and the scaly man, she immediately fell for the young man who had a condition that caused him to be entirely covered in thick hair. What's clever about this comic is the way that Kelley jumps back and forth in time to create mystery, tension and slowly unravel a long-simmering conflict. Kelley introduces the couple in 1904 as simply a man and a woman meeting up again after a long time; it takes a few pages before it's obvious that the young man is a "Jojo" who had shaved his face. We then go back twenty years to when they met, in a fascinating section that establishes Fedor as a star, a sensitive young man, and a potential target for belligerent townies. It establishes Helena as a young woman with a strong sense of self but an indeterminate sense of purpose who is fiercely protective of those she loves. From there, we continue to flip back and forth in time as we see them splitting apart and meeting up again over the years, with neither willing to do what it took to really be together. Kelley perceptively guts romance without realism or true commitment, as Helena at one point takes him to task for loving the idea of her and not the actual person, and for caring more about his Jojo persona than her. The lengths that Fedor goes to in the end to prove his devotion provide an excellent final twist that takes advantage of real life events and reimagines them. Kelley backs up his time-jumping with panel design that seems to intentionally avoid any kind of consistent grid pattern, which keeps the reader off-balance while whipping them through memory after memory at a dizzying pace. There's a sweetness to the proceedings that takes it for granted that the couple saw past their obvious physical extremes and instead focuses on the ways in which their bodies were exploited for pay and how this kept them apart for so long. Fedor is about learning to be real and understanding & acknowledging the factors that keep people apart. 

Infinite Bowman and Xeno Kaiju, by Pat Aulisio. Aulisio uses a variation of the Brian Chippendale/Mat Brinkman style in depicting monsters investigating an environment, often with a layer of deliberately crude humor thrown on top. He also looks to work big, with as many splash pages as possible so he's able to cram as much detail as possible into his page. Xeno Kaiju was published as an oversized, 12 x 17 broadsheet to maximize the impact of his images. The title roughly translates to "alien giant monster", with kaiju being a type of film genre originating in Japan where a monster would attack humanity. Obviously, Godzilla is the most familiar example, and it's no accident that the monster in this story resembles the fire-breathing, giant lizard. The key to reading Aulisio's comics is that for all their scribbly clutter and lack of flow, the artist only has one or two images on each page that the reader needs to focus on. The rest is all noise or decoration, which one can study or ignore, because they have little importance to the overall story. On each of the pages here, the only thing the reader needs to pay attention to is the monster's egg that crashes to earth (seeded by an alien spacecraft) and its eventual transformation into a monster that starts destroying everything around it. The day is saved by a supertank that obliterates it, but in an EC-style twist ending, the final image is that of the alien craft launching six more monster eggs. The big format was essential in getting across the massive scale of the creature and its destruction, as well as enjoying the visceral pleasures that monster movies and comics bring.

Infinite Bowman has Aulisio writing about the further adventures of 2001: A Space Odyssey's Dave Bowman, the astronaut who survived the murderous HAL-9000 computer and was taken by a mysterious monolith and rapidly evolved. In the original story, Bowman becomes a godlike Starchild. Aulisio imagines something quite different, as Bowman is sent to another dimension, meets up with Kirby-like space gods who help him conquer his new world, goes to the earth of the future and winds up in hell, where he stirs up a rebellion. In essence, every panel in the book is designed in the same way that Xeno Kaiju is: despite there being a lot of visual "noise", the reader is always pointed to a single, defining image or pair of images. Aulisio fuses a hyper-violent, relentlessly weird set of images with what is basically dick joke humor. It's the essence of the book's humor: the supposedly advanced space gods seem to have no agenda other than conquest and destruction, and their chosen one is a boorish brute who is making his campaign as their avatar into his personal mission of revenge against anyone or anything that ever slighted him. Aulisio's visual approach changes slightly as the book proceeds, leaning away from the ultra-cluttered look and instead started to strip away scenes to their essentials. Aulisio's aesthetic can be wearying after a while, but he changes things up just enough to make this a consistently amusing read. 

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