Thursday, December 14, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #14: Rachel Dukes, Sean Knickerbocker

Frankie Comics #4, by Rachel Dukes. Dukes has done a lot of different kinds of comics in her career, both personal and work-for-hire. Her best executed comics continue to be about her cat, in part because she achieves perfect balance between naturalist and iconic drawing, and in part because she makes sure to impart a central truth about cats: they are awful. They will mess with you just for fun, because they are mischievous, spiteful creatures. They are frequently either oblivious or indifferent to the needs of their humans. Mining humor out of these essential feline facts is what makes Dukes comics about them funny, because the truth about cat-loving humans is that they don't care. Cats are actually remarkably affectionate and intelligent if they feel like it, and their need to play as a function of hunting makes them extremely entertaining.

That said, as Dukes' partner points out in this issue, cats train humans to feed them, pet them and play with them--not the other way around. Dukes starts playing a game with Frankie where she throws a rubber band, but Frankie never returns it. Instead, Frankie has trained Rachel to keep playing the game precisely as she wanted! For all her mischievousness, Dukes portrays Frankie as a genuinely sweet cat who loves her people and wants their near-constant attention. These strips have become even stronger as Dukes has started to write longer narratives instead of just doing one-off gags, depicting a truly symbiotic relationship. And to be sure, the way Dukes draws Frankie is absolutely irresistible. It feels like Dukes is about half way through a serious collection of these comics, which will make for a formidable and fun book.

Killbuck, by Sean Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker has been writing stories about disaffected teens in cold, nowhere towns for pretty much his entire career. Killbuck represents the apotheosis of this work, distilled into a single narrative that unwinds to become surprisingly emotionally complex in unexpected ways. Killbuck is the name of the shit town these teens live in, and its very name is spoken of with venom. It's a thing to be derided and a place to leave as soon as possible, which means finding ways to pass the time until such a thing is possible. In towns like this where there's nothing to do, that often leads teens to do stupid things. In the case of Eric, Jesse and Kris, Knickerbocker has set up a classic teen friendship structure. Eric is the obnoxious, abusive alpha male dealing with his own abuse at home. Kris is the classic beta male: he's a fantasy role playing gamer in the early 90s (as his hinted by the lack of cell phones and the prominence of VCRs) who is constantly taking shit from his friends but is also kind of whiny. Jesse is somewhere in-between, going along with pranking Kris but also regretting it at times. He's at the center of the Venn diagram that connects them to Gracie and Sam, two girls who work at a diner and buy pot from Jesse.

The story begins with the friendship among the boys immediately starting to fracture. Eric finds a cabin abandoned for the winter and they break in, and immediately think of bringing the girls over for a party. When the girls realize that they are in the cabin illegally when Kris accidentally spills the beans, they leave and an ugly confrontation between Kris and Eric ensues. It's a line-crossing event whose repercussions are such that Eric not only cuts off all of his old friends and acquaintances, he starts to isolate himself from everyone while still remaining an object of abuse by others. Eric is ignored by Jesse even as he tries to keep an eye on Kris, as he's haunted by his brother brutalizing him and making him cry just as he did to Kris. Gracie becomes better friends with Jesse after he scores her some pot, but the last scene of the book reveals that for all his talk of leaving, he's still very much emotionally trapped in the town.

Indeed, Knickerbocker suggests that Killbuck is a state of mind as much as it is a place. It's a mean, petty and limited state of mind that is simultaneously resentful and entitled. Despite the behavior of his characters, Knickerbocker has empathy for all of them, even Eric, though it's unclear if any of them will take responsibility for their own actions and find a way clear of Killbuck. With this book, Knickerbocker's true style has emerged, with fully-assimilated accents of a dozen cartoonists but a finished look all his own. The emotions of his characters are raw and they wear them on their sleeves, but Knickerbocker's ability to modulate emotion and mood from the extremes of violence to dealing with sheer boredom is his greatest talent as a creator. That sense of verisimilitude, paired with his slightly bigfoot character design, provides a contrast that complements both storytelling aspects.

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