Friday, December 22, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #22: Ben Wright-Heuman & Andi Santagata

Ben Wright-Heuman’s another artist from the horror-suspense wing of CCS, and his Letters Of The Devil webseries was successfully kickstarted to book form. Wright-Heuman is an example of an artist who’s able to work around his limitations to produce a successful, engrossing narrative. In his case, his actual draftsmanship is just serviceable enough to get by. Some figures and drawings are better executed than others, and he’s able to execute things like gesture and body language well enough to get around other figure drawing problems. There are times when the drawings are a distraction, but Wright-Heuman makes up for that with a sharp script, strong storytelling and a clever use of color.

The story begins with a mysterious figure talking about justice and hypocrisy who delivers a letter written with red ink and sealed with wax bearing the letter “L”. The letter, also signed with that single initial, was delivered to a detective named Cedric and contained cryptic information regarding a potentially corrupt financier. When the detective takes the bait and investigates the claim (without his partner, oddly enough), a chain of events is sent into place as various other people received letters from the mysterious L, each one providing incriminating or interesting information about another person.

Wright-Heuman sets up a delicate structure in his plotline that leaves plenty of room for characterization. He keeps the reader guessing as to whom the true protagonist might be til the very end as the story gets murkier and murkier with each murder. There’s a sense in which every character is the protagonist of their own story, an idea that Wright-Heuman follows closely as each character has an excuse for their actions that falls away upon scrutiny. Once the mystery is set into motion, the story’s gears grind away at it as Wright-Heuman loves planting subtle clues that come to fruition much later on. The possibility of supernatural intervention is an interesting aside that also keeps the reader (and the characters) guessing. Above all else, he makes the reader ask, “What kind of story am I reading?” and he chooses not to answer that til near the very end. If there’s an author that he has something in common with in terms of story structure, it winds up being Agatha Christie, only he goes several steps darker than even she does.

It is rare for a comic to take me by surprise, but CCS student Andi Santagata managed that trick when I read the first page of her mini Jed The Undead Volume One: Fire In The Hole. There was a black “adult content” band around the mini that I had to slide off, which made me curious about its contents. It took me a few moments to parse her extremely thin line art and small panels on that page, but it soon became clear that a male was masturbating to a biker babe image, penis in hand. What was unusual that when he orgasmed, he blew a hole in his roof. When the page is turned, we can that he’s a demonic teenager, and the blanket that had been covering him up was still smoldering from the explosion.

That’s quite a way to start this hilarious supernatural teen angst comic, in which the titular Jed learns that once a demon comes of age, ejaculation becomes a problem. Especially because he moved with his father to Las Vegas, and simply seeing girls is torture for him. The story is very much about the perils of adolescence write large and out of control, as he spends this issue clumsily trying to figure things out and awkwardly explain things to his extremely cheery father and his best friend Freddy. In possibly the funniest two-page spread I read this year, Jed tries again (to the cover of a Nancy Drew mystery book, of all things) and realizes that he’s about to ejaculate. So he aims outside his open window at a tree many yards away. The result is a spectacular direct hit that incinerates the tree and attracts the attention of the local fire department. His efforts to shrink into his mattress as much as possible cap off this masterfully staged scene.

The rest of the comic plays off of this problem as various solutions are considered and abandoned, and Freddy winds up coming to his friend’s rescue. Santagata is completely committed to her style of art and it shows in the confidence of her storytelling, as scratchy and occasionally difficult to scan as it sometimes is. Once the reader adjusts to her bone-dry sense of humor and storytelling rhythms, everything else follows. I did think this comic could benefit from the use of spot colors, at a minimum, instead of the grayscaling she chose to use.

Chupacabra starts in a joyride in New Mexico with a teen possibly nicknamed “Florida” by the asshole driving the car. She’s out in defiance of her mother and is clearly intimidated by the older, cooler people she’s in the car with. A lighter is demanded, which she provides, but it’s unacceptable because it’s short and white, meaning it’s bad luck. Immediately, the car slams into something, What follows is once again a mix of suspense, horror and comedy, with the extensive use of blacks crucial in spotlighting what’s out there waiting for them. Santigata cleverly makes the lighter a key element of the narrative, turning what seemed to be bad luck into a life-saving device. It’s not as visually sophisticated as her Jed story; rather, it feels like a solid warm-up in terms of establishing pace and mood. The only other cartoonist from CCS I can think of who manages to combine horror and humor so effectively is G.P. Bonesteel, though his visual approach is completely different. It’s a small group overall to be sure, and I can see where Santigata (like Ian Richardson) might have taken some cues from Steve Bissette. 

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