Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #26: Reilly Hadden

Reilly Hadden’s Astral Birth Canal may be my favorite continuing series published today. Hadden’s really taken advantage of his Patreon platform to create issues that not only forward his own idiosyncratic, epic fantasy stories, but he also includes a couple of back-up features in each issue now as well. I’ve made this comparison before, but it bears repeating: Hadden’s model here reminds me a lot of what Chuck Forsman did in his Snake Oil series. There are multiple, connecting storylines that blur fantasy and real life. There is a sense of existential dread as well as the absurd that inhabits each page. The cartooning is scratchy and gestural, harkening back to artists like George Herriman in terms of mark-making. It’s a raw and powerful kind of art that builds on spontaneity in the way that Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur did.

Of course, I’m not saying that Hadden is at that level or is even consciously emulating those artists. Rather, he’s working in a similar imaginative path, one that emphasizes the journey over the destination in every work. Consider the slight Krikkit Goes Outside, which may as well be a kid’s mini. It’s about a cat who leaves home for a day, looking for mushrooms, the big toad and the river. This is unlike all other Hadden comics in that a character goes on an adventure, knows exactly what is in store for them and has a wonderful time. More typical is another one-shot called YOORM, which is about the first creature in the universe being created (in the evocative “chamber of mouths”) and its subsequent struggle. There is no path, there is nothing familiar and there is only confusion and pain for poor Yoorm. Its first thoughts induced paralyzing terror before Yoorm mastered them and eventually split off to form identical beings. Not having figured out biological imperatives like hunger, Yoorm soon died, “tears and rain, forever.” This cold, callous universe is what Hadden tends to lean toward in his narratives, though this is certain an extreme.

When Hadden grounds a narrative in characters who are familiar with the terrain, like in Finch Island (parts 1-3), a comic he did with his brother John, the entire narrative itself seems friendlier and more sure-footed for the protagonist. Here, a couple of anthropomorphic frog fishermen act as a kind of Greek chorus for Dr Finch, a scientist looking to find an island that his ancestor had come upon hundreds of years earlier. There is a warmth to be found in the story’s relationships; Finch befriends a dog who had been ensnared by a trap and is aided by the frogs. Finch feels warmly toward a breakfast partner as well as his ancestor. The trip is taken with no eye toward profit, but rather to achieve a kind of profound silence and stillness. I imagine the story has a few more chapters, but this is an example of pure curiosity being rewarded.

Of course, that’s not always the case. In the flip book The Wizened One/Our Fearless Hero (with Fionn McCabe doing the latter), the first character is a watcher whose imperative is to watch a system, and by doing so ensure its destruction. She doesn’t have the strength or inclination (she’s bound by duty) to look away, but she doesn’t like it either, which makes it all worse. The hero of the back half of the story is a self-deluded idiot who manages to survive horrible situations until he doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter because his entire universe dies thanks to the events of the other story. While there is a certain amount of nihilism involved in this beautiful, Risographed comic, on Hadden’s part it’s self-chosen by the character.

On to the main event: issues seven, eight, and nine of Astral Birth Canal. Issue #0 began with some teenagers from our planet being deposited in a mysterious other universe thanks to a video game, but each issue has begun and then turn away from several other bewildering narratives. The combination of brutal violence and wacky absurdity in each issue gives them a certain whipcrack sensibility where the reader has to be prepared for anything. One of the storylines involves a young warrior named Strongboy Edward and his impossible-to-please warrior father Bork. Edward dies at the beginning of #7, but that’s far from the end of his story, as he’s taken on a tour of the afterlife. In #9, the reader is introduced to the story of Valentina, an earth woman who’s a cashier during the day and a pro wrestler at night. It’s one more example of Hadden pulling out yet another seemingly unconnected narrative until her first solo match, which is a smash triumph. After the match, she meets an eight-foot warrior named Bork; as it turns out, Edward was watching highlights of the past with his also-dead father. It turns out to be a tender love story and also puts a bow on the familial tragedy that was Edward’s relationship with his father. This is some of Hadden’s best drawing and character design, mixing lumpy bodies with expressive faces.

Issue 8 features the remaining one of the three earth teens, Rona, and the native Bird Girl. They have been subjected to horrible, agonizing torture by a bird creature called the Cleric; those early scenes where Rona was terrified by a lack of understanding of anything happening around her combined with the utter terror of her new reality were unnerving. Again, very simple cartooning, almost at stick-figure level in some places, yet Hadden’s ability to stick the reader into that position of confusion and fear come from that raw, gestural sense of expression. Issue 8 features hope, because while the super-team designed to defend the land from the Cleric (the Mighty Bird Five) was utterly routed, one of its dying members passed on powers to the girls. If Edward’s story is a family tragedy slapped on top of non-stop mayhem, then the girls’ story is one of slowly learning to understand and adjust to one’s situation until it’s possible to overcome it.

As noted, there are plenty of great short back-up features. Anna McGlynn focused on the video game aspect of the story and told a tale about children in the future playing a version of Dance Dance Revolution as they’ve achieved immortality. Dean Sudarsky’s gritty style fits right in with a story about a Bork-like champion and his rivalry with the sun. In their separate stories, Simon Reinhardt and Stephanie Zuppo both zero in on the strange world and how it seems to draw people in from other dimensions. The former has a barbarian finding an idol and figuring out what to do with it—even if it wasn’t the best decision. The latter features a girl slowly revealing that she’s not an ordinary teen—she was brought to the world and learned how to fight, and that’s just what she was going to do, against all odds. Bridget Comeau does a story about a little mushroom creature encountering the Cleric, Luke Healy does a story about a religion rising and falling around a bird, and Hadden & Jenna Marchione (art) do a strip and ballad about a mighty warrior named Brenda. Josh Bayer, Sophie Yanow and Tillie Walden all provide pin-up pages that are all spectacular on their own merits. Hadden really went out of his way to make each issue a wholly satisfying read, and that’s why it’s such a great series: he is thinking both as an artist and an editor.

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