Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #27: Aaron Cockle, Mathew New, Steve Thueson

Aaron Cockle’s project can be difficult to summarize, but after reading issue #20 of his grab-bag series Annotated and another mini titled Over Time, Every Section Had Been Allowed To Grow Accordingly, it occurred to me that it can actually be explained in a sentence or two. Cockle’s comics are a critique of capitalism (and its tendrils in the state, the sciences and the worldwide information apparatus) and its effect on ontological, epistemological, ethical and even aesthetic systems. The critique is that capitalism distorts, obfuscates and all but undermines these systems, and the critique itself is written in that same distorted language. It’s a smart technique because in the same way that the description of an experience of beauty is not the same thing as beauty, or a description of drowning is not the same thing as drowning, so too would an outside critique of capitalism be impossible. There is no “outside” of capitalism on a global basis anymore. Cockle strips away the illusions and gets to the phenomenological heart of the dehumanizing effect of capitalism in a manner that’s poetic and elusive.

As Cockle has evolved as a cartoonist, he’s gotten further and further away from conventional figure work (never his strength as a draftsman) and has instead moved toward abstraction, collage and fragmentation. Over Time… starts with a chapter about a worker who learns that even dying doesn’t free him from his job; he winds up haunting everything in his office (including voicemail, which I thought was amusing) and working in the position for another three years. The second chapter imagines an entire office being sent to a retirement home together, struggling against dementia while creating artificial structures and obsessions with receipts. The third chapter uses found documents as part of a story of someone using found documents to draw the location of all scaffolded buildings in the city as a way of cheating death. The fourth chapter (which signals the end of part one of this title) instructs the entire world as to their jobs, imagining people with multimedia accounts as all part of a united structure.

Annotated #20 is actually split into five separate minis, each with their own beautifully designed and/or selected cover to provide a maximum of decorative gloss. “The Circular Of Ruins” is styled such that it looks like it was drawn straight into a pocket notebook with lined paper. Each page contradicts the next in this story about a consulting firm that may also perform scientific experiments. The contradictions are not deliberate; instead, they are products of the critique I discussed above. An inability to trust in memory and observation, as the story suggests, is a direct attack on our understanding of epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge. An ability to articulate the purpose of the company (and company = person in this example) is an attack on ontology, the philosophy of being. Not understanding how to treat others in the company is an attack on ethics. They are rendered senseless.

In a series of geometric shapes, “Anti-Pode” posits comparisons of a Wall, a Tower and a Pit. In the series of juxtaposed shapes (with different colors and gradients as rendered using zip-a-tone effects), the descriptions make each of the terms increasingly circular and meaningless. There’s no foundation to lay one’s understanding in. “Outsized Computer, Reporting Structure” is written as a kind of company report that reflect the ways in which everything is broken. Everything is structured, but nothing works, as the images of obsolete computers in the background tell us. All that’s left when resources have been stripped to their core are the artifacts of hierarchical thought. “Word Cage” breaks this down in another way, breaking down mission vs human cost; the “Affect Effect Infect” ethos describes perfectly the bare-bones mission of every corporate structure. The mini gets at the temporal and spatial effects of working in an office and how both are warped in this structure. Finally, “Cones Of Uncertainty, Cones of Resolution” is a savage takedown of public relations, noting that one must always apologize, even (and especially) if you don’t mean it. The way that this package is fractured, that it can be read in any order, speaks directly to Cockle’s critique more than any more traditional narrative could.

Mathew New’s loony, extended riff on Indiana Jones-style adventuring continues to grow simultaneously sillier and weirder with the fourth issue of Billy Johnson And His Duck Are Explorers. The basic set-up of each issue finds Billy, a kid given a remarkable amount of free reign to explore, investigating a new ruin, pyramid or other such site for adventure. Along with him is Professor Barrace Wilcox, a talking duck with a great deal of education (this issue reveals that he’s written three books!) and his sword, Mr. Jabbers. It is at once not just a send-up of explorer stories and Indiana Jones in general, but also of the seemingly endless epic quest graphic novels that litter the Young Adult landscape. At the same time, it’s excellent, clear-lined entertainment on its own.

This issue finds the duo having packed some lunches in order to go explore the ancient Hero Trials of myth; a sort of combination of Heracles and Theseus with some other twists thrown in. The theme of the issue is immortality: Billy wants to be remembered as a great hero. The duo is then zapped from the entrance to the first trial: defeating giant birds that already have them up in the air. A magic spear appears to help him win the trial, and they’re then zapped to the next trial where he’s been given a magical flying cape. All along, a voice offers him advice on how to beat his opponents using the new items. New is terrific at pacing and panel-to-panel transitions in particular, and his use of color is tasteful and adds the right decorative touch while aiding the narrative in subtle ways.

Eventually, the whole thing is revealed to be a trap, but Barrace’s bizarre nature isn’t simply a throwaway gag. Indeed, when the villain of the piece deduces the duck’s true nature, it causes her to scream, giving Billy just enough time to win the fight. Meanwhile, a blue alien that may or may not be related to Barrace is looking for them both. New pulls off the neat trick of writing a satisfying adventure short story and creating just enough subplots to give the book a bit of weight and depth. A back-up story by Luke Healy fits nicely into the book’s tone, and Healy’s adopts New’s style to create a new look altogether. Pin-ups by Bridget Comeau and Megan Brennan are all part of the value added qualities of this release, as do postcards written by Billy and Barrace.

I also wanted to add a review of Steve Thueson’s landscape mini Hell Fight #1. It’s a silent, continuing series of four panel strips detailing a vicious, knock-down fight between a woman coming home from work and a skeleton dude that steals her beloved jacket. This one is bone-crunching (literally!) violence on a visceral level that is carefully established in panel after panel. The woman really does not want to lose that jacket, which leads to the use of all sorts of magic in an effort to fight each other off. If Billy Johnson represents a more polished, YA approach in terms of action, then Thueson’s work remains raw and spontaneous: punk rock adventure comics.

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