Friday, July 13, 2018

Koyama: Ben Sears' The Ideal Copy

The Ideal Copy is Ben Sears third "Double+ Adventure" book for Koyama Press, part of their small but formidable listing of comics aimed at kids. This is the best of the three volumes, and I think it's because Sears scaled back a bit on the futuristic wow factor of the series and instead went back to good-old-fashioned caper storytelling. At its essence, the series features treasure hunters Plus Man (a highly adventurous kid) and his mechanical friend Hank (who is sort of like a Transformer in the way he can assume different shapes and functions), and treasure hunts are capers. Mysteries with clues that need to be unlocked, preferably with a wide variety of colorful characters. As such, this book has a well-designed structure that not only quickly establishes the main characters' prior status quo with a fun side adventure, it also puts the new adventure into motion.

Hank and Plus Man were working for the city as treasure hunters, going after those who abused the environment or otherwise did morally questionable things. When asked by the city to rob someone's grave in order to recover some post-mortem tax assets, they refuse and are made persona non grata. They get jobs as caterers and do a job in a mountain lodge working for a fraternity reunion of some kind. Sears captures the sheer unctuousness of the now middle-aged frat boys and their drunken antics, which happen to be covering up something far more sinister. As Plus Man gets curious and investigates some mysterious shenanigans, he acquires a kid and a burned-out former treasure hunter as companions.

The stakes get higher and higher for everyone as Plus Man exposes a counterfeiting ring and moves to try and stop it. Sears moves along his carefully structured plot in a relaxed, almost shambling manner as Plus Man's relentless curiosity and impertinence get him in trouble as well as give him opportunities to explore plot clues. There's a warmth in Sears' work that's unusual for science fiction, as his clear-line style and the constantly shifting background color patterns are inviting, keeping the eye moving across the page. The background colors are a sort of hidden grid in and of themselves, as Sears alternates blue, green, orange, and yellow on a number of pages--especially those with talking heads. That hidden grid keeps things flowing when the action or details on a page become more spare. On other pages, Sears has a way of doodling all kinds of details that organically fill the panel and pages they're on. That structure, mixed with what feels like a casual energy on the page thanks to his cartoonish drawing style, reveals Sears as an extremely careful and deliberate cartoonist whose serious approach doesn't detract from the liveliness of his line and the small joys of his characterizations.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Katherine Wirick's Nervenkrank #3

The third issue of Nervenkrant, Katherine Wirick's minicomics serial about Dada artist John Heartfield, is the first that starts to get at the essence of what would become his life's work. The issue continues this historical fiction biography of the artist as he and his brother visit George Grosz, Heartfield's future Dada collaborator. While many associate Dada with cut-up techniques, dissonant live performances and other anti-art techniques, in Grosz and Heartfield they had two caricaturists who directly embodied Dada's spirit as a form of excoriating political and cultural protest. Indeed, Dada was a direct response to the slowly dawning realization that the rabid nationalism that helped lead to the war was utter nonsense that had nothing to do with the average person. Grosz and Heartfield did a lot of pen-and-ink drawings that have more in common with editorial cartooning than anything else, even if they used collage and other found-images as part of their work.

Getting back to the issue and the series in general, Heartfield (then still Helmut Herzfeld) was a sensitive, empathetic artist who wound up in the German army's version of a mental hospital a few times during his stint as a soldier. He had to dodge virulent "patriots" and others, including his landlord. Visiting Grosz was the revelation he needed in his life, because he was exposed to drawings that Grosz considered trash because no one in the art world thought them of any value: his brutal political cartoons. This sparked one of the central themes of Dada and the series itself: wrestling with the very concept of "beauty". In the eyes of Heartfield, beauty was a lie, like God and Country. It was all part of the same package, a bill of goods sold to him. "What good is this? What is it for?", he howled at his brother, saying that when he was being strapped down by the army, art wasn't going to save him. What Grosz was doing, what amazed him, was simply telling the truth about what he saw. Heartfield reasoned that if he was going to die anyway, he might as well record what it was like to live during this time, to leave behind his attempt to document the truth, as horrifying as it was. 

Dada is a paradoxical art form. It is art, using new and traditional techniques, many of them representational. It is anti-art, in that it rejects the institutions that define art and the concept of beauty removed from the everyday world. The world had become (was always?) absurd and meaningless, therefore the only sane response was art that played on this absurdity and meaninglessness, exposing it for what it truly was. Wirick masterfully not only captures and distills this moment in a single, powerful page, she also shows how this realization transforms Heartfield into someone who no longer cares what the world thinks about him, including the landlord who had verbally amused him so many times. It was also not lost on me as a reader that her use of a naturalistic, grey wash lent itself to fitting in with Grosz's images, which were in a sharper pen-and-ink without a wash, yet still fit in nicely with the overall conceit of the book. Wirick is creating a history of one man's wrestling with enormous concepts like art, beauty, nationalism, madness that aren't just abstract ideals--they are factors crashing into his every day life. The look in his eyes when he realizes that trying to combat the insanity of war with simply-defined notions of beauty was a fool's errand is the most striking image in the book; a moment of clarity but also of a mind bursting open, never to be the same ever again. It's an astonishing tipping point, and Wirick clearly gave it a lot of thought as she nailed it. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Scholastic: Aron Nels Steinke's Mr. Wolf's Class

Aron Nels Steinke's major-publisher debut, Mr. Wolf's Class, is a pitch-perfect account of an ordinary classroom on the first day of school. It's the culmination of his career arc as a cartoonist and an expansion on his minicomics of the same name. Those comics were told entirely from his point of view as an actual teacher in a fourth grade class, but the bulk of the humor came from the things that the students said and did. Steinke is a keen observer, and when that gaze is turned on others instead of himself (as in his obsessive autobio comics), the result is a raw, hilarious and accurate account of what children are really like. In particular, Steinke captures the sense of controlled chaos in a classroom, with a teacher having to negotiate the personal narratives seventeen kids.

Steinke makes a number of smart storytelling decisions. He starts the book with a silent series of panels as Mr. Wolf fixes up his classroom. It establishes him as an important character, but then Steinke gives us one panel each on every student in his classroom going to bed the night before the first day of school in a 2 x 4 grid. That quickly established that every character is important, but the last panel introducing the kids spanning across the bottom third of the page introduces Margot. It's a clever device that hints to the reader that Margot will be a very important character. Indeed she is, as it's her first day of school in a new city. It's also Mr. Wolf's first day as a teacher at this school. Steinke gives the reader a couple of different routes into the story, as these characters serve as reader surrogates in a sense. We see the school through their eyes as being unfamiliar with a new routine, but we also get to see through the eyes of other students as well.

Steinke employs an anthropomorphic rendering of his characters, which is quite effective. First of all, it establishes a base cuteness level slightly removed from reality, which heightens what is after all a mundane setting. Second, it helps with the problem of keeping track of two dozen characters. Making each one a different animal makes it easier to remember who's who. Even with that aid, it's easy to forget the names of characters. Steinke is aware of that and incorporates it into the story, as Mr. Wolf forgets the names of some of his new students. There are some nice storytelling symmetries, as the story begins and ends with Margot and her first day, and also features Sampson with an unpleasant bus ride at the beginning of the story and a pleasant one with Margot at the very end.

Steinke weaves in a number of little stories and plots that follow each of the kids in the class. There's the prickly Aziza, sleepy Penny, cartoonist Oscar, brainy Stewart, etc. There's friendship, there's conflict, there's hurt feelings and even a missing student, as Penny takes a nap in a cardboard box. There are references to farts. Throughout the book, Steinke pokes fun at Mr. Wolf, who pats himself on the back a lot for doing a good job until Penny disappears. He also has to deal with rats in the classroom, a fellow teacher stealing his stapler and conflicts in his class.

The overall message is that adults are just as confused and clueless sometimes as kids, and they need help like anyone else. Steinke has crafted a book that will resonate with kids as feeling real but is also entertaining. It poignantly captures the way kids make friends with each other as well as the ways in which they hurt each other, even if it's inadvertent. Everything about this book is understated despite the clear amount of work Steinke put into creating a smooth structure for his story. By going after the small details instead of trying to push big events on the reader, Steinke has created a series that accurately, sweetly and amusingly chronicles the ups and downs of being a child at school.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Celebration: s! #29

s!, (formerly kus!), is the flagship anthology of kus!, the Latvian publisher that has a wide, international reach. Publishing in English, editors David Schilter and Sanita Muizniece have nonetheless always given each issue a heavily Baltic feel, and the tenth anniversary issue (#29) is a special celebration that focuses mostly on Latvia. I've said it before: Latvia is to comics as Lithuania is to basketball, meaning that these two states with small populations have a disproportionate amount of success and influence relative to their populations. Of course, all it takes to put a small press anthology is a lot of patience and determination, along with funding from the state culture foundation.

Most of the artists follow up on the celebration theme and do short stories about parties of various kinds. From Ana Vaivare's opening strip following a cat on the floor trying to get scraps from a table set for a feast Konig Lu Q's exploration of celebrations of not just commemorating booms and busts, but also causing them, there's the usual wide array of styles and visual approaches to be found. From a bright use of color from Vaivare and an open page layout to minimalist black and white and a standard grid, the anthology remains compelling throughout because no two strips look the same. The editors also made sure to alternate stylistic choices from one story to the next, such as Kaspar Grosev's swirling, almost abstract figures giving way to the over-the-top color and cartoonish monsters in Ernest and Andres Klaven's exploration of Cthulhu as a rejected slam poet. Speaking of elder gods, Reinis Peterson's red, yellow and orange-soaked silent saga has a huge boar sacrificed, a giant fire built, and a sickly green demonic figure rising out of the fire.

There's the joyous, brightly colored doodles of Davis Ozols, where happy blobs and humanoid shapes float around in rapt happiness. That's immediately followed by the unnerving "Dirty Pool", by Laura Kevins. A woman cleaning up after a party finds a friend hiding in the swimming pool in order to get away from a stalker. Next thing she knows, a chorus of "hey baby" and "aren't you going to say hello" comes from the bushes, as though they were surrounded by a pack of wolves. Staying in the pool is the only way to be safe, because "if they get wet they think they are crying--and vulnerability makes them dissolve". The humor is darkly accurate, as even the joking tone of the story is built on real-world experiences.

Other highlights include Elena Braslina's charming "The Dishes". Using a dense, scratchy style overlaid with key spot color, it tells the tale of a young woman who decides to clean a bathtub full of filthy dishes after a wild party. As she scrubs the dishes and more water winds up in the tub, she reveals a mermaid of sorts. In a neat bit of magical realism, the two escape together down the drain. The scratchy quality of her line, leaving all sorts of splatter on the page, was a perfect way of depicting the sheer amount of filth all over the place. The aquamarine skin of the woman in the tub breaks through all that splattered ink, and last panel was entirely that shade of blue-green.

Ruta Briede's "They Came" is a charming story, done in a clear green line, about a woman preparing a feast for the neighborhood cats. There's a deliberate, slow pace to this story that invites the reader to closely look at details and enjoy the unfolding events rather than worry about where they lead. Maija Kurseva's collage comics, where images are cut out of other images to form the people and furniture at a party. It's all laid over graph paper, giving it kind of an angular 80s music video aesthetic. It's the kind of piece that I love seeing in s!, as the editors are dedicated to presenting as wide a variety of visual approaches as possible. Finally, Martins Zutis' plays with the grid in an interesting way. He uses a 2 x 4 grid pattern and establishes the story on the first page, with each panel describing what is to come in the rest of the story, which is wordless. Each story unfolds a panel at a time per page; for example, the third panel down from the top on the left is "underground tea party". We see images of crystalline creatures slowly drinking tea. Each story unfolds separately, that is, until the "Volcano's first day of work" (with a mountain dressed in a business suit--a very clever visual pun) interferes when lava starts invading every other panel. It's one of many clever visual jokes as many of the mini-stories are celebrations in and of themselves.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Uncivilized/Odod: E. Eero Johnson's The Outliers

Odod Books, the YA arm of Uncivilized Books, has been quietly releasing some very good, mostly genre-focused books for a few years now. Peter Wartman was their trail blazer and Kickliy's Musnet is their big seller, but E. Eero Johnson's Tsu & The Outliers represents something different. This book about monsters and outsiders is for an older child audience, and there's quite a bit of intense, even frightening, action. The blurb on the back notes that the book is an outgrowth of Johnson's "hopes and fears of raising an autistic child", and that's reflected in the book's protagonist, Tsu. Tsu is nonverbal and is bullied and mocked by his schoolmates. However, he is also able to communicate with a monster in the woods, a "bigfoot" who turns out to be his friend.

The bullying aspect of the book turns out to be a fairly minor part of this relatively slender (116 pages) volume. Instead, the meat of the book concerns Tsu dealing with a talking monkey scientist and his pet serpentine chupacabra. There are several long, clever chase and fight sequences that make up the bulk of the book, and the story's outcome is not what one would think. Indeed, it sparks the next possible volume in the series, where Tsu goes off with the scientist and the other "outliers"--creatures outside the norm. Tsu's friendship with the creature named T-Chok (the bigfoot who also looks like he's part ent) is a reflection of his ability to communicate in a way and with a portion of the world that's closed off to others. It's a reflection of how his own ability to communicate with other people is closed off as well, until the scientist does something to him.

Johnson doesn't hit Tsu's communication issues hard in terms of moralizing about it; instead, it's an important part of the actual narrative. He is forced to find better ways to communicate. He shrugs off abuse because though he might struggle in school, he is at home in the dense forest. There's an odd story structure here that keeps the reader off balance. It starts in the middle of an action scene and eschews conventional pacing and three-act structure. The book also defies the typical hero's journey and gives every character murky motivations. Is the scientist good or evil, or is that classification meaningless? Is Tsu a hero or simply someone in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is Tsu entering a dangerous world with unknown terrain, or is he finally traveling into territory where he can finally be understood? Johnson keeps this all delightfully vague and is aided by his dynamic, scratchy line. The professor jumps around like a Jack Kirby character and the action is larger-than-life in that Kirby style. The single-color wash serves to highlight the dense quality of the line rather than bleed over it, making it just one more slightly off-kilter thing about this odd, compelling book.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Soaring Penguin Pressl: Boum's A Small Revolution

Soaring Penguin Press is one of many small press concerns in the U.K., and they tend to produce nicely-designed and crafted comics that lean between genre and art-comics. Boum's A Small Revolution is somewhere in-between, as it's sort of a war comic. It's the tale of a nation ruled by a tyrannical President, opposed by a Resistance of anarchists. The focus of the story is on a couple of young orphans, the daredevil Florence and the sickly Auguste. She steals food so the two of them can survive, though he has a lung disease (presumably tuberculosis) that is slowly killing him. She hangs out in a dying antiques shop to hear a record by an artist who advocated resistance but not war; it's a paradox that Florence embraces, even as he's referred to as a "deserter". From there, Auguste's older brother Dominique introduces them to the Resistance, and Florence's life is transformed.

There is a scene worthy of Chekhov in the way that it establishes a future scene in which a jovial Resistance fighter plays around with Florence, first giving her a rifle that's way too heavy for her. Then she puts a grenade in her hand, telling her to be careful not to pull the pin, and then she takes it back. After that, the action moves swiftly in this slim volume (94 pages). Boum's clear line and cute, cartoonish drawing style winds up playing a significant narrative role. Florence, with her oval-shaped head and giant, almond-shaped blue eyes is an almost painfully cute character. Boum counteracts that in the early going by showing her smoking; it's an easy, shorthand reference to show how her childhood's been destroyed. Later in the story, when Florence breaks into the Presidential palace and hugs the President's leg, it's a believable development because she is tiny and cute.

Predictably, the President is unamused by Florence, who pretends to be afraid of the Resistance. Someone peels her off of him so he can go make a televised appearance. A sympathetic official asks her if she wants to see the President record his message, leading her to hug him again. This time, the plan works, and we see a certain grenade pin that she places in his hand. It's a fitting end for a character whose life was marked by occasional bursts of beauty amidst long spells of violence and meaninglessness. When the only people in her life were taken from her, she honored their memory be becoming the very symbol of revolution that she had sought in Boris's music. Whether or not her act of violence is less important than its symbolic importance to a watching nation. For all of the flourishes related to characterization in this book, Boum never loses sight of its tight plot elements. It's not a complex story in terms of plot or themes, but Boum uses that simplicity to create a direct, powerful punch in a compact space.