Monday, December 20, 2021

31 Days Of CCS #20: Ross Wood Studlar

It's always good to see a new comic from Ross Wood Studlar, the forest ranger/cartoonist. His comics always center around nature and folk tales. His latest, Can Jumping Spiders See The Moon?, is one of the more technically accomplished comics of his career as it focused on an interesting arachnid. Studlar details the story of the Jumping Spider, an arachnid interesting because it can see in color and each of its eyes acts like a camera with greater range of visibility than other spiders or insects. Furthermore, it is a patient and strategic hunter, using techniques not unlike big cats, which is unusual considering a jumping spider's brain is tiny compared to that of a lion. 

Studlar's feathery, beautiful line is equal to the task of making the spider come alive. Studlar captures their movements and general lively quality, then shifts over to an equally well-drawn fantasy scene of a jumping spider playing a lion in a game of chess. Studlar's throughline is wondering about what these spiders think about; what do they make of sights like the moon? How much of their cleverness as hunters is tied into their sensory apparatus, and how much of it is tied to larger cognitive capacity? These are interesting questions, and Studlar's natural curiosity rewards the reader in a comic that is informative but is far from a dry recitation of facts. There's always an element of narrative in his work. This feels like a chapter in a longer work about Studlar's observations, and it seems he's been building them for quite some time. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #19: Emil O Melia

Emil O Melia is an example of a first-year CCS student who makes the most of the standard assignments. In On The Market, for example, this is the Aesop's Fable assignment about a young mouse who thought a rooster was threatening and a cat was friendly, until her mother told her not to judge appearances. Melia drew a story featuring anthropomorphic characters, as a mouse named Yon took a job at a farmer's market and was immediately seduced by a cat. The next day, when she was befriended by a rooster, the cat revealed that she was just trying to make her girlfriend jealous when she made out with Yon. It's a gentle jab of a story, one where Melia's delicate touch with their pencil and vivid use of colors carried the gently amusing narrative. 

Ilex is the classic CCS application comic, which must feature a robot, a snowman, and a piece of fruit. Melia turned it into a horror comic. Melia spotted a snowman with a tangled piece of downed power line as an arm on a walk after contracting food poisoning. What they slowly realized was that the snowman's arm was dropping poisonous holly berries into their meds and tea in an effort to murder them. The comic doesn't outlive its welcome, and though it looks like it was drawn quickly and digitally, there's a spontaneity to the line that's appealing. 

Twin Flame is the Ed Emberley assignment. Melia really got into the spirit of absolute minimalism, with the slight cheat of relying heavily on color for narrative clarity. It's a story of two best friends who seem to have some kind of godlike or spiritual role in the world. Separated by distance, they meet in dreams and in the forms of their creations, who are all in their image. It's a touching, gentle romance of a story. Melia is clearly just trying to figure things out as an artist, but there's a light touch to their storytelling that's highly appealing. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #18: Leeah Swift

Leeah Swift's comics have a searing quality owing to her willingness to churn through a lot of issues in public, especially with regard to mental health. As a result, I braced myself for the stories in her collection Tit Bits, given the plethora of content warnings at the beginning and an apologia at the end. However, the collection felt quite restrained and reserved, leaving much to the imagination in its examination of various kinds of tensions. Which is not to say that they weren't interesting or emotionally resonant, just not as heavy as Swift implied.

"A Talk" was my favorite of the three stories. It depicts an outdoors adventure with two trans women, Violet and Jane, who have diametrically opposed ideas as to what it means to live as a trans person. Of course, the ridiculous adventure, including tiptoeing over a suspension bridge, going over rough ground, and up rope ladders, was all a funny visual metaphor for the rough ground they were experiencing as friends. Jane couldn't stop framing every idea and personal interaction as a political one, and Violet was tired of jargon and politics and just wanted to be a woman. Moreover, she didn't want to be talked down to just because she didn't want to engage politically. In the afterword, Swift said she didn't want to make specific, grand statements about being trans; while that may be true, she still touched on something that really landed here. 

"A Joke" is about a deeply depressed and anxious woman named Luna, and the story is about not just the awkwardness of social interactions and social anxiety in general, but about how sometimes the possibility of communication seems impossible. This plays out in the form of a joke that Luna tells after she's late for work yet again, and it also points to the ways in which boundaries play out in situations like this. Swift's distorted, grotesque, and funny cartooning is the star here, especially as Luna's face twists into grimaces and forced smiles. 

"A Show" is the simplest of the three stories, but also the most emotionally powerful in its way. It's about a trans woman named Alexa who simply wants to get a bite to eat before she walks home from work and her fear in being pursued by an overbearing asshole. It speaks to both the possibility of sexual violence that women face in situations like this, and how this is often even more dangerous for trans women. In the story, she makes it home safely (thanks in part to a bit of magical realism and a lamp post that helps hide her) and texts someone who cares about her. That last page, a splash page where she's safely in bed, is an expression of not just relief but connection. Swift's storytelling is an absolute delight, and its singular stylistic quality will actually work for any number of stories. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

31 Days Of CCS #17: Violet Kitchen

Violet Kitchen, another first-year CCS student, definitely has the goods. She submitted five comics for review, and they're all quite good. You Are These Streets And These Streets Are You is comics-as-poetry with a memorable palette consisting of violet, blue, and yellow. The water metaphor is used in an interesting way; rather than the constant rain being depressing, Kitchen instead talks about mirroring the malleability of water and literally going with the flow, "ready to pour myself out to the nearest passerby, to prove that water has a memory." Matching the text with images of rain pouring from the sky, umbrellas in the street, and water running down drains as a sort of visual metonomy is clever and heartfelt. 

Immortals is the Ed Emberley assignment, about an immortal being trying to track down another immortal being on an otherwise inhabitated planet. Kitchen goes beyond aspects of the assignment in that everything in the comic is fairly naturalistic with the exception of the protagonist, who is strictly a stick figure. An expressive stick figure, to be sure, but a stick figure nonetheless. Once again, Kitchen's prose is assured, terse, and powerful. 

Do You Believe In Life After Love? is a classic experimental comic, taking pages from many other comics and doing a "mixtape" style cut-up with an entirely new narrative superpositioned over the original images. In this case, it's literally about a mixtape that someone made and is listening to now in an effort to not kill themselves. Kitchen has an interesting and varied bookshelf, especially in terms of color, and it made for a lively experiment. 

Baggage is from an anthology about in-between spaces that Kitchen was part of, and it's yet another polished, smart, and visually striking but restrained narrative. This story is about hotel rooms, clearly inspired by Richard McGuire's classic story "Here." That's a story about a space over a long period of time, as opposed to a set of characters, and there's a particular page where Kitchen depicts snippets of the lives of dozens of people who stayed in that room, echoing the experience of her unseen protagonist, who muses on living out of a suitcase, trying to imprint a little of one's home on a room, and then leaving it all behind. She also muses that we leave something of ourselves in these spaces; dreams, if nothing else. 

Lack. is a personal zine about Kitchen coming to terms with the idea that she is asexual. This was my favorite of Kitchen's work, partly because it was the most personal and partly because the art was more raw. One possible concern for her as an artist is a tendency to be almost too polished at times; I wanted to see something where she spilled a little ink, metaphorically speaking, and had a little more urgency in her line. The is a memoir that discusses a lifetime of feeling like she was missing something because she didn't feel sexual attraction and horror at the prospect of delivering something she didn't want to do with she was older. Combine that with a perpetually youthful appearance, and Kitchen described a sense of being "unfinished." When she finally came to terms with asexuality, she noted that while it was freeing, she's still having trouble fully coming to terms with being romantic but asexeal. Helping others has helped her accept it herself a little, but I appreciated the idea that she hadn't made some hero's journey, where everything was great on the other side. Things are still confusing, uncertain, and fraught. Kitchen's use of black and white and a slightly tremulous line made the story all the more effective, getting across her vulnerability in a way that her confident prose didn't always directly convey. Kitchen can do anything she wants and is on her way to big things; I'll be curious to see her direction.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #16: Reilly Hadden

Reilly Hadden was one of my favorite CCS cartoonists from the moment I saw their first comics. He's in that Chuck Forsman liminal space where it's hard to say exactly what they're doing. It's genre, to be sure. But there's a sheer weirdness and some genuinely frightening aspects to the work that lingers in one's mind. It's like a second cousin to Chester Brown's early work. 

Hadden seems to have really hit their stride with their Kricket series of comics, however. It's a kids' comic with a lighter touch that doesn't give up an ounce of its weirdness, and the new mini, The Mad Dungeon Lord, continues this trend. One can see that Hadden respects and likes genre tropes but is also perfectly willing to take a self-aware wrecking ball to those tropes. It all begins with Reilly's pleasing character designs, from Kricket to Louise (who feels Moomin-inspired) to the various robots to the Mad Dungeon Lord himself. There's also a bit of Tronheim & Sfar's Donjon at work here as well, as Reilly simultaneously spoofs the fantasy genre while also expressing love for it. Like most of the Kricket comics, there's a silly punchline at the end, some non-sequiturs, and a great deal of unexplained strangeness. In other words, your typical Hadden comic. Subverting expectations is Hadden's specialty, and the way the fear on Kricket's face is completely absent in the story is part of why it's funny. Ultimately, I'm looking forward to a big collection of Kricket comics.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #15: Erika Bloomdahl

Erika Bloomdahl is a first-year CCS student, and her work reflects someone curious about a number of different kinds of styles. The Quest Of Grad School is a full-color fantasy story that's a positive self-talk metaphor for grappling with post-graduate education. Bloomdahl may well wind up as a fantasy illustrator because she seemed comfortable with these tropes and her use of color. It Could Happen To You is her take on the Ed Emberley assignment, using only simplified silhouettes in her character design. It tells the tale of a cowgirl out to see the world after her mother died, and her unexpected romance with a sailor. It's an excellent example of how storytelling and gesture have little to do with actual drawing because her use of body language conveys a fairly sophisticated narrative with little detail otherwise. 

Bloomdahl also submitted a one-page, black and white comic that's a mix of horror and comedy. She creates a genuinely tense build about thunderstorms but calm seas in a seaside town, as parents tell their children to avoid the ocean during this time. The fears built up about what monster could reside there are first deflated (as it's a giant young woman wearing a knit hat) and then amplified (as her teeth are razor-sharp). As a drawing assignment, it's a further example of her chops (there's even extensive stippling!), but it's a strong piece overall. Her lettering is inconsistent and a bit messy and the actual panel layout doesn't quite line up, but those are small technical matters that can be ironed out later. Bloomdahl seems ready to tackles something bigger, and I suspect some kind of fantasy or horror story (with a twist of some kind) may well be what she excels at. Of course, there's no reason why she can't try everything, as a few cartoonists (Eleanor Davis, Mike Dawson) do. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #14: Juniper Kim

Juniper Kim is a promising first-year student at CCS. She's embraced a wide variety of styles and genres and has shown a great deal of skill in all of them. She submitted a number of short comics for this project.

In the category of "narrative comics," Kim (who also goes by Betty Kim, or Betty J. Kim), started with "Laborers Of Love." I'd say this is as poetic as it is about narrative, and it seems obliquely about pandemic times, as well as imagining a life in a post-capitalist world. It's about human connection and an understanding of how those structures directly impede it, and her use of wavy lines a pink-purple wash doubled down on this emotion. Some of the line art in the panels was obscured by the wash at times, but for the most part, it worked well in intensifying it. "Head/Heartaches" is a bit of autobio where Kim reflects on mental illness and physical pain, and how accepting one's imperfections instead of trying to rid yourself of them is crucial to self-acceptance. Kim's immersive style is highly effective here, as the moody purple and use of shadows effectively conveys this inner conflict. "Every Flavor A Ghost," written by Noah Cho, sees Kim use a different visual technique. It's a more standard grid, as she's relaying Cho's sensory memories and how they connect him to his grandmother. The colors are more balanced and varied while still quite vivid, and Kim successfully adapted a more naturalistic style. 

Kim also submitted three "political cartoons." The first, "Psychiatrist's Office," is actually a pretty good gag. The background features a tearful patient (presumably Kim, but it doesn't matter), while the foreground sees the psychiatrist doodling cubes and fancy logos like a junior high schooler. "All My Flaws And Why They're Not My Fault" is a simple Venn diagram, cleverly inverting the negative stereotypes of being Asian, "womanly," and bisexual to explain her poor driving, tardiness, and impulsivity. When traits are reified by society, why not turn them around? "Making Friends As A Person Of Color In Vermont" has Kim introducing herself and the woman she's being introduced to pouring out a litany of liberal concerns that ignores her actual personhood. The only problem with the gag is that it's mostly textual. 

There were also two diary comics, both short (the best kind of diary comic). "I Want To Be A Girlboss But" is in black and white with grayscale shading, and Kim really shows off her line and clever use of a gird here. It's Kim in a shower, thinking about what's important and what's not, and how difficult it is to engage in things like hygiene when depressed. Like all of Kim's work, though, it's less about personal depression and more about existential malaise in general, especially with regard to the expectations of others with regard to "work." "Vacation Brain" may be her best piece; it's about self-reflection and overthinking in the context of how car rides and day trips keep her from going totally over the edge. There's an interesting take on the concept of vacation and how approaching vacation time as something totally great avoids the idea of returning to your regular, terrible life. It's another existentialist thought, akin to the idea of angst in confronting the idea of the void. I thought some of the storytelling was a big cramped; I wished for a bigger page to let some of those early panels breathe and get a real sense of the Vermont countryside. 

Kim submitted three comics-as-poetry pieces. "ACH" is a black and white piece with shifting pencil tones, possibly indicating light and/or wind in a vague environment, spread over a six-panel grid. Kim's command over her pencil makes this piece interesting to look at. "Alienation Triptych" is a collage of various colorful images from daily life and the environment, assembled in a jagged, abstract manner. The text relates to Kim's theme throughout: the thorny issue of mental illness, conformity, and "neat" vs "messy" living. It's ultimately about the desperate urge to connect. "Love Letter" is not a letter to a particular person, but to Love itself. It's about the desire not just to love in the moment, but also to have the sense of a tomorrow that will come where love will also exist. Kim paints it as delusional but necessary, and her blurry use of deep, bruised purples backs up this conflation of love and deep, sleepy darkness. 

Finally, Professor Foxglove's Fungal Fantasia is a mini drawn in the style of a kids' comic, even if the professor in question is exposed to magical, musical mushrooms. This is a trippy, weird bit of fun, but it also displayed Kim's range in proving she's adept at multiple kinds of storytelling. She can pretty much do whatever she wants in comics; she'll just need to figure out what it is she wants to do.