Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another Wave From CCS

Rob reviews the latest batch of comic from students and alumni from the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS). Reviewed are comics from Penina Gal, Chuck Forsman, Caitlin Plovnick, Colleen Frakes, JP Coovert, Alexis Frederick-Frost, Bill Volk, Denis St. John and Alex Kim.

Time for another peek at some recent comics from the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS).

THE FIRE MESSENGER 1, by Penina Gal. This first issue of what promises to be an extended fantasy series is most notable for its gorgeous use of color and the way Gal plops us into a fantasy world with no information given to the reader. We meet two boys named Aiden and Nik. We quickly learn that Aiden has the power to control fire, but that the friends were trapped in a big fire that Aiden couldn't quite control and somehow wound up in an unfamiliar forest. As they wander through the forest and desperately try to survive, we are slowly given clues through their dialogue about their lives. They both go to a school in a world where everyone has some kind of special magical gift, but Aiden's abilities make him a teacher's pet. The unfamiliar world they wind up in turns out to be our Earth, and the realization that they're no longer on the right world chills our heroes.

The way the story begins reminds me a bit of Phillip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS novels, where we're thrown into a magical world with no context and are expected to figure things out through context. It's an effective strategy, because it forces us to concentrate fully on the characters instead of on the way the world is built. Gal favors pastels for both the color of her paper and the actual panels themselves, giving the book a fairy-tale look. The main problem with this approach is that the color fairly overwhelms her line throughout much of the issue. Her line is deliberately simple and basic and the emotions of the story are mostly conveyed through color, but a slightly bolder line would make the story's figures stand out a bit more. The thinner line led to a blurred, bleeding effect, especially between foreground and background. Still, her use of color is expressionistic and ambitious, and I'm curious to see where the story goes from here.

DEAD AIR #1, by Caitlin Plovnick. This minicomic miniseries about a group of 20-something slacker guys with a band is modest in scope and ambition. The story is a familiar one: directionless young men sitting around getting stoned, listening to music, going to dead-end jobs (or laying on couches all day), etc. What makes this comic worthwhile is the pitch and tone of Plovnick's treatment of her characters. That tone is equal parts mockery and affection, made effective by the pitch-perfect dialogue. The lazy guy who doesn't even want to get off the couch because "it's all gloomy out", the convenience store clerk whose smartassery gets thrown in his face by activists, the record store clerk whose passion for music is chewed up by retail are all examples of characters that could have been cliches. Instead, there's a respect for the way they interact (especially with regard to music) but also an understanding of how pathetic their lives are. The strip on the back cover shows of Plovnick's wit, which she uses in a restrained manner in her comic. The themes and characters we see in this book are certainly nothing groundbreaking, but Plovnick's developing skill as a storyteller made me want to see more. If anything, I'd like to see Plovnick simplify her line. She overrenders a few scenes that would have benefited from a clearer line, which gets in the way of the expressiveness of her characters.

3AM and A SMALL STORY OF LOVE AND DEATH, by Alex Kim. Kim's comics always have an open-ended and ambiguous quality. His stories rarely provide much in the way of exposition. The reader is thrown into a situation and forced to figure out how the characters he's introduced are interacting and why. 3AM is a comics adaptation of a poem written by Jessica Abston, an ode to those magical late night hours spent in diners where reality seems a little more fluid somehow. Kim's use of silhouette to depict the blankness of the narrator in all this was a clever move. A SMALL STORY... opens with a typical Kim setting: a conversation in a bar. A person tells a story about watching two rats living near a subway line rail and understanding that they were mates. He is drawn to their lives in ways he can't articulate and is shattered when he sees that one of the rats is dead and the other essentially commits suicide by waiting for a train to hit it. Of course, the friend he tells the story to is baffled by his obsession, and even the sympathetic bartender thought he was crazy.

This comic is not about the story of the rats, but that the man needs to tell this story. It reflects a deeper crisis in the main character that is just hinted at but never hammered at, and that emotional restraint is a hallmark of Kim's work. As always, Kim uses a wavy-line approach in his characters' clothing, giving them a rumpled look. I wish he had taken a different approach with the character design in this comic, because the main character needed to stand out a bit more from the others. That said, his use of panel-to-panel transitions was quite clever and resonant, especially when the protagonist has just witnessed the rat killing itself.

DAFFY, by Chuck Forsman. The SNAKE OIL artist presents a collection of shorter works here, mostly humor strips and other odds and ends. The bulk of the mini is a reprint of the "Jimmy Draws Cats" series of strips originally published in SUNDAYS. This was Forsman's best early effort, drawn with the feel of a classic comic strip with Forsman's own brand of absurdity. The scenes where young Jimmy is sent to "Art Skool", depicted as the most desolate and vicious place imaginable, still make me laugh. The book's first strip, featuring two characters hanging on a gallows, creates an absurd situation by contrasting the dialogue and the grimness of the situation. Drawing the characters as stick figures heightens the tension and humor even more.

The last pages of the book are devoted to what seems to be an attempt at doing a series about the life of Jim Thorpe's latter years. I'm not sure if this is a work in progress or a work abandoned, but it seemed intriguing. You can see Forsman's line developing in some of these earlier strips, where he didn't have quite the same control over his line that he does now. At the same time, it's clear that he has always tried to maintain a spontaneity of approach, and that organic quality of his comics is perhaps their greatest appeal.

WOMAN KING preview, by Colleen Frakes. I've always found Frakes' bold but spare line and composition to be her greatest strengths as an artist. There's a bleakness to her work that I also find appealing as she tells her own version of myths and folktales. This brief preview is no exception, a story told in another format in the NO! anthology that I reviewed elsewhere. Frakes' composition is bold and exciting in this story of a girl chosen to lead a clan of bears against a human village, but some of the rendering seems a bit rushed here. That's especially true of the girl herself; it seemed as though Frakes was trying to get at an iconic depiction of her but couldn't quite pull it off without adding some more detail. On the other hand, the way she constructs her bears embodied that bold simplicity perfectly. Given the way she altered her final version of the story she told in her Tragic Relief book, redrawing much of it, I wouldn't be surprised to see this mini as simply another draft. In any event, the prospect of a long-form work by Frakes is an exciting one.

INSIDES, by JP Coovert. This short, striking comic plays to Coovert's strengths: an understanding of how to create and solve visual puzzles on each page. He doesn't do this with a lot of formal pyrotechnics, but rather a thoughtful and clever approach on how to use images to tell a story on several levels. This comic is a great case in point, as it's literally about a man (presumably Coovert himself) purging and vomiting up everything that's touched, moved or inspired him. Whether this purging is at some level voluntary (it would seem not), there's a sense that, like any purging, one feels better afterward. That feeling faded quickly as the character whimpers that he needs the final person her purged: an important significant other. The realization that getting rid of everything inside is only helpful up to a point--especially when we're trying to purge memories, influences and feelings. Because of the strong specificity of the images purged but a lack of detail given regarding their meaning, it's easy for a reader to project their own memories and feelings onto these images. That particular tact was risky on Coovert's part, but the way his images from specific to general was impressively conveyed.

3 STORIES and MARIA OF MONTMARTRE, by Alexis Frederick-Frost. 3 STORIES is a cleverly designed mini that shows off a few different approaches from Frederick-Frost. His comics combine a looseness of figure with an almost diagrammatic approach. Those figures have a sharpness to them, as Frederick-Frost composes them mostly out of triangles and rectangles. The simplicity of form combined with the expressive sweep of what appears to be a brush makes one pause to admire each page before even reading it. "Letter" is the most clever of the stories, a circular narrative where the lovelorn protagonist meets a horrible fate due to coincidence. His love going up in flames becomes both literal and figurative. The simplified character design makes the backgrounds every bit as important to look at as the characters themselves. That gestalt of background and foreground established throughout the story makes the final panels all the more effective. "Haunt" is more conventionally designed, with a visual conceit that lacks subtlety. The reader understands right away that the protagonist is haunted by the ills of the modern world and can't do anything about it, but the on-the-nose depiction of this on page after page dulls the point. On the other hand, "Hunt" almost dips into abstraction in this story of a hunter in a forest. The way Frederick-Frost worked the hunter into an almost abstract forest of angles and jutting lines was quite striking, and the literally explosive climax continued to make use of this interesting visual approach.

MARIA OF MONTMARTRE is Frederick-Frost's second long-form work. It's based on the life of a model-turned-painter in Impressionist-era France. This is only the first volume of what would seem to be a much longer work. Compared to his first long-form comic, LA PRIMAVERA, Frederick-Frost's figures were much more expressive here. While maintaining his simplicity of character design, he was able to add just a few more flourishes to bring the likes of Toulouse-Latrec and Aristide to life. While his use of greyscale shading was effective in adding texture and weight to his panels and figures, I'm guessing that the eventual collected work will be one or two toned. This chapter is simply and leisurely told with few surprises, but it's the loving details of how Frederick-Frost imagined the life of Paris in the late 19th century that give this comic life. The idea of a story talking about the tension between artist and model and the muse seeking her own form of expression is a clever one, and I'm guessing the the eventual finished piece will be Frederick-Frost's most impressive output to date and really announce his arrival.

THE DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM IS DECADENT AND DEPRAVED, by Bill Volk. This is a 24-hour comic, one with an impressive level of compositional and drafting skill for such an exercise. There are certainly a number of rough spots, of course, but the cleverness of the artist and spontaneity of his approach makes up for the raggedness of his line and occasional clutter. The story is about Volk working at a library and wondering why the Dewey Decimal system files some comics all together, but others (like MAUS) in completely different portions of the library. This leads him on an amusing fever dream quest where he confronts Melvil Dewey, Art Spiegelman and dame Fortune herself and concludes that there's nothing wrong with MAUS being filed under World War II/Holocaust books, and that in fact all comics should be scattered "unto the four winds". Visual flourishes like Volk's fever-dream self morphing into an anthropomorphic dog to talk to Spiegelman's famous anthropomorphic mouse caricature was clever. A comic not just about comics but about how comics are shelved is a bit meta, but that can be forgiven, I think, for a student entering the comics boot-camp that is CCS. I'll be curious to see more work from Volk drawn under more ideal conditions.

MONSTERS & GIRLS: AMELIA, by Denis St. John. There's so much going on in this comic that it's difficult to know where to begin. First and foremost, it's a high-concept horror comic. It's about a girl in her early 20s who has a magic object (a box with a creepy, ornate eye symbol) and is seeking out two other objects that are related to it somehow, knowing that she needs to complete the set. That particular bit of high concept unifies all of the other weirdness in this comic and gives it a sturdy structure to rest upon. Second, the tone of the comic slips between laugh-out loud absurdity back to horrific, sometimes in the same panel. Third, sex is a key and visceral component of this story, and St. John blends in eroticism with humor and horror--again, sometimes in the same panel.

There's a scene early in the comic where the protagonist, Amelia, is seducing a much older man so as to steal his magic object (a writing tablet). The way she moves her body around so as to avoid the disgusting prospect of seeing his facial expression, only to be scared witless at a pair of eyes staring at her out of the darkness, and watching her body twist around on top of his, was squirm-inducingly funny. Later, when she confronts her younger brother, acting remarkably casual for someone who was in the room at the same time and seemingly in cahoots with the older man, she blurts out "Why do you look like a Nosferatu?" The weirdness and laughs never take the reader out of the story, because this is in no way a parody. Everything that happens here makes sense in the context of this world, and the reader is asked to immerse oneself in it.
St. John is ambitious in the way he uses expression, gesture and mood. He doesn't quite have the chops to pull it off on every page and in every panel. Amelia's big eyes are one of the book's foci; there are some panels where her face, given a greater focus by St. John's line, looks slightly raggedly drawn. There's a density to his cross-hatching that's sometimes at odds with his figures. At times, there's also an awkwardness in the way his figures interact. Some of that is intentional, I'm guessing, but some of it is distracting on the page. On the other hand, St. John's use of black/white contrast is quite clever, as is the way he renders the repeated skull motif. His greatest skill is his ability to render humor, discomfort and desire in the same panel, and that blend is what makes this such an intriguing comic. I've never seen a comic that blended all three and still managed to tell an engaging narrative, and it seems that St. John is well on his way to creating a significant long-form work.


  1. You're very welcome! I'm always happy to review anything else you care for me to read.