Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Anthologies of CCS

Rob reviews several anthologies from current and former students at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Works reviewed include SWORD (from One Percent Press), INDELIBLE, SORRY and NO. (This review was originally published at

I was happy to pick up a number of CCS anthologies at SPX this year, given how difficult it can be to keep track of the students going through that school. I've taken a great interest in the work of the artists who have attended the Center for Cartoon Studies and consider it to be one of the most interesting experiments in comics history. While I've reviewed a number of the artists who have attended the school (Annie Murphy, Sean Ford, Chuck Forsman, Alex Kim, Joe Lambert, Colleen Frakes, JP Coovert, and Jeff Lok just for starters), I'm always intrigued to see what kind of work other artists are doing.

While the crew behind the SUNDAYS anthology has been the most ambitious in terms of their output and presentation, these anthologies certainly have their own sense of ambition in style. Each one is themed, though only very vaguely and more as a jumping-off point. Indeed, the anthologies have the feel of art school exercises, the kind that can spark interesting ways of thinking. The 4-Square anthology series is a good example of that. The concept is simple: 4 artists work in one squarebound anthology (about 6x6 inches), doing stories around a loose concept. The first edition, SORRY, featured Caitlin Plovnick, Colleen Frakes, Emily Wieja and Mario Van Buren, and they all centered around the word "sorry".

Oddly, all four stories took a grisly turn. Plovnick's story is about a spurned mermaid whose desperate need to understand what love is takes a homicidal turn. Some of Plovnick's figures look a little awkward, especially in relation to each other, but she made up for it with a really strong sense of composition--especially in the panels where the mermaid went on a rampage. Frakes continued to mine the stuff of fables (as opposed to fantasy) in her story about a bluejay's miserable fate. She seems extremely comfortable and confident as a draftsman--her figures are simple but bold and distinctive, and I love the weight of her line. This was the first story I'd seen from Van Buren, a tale of a romp on a playground gone horribly wrong, and his character design was rather appealing--lots of sausage-like fingers, and a sharp use of geometric shapes to create his figures. Wieja's contribution was less a story than a study about fire. Wieja obviously loves to play up the contrast between light and dark, realistic depictions and primitive sketches. All told, this was probably the most consistently interesting of the four anthologies examined in
this article.

The second volume, NO, isn't quite as attractive. I thought the blue paper it was printed on didn't do a lot of favors for some of the stories, for starters. I did greatly enjoy Jon Chad's hilariously disgusting story about a sad sack who eats too much alphabet soup before declaring his love, and winds up vomiting it out in a way that spelled out foul insults. His grotesquely humorous character design and detailed linework were all in the service of the story's gags. From the finely-rendered we went to the very sketchy in Lauren O'Connell's "Fancy Clue" story. It's an amusing concept (a female superspy being sent on absurd missions like figuring out if a girl was attracted to a particular FBI agent), but it felt literally ripped out of a sketchbook and photocopied. I can appreciate the energy and immediacy of such work, but this was just sloppy--illegible lettering, tons of spelling errors, etc.

Frakes checked in with another entry in this anthology, part of which was reprinted elsewhere in a more polished form. This felt like a first draft for that story, albeit a well-designed and composed first draft with unusual ideas. This one's about a girl adopted by a family of talking bears who were getting ready to make war on humans. Frakes' work looks best in crisp black and white, and I thought the blue paper was an especially unfortunate choice for this story. Finally, there was a Morgan Pielli bit of lunacy. His story was a bit of Chuck M. Jones inspired fourth-wall breaking as his characters chase each other around and between comics gutters.

SWORD is the most attractive-looking of the four anthologies, featuring artists with some bold and distinctive visual styles. Each short story is about a magic sword, with each artist picking up the story thread from the next but taking it in some very different directions. JP Coovert and Stephen Floyd share a similar quality of line and story sensibility, spoofing the fantasy aspects of sword-related quests. James Hindle takes things in an interesting direction, rendering the discovery of the sword in a series of darkly humorous one-panel gag strips titled "Hello, Only Friend". Alexis Frederick-Frost, one of the most interesting visual stylists in the CCS crew, tells a story about a crow who manages to find the sword at the climax of his story, giving him a bit of a magic boost. Frederick-Frost loves to play with thick, bold lines and light/dark contrasts while using a stripped-down character design style. Lastly, Joe Lambert checks in with a single, silent page that quickly establishes a connection to the prior scene, sets up the scene and end then ends it with an implied act of violence and theft--all in three panels. This book is a pleasant diversion or a fun group art exercise-- not the most important or interesting work of these artists, but still a surprisingly tightly-wound series of distinctive stories.

INDELIBLE is the most uneven of the four anthologies, which isn't surprising since it's less a comics anthology than a "collection of creative endeavors" done by the women of CCS--students, faculty, staff, fellows and interns. There's plenty in here that's not comics but is still plenty entertaining, like Jessica Abston's poetry (some of which has been adapted into comics form by Alex Kim), Rachel Gross' illustrations and short stories by the likes of Frakes and Betsey Swardlick. These submissions contribute to the sense that this publication wasn't really intended to be a cohesive collection of comics but rather a group project where everyone contributes somehow.

As such, a number of the stories are excerpts from longer stories printed elsewhere, which is one of my pet peeves when it comes to anthologies. Excerpts can be fine when carefully selected to fit in with other submission, but here it felt more like artists throwing in a few related pages of recent work. I say this as a fan of one excerpted story, Robyn Chapman's SOURPUSS, and as a fan in general of Colleen Frakes' work. The latter's MARYA AND DEATH seems intriguing, however, and it's interesting to see her once again take apart fables and fairy tales to create a new context for them. In a school where most of the artists enrolled are decidedly influenced by art-comics, it was odd to see Chrstine Williamson's manga-inspired excerpt. Her rendering style felt fairly derivative and inert, but it's hard to say much more about it given how little the reader was shown of the story.

There is quite a bit to like about this anthology, especially in the stories that had more finite boundaries. Caitlin Plovnick has a dark sense of humor and a great ear for dialogue, along with a sense of the absurd; combining high school dramatics and politics with the apocalypse was a masterstroke, and her ugly, scratchy style was a great fit. Lucy Knisley has nice chops as a cartoonist, and her story about femininity showed off the expressiveness of her character design. Penina Gal combines the storytelling approaches of John Porcellino (in his carefully studied minimalism) and David Heatley (in the active dreaminess of his scenarios) to create a charming, bizarre bit of narration.

Kubby Barry's retelling of the story of the Tortoise & the Hare cleverly has them pairing off against each other in a race of self-esteem. She was perhaps a bit overambitious in what she tried to render, yet she captured all of the story's emotional nuances. Emily Wieja once again contrasted light and dark to put together a few images and ideas--this time, it was a cloud and a snake. The unquestioned star of the issue in my view was Annie Murphy, whose brief story about a boy adopted by a magical horse was given a surprising level of depth, weight and pathos. The story had Murphy's usual concerns: the line between life and death, the possibility of connection, the relationship between humans and animals. Murphy is a good but not great draftsman, but she combats that with an impeccable design sense and bold use of blacks.

I'd like to see further volumes of all three of these anthology series. I like the tighter focus of the 4-square series, the design sense of the One Percent Press anthology and the sheer variety of INDELIBLE. The CCS artists who have improved the most tend to be those with the most diligent work ethic. Anthologies are a great way to force oneself to get better quickly so as to keep up with one's peers. There's tremendous potential in these pages, with some artists closer to fulfilling it at the moment than others.

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