Saturday, March 21, 2009

Short Reviews: Travel, Beeswax, Angst, I Saw You...,

Rob offers up a number of short reviews of various comics. Included are TRAVEL by Yuichi Yokoyama (Picturebox); BEESWAX #5 featuring the comics of Lydia Conklin; ANGST, an anthology of Norwegian comics from Jippi; I SAW YOU..., an anthology of missed connections stories edited by Julia Wertz.

Yuichi Yokoyama's TRAVEL was a stealth "best of 2008" comic for many. It's a comic that is of interest strictly due to its formal innovations, which make up the entirety of the story. It's a silent story about three men who board a commuter train, and then get off the train at the end and look out at a waterfront. The end. This book is all about the journey, as Yokohama stunningly plays with time, motion, light and perspective in mind-bending ways. As the train is in motion, the three men are also walking forward, tugging at the reader's eye and daring it to keep up. There are weird, unexplained tensions felt among the characters and the people they encounter, but much like anyone's experience riding a train, we can only guess at the stories of those around us.

ANGST is a collection of short works from a variety of Norwegian artists, translated into English. Jason is the biggest name featured here (with two stories I haven't seen elsewhere), but in general this is a varied and beautiful anthology. It's perhaps structured and edited a bit haphazardly, but it's obvious that this book is an attempt to get the works of its featured artists out to an English-speaking audience. The number of approaches in this book are remarkably varied, with each artist pulling from almost completely disparate sets of influences. While the entire collection is strong, the main highlights include a strip by Lars Fiske & Steffen Kverneland and their quest to rediscover the works of 20th century Norwegian cartoonist Olaf Gulbransson; a hauntingly weird strip called "Borre is Dead" by Odd Henning Skyllinstad featuring anthropomorphic penguins; and a hilarious silent strip by Knut Naerum titled "Liberation", about an animal lover's good deeds getting punished. I had the rare experience of wishing this anthology was longer when I finished it, and there was little in the way of filler or perfunctory material. I hope that Norwegian publisher Jippi publishes further volumes.

Up and coming cartoonist Lydia Conklin was the featured artist in the fifth issue of BEESWAX, a mixed-media literary magazine that features poetry and short stories as well as comics. She continues to specialize in comics about children and the societies they form around each other, as well as the deep sense of mystery and awe between children and animals. Conklin has the uncanny ability to tap into the psyche of children, as seen in strips like "The Quietest Meal of the Year". That strip features several scenes of kids at summer camp holding utterly chaotic court, living their lives out loud. Then it switches to one of the girls at the table back at home, eating in silence, clearly suffocated by being forced back into an old role by her parents.

"The Hair" is a grotesque but funny strip about a girl chewing on a strand of her hair until it's tied so tightly around her tongue that she has to go to the emergency room. After it's removed, she finds that she's become hooked on the experience--a form of self-exploration and self-mutilation of sorts and one that clearly baffles adults. "One Second" sees a girl encounter a dog at camp, their eyes locking for a moment and then moving on. One can sense the girl knowing that the dog is looking at her, knowing that the girl is looking at it. That kind of mutual self-affirmation has even greater power considering that it felt like a secret or a mystery, that humans and animals aren't supposed to have these sorts of encounters. A similar feeling emerges from "Lubi", only this time it's tinged by a loss made more painful in that others around the girl protagonist didn't feel it as well. Finally, the two related "Riley" strips feature a girl who is moved to England and the extreme discomfort and alienation she feels, especially with her sole friend who is clearly in love with her. These strips don't quite have the same emotional power as the other stories from Conklin, who is most effective when her subject matter (and line) is at its rawest. It's that emotional rawness and unsentimental presentation of how children think and act among themselves that has made Conklin's comics debut such a forceful one.

I SAW YOU... in general has a very high hit to miss ratio, given that editor Julia Wertz had an open submissions policy. The way the anthology was structured was both a strength and weakness. The concept is simple: cartoonists adapting "missed connections" ads. Wertz provided the artist with a bunch of ads and they chose one to illustrate (or did something on their own). Those ads tend to be equal parts funny, sad and pathetic, which is the perfect blend for cartoonists. The strips that were most successful were the ones that turned the text on its head in unexpected ways--either for humorous or horrific effect. The least successful strips were the most straightforward; on their own, they were fine, but that cumulative effect of that much sameness led to pages and artists blurring together.

Given that constraint of theme leading to some repetition, this is still an unusually strong collection with a number of standout entries. While making notes on the article, I name-checked nearly two dozen different creators whose strips stood out. Damien Jay's was the most formally clever while still working in the spirit of the assignment. His strip flowed from character to character, as they "spoke" their ad to their intended, and then moved on to another obsessive person. Ken Dahl and Laura Park both mined similar territory in their multiple strips, matching ridiculous prose ("let's try to show each other the full 'stick'") with misanthropes, losers, and creeps for an experience both comedic and unsettling. That realization that these ads are an expression of obsession and not necessarily something to be flattered by was brought home in Sarah Morean's funny strip about her own secret admirer and the eventual sinking feeling that she was being stalked. Mike Wenthe & Isaac Cates reversed that realization when someone who placed one of those ads on craigslist gets a vicious reply that sets him straight.

Robin Enrico and Damon "The Ink Lab" Brown have entries that are interesting mostly because of their extreme stylization. Enrico cleverly depicted a flirty arm-wrestling match as though it were a video game (a go-to graphic specialty of his), while Brown used unusual angles and line thicknesses combined with a deliberately busy use of word balloons to show us a bustling street-side encounter. On the other end, Gabrielle Bell and Kazimir Strzepek delve into the nature of human connections, with Bell relishing a conversation that resulted from her reaching the wrong person over the phone and Kaz using a seemingly unconnected narrator for a character rushing into work, only to deliver a crushing blow at the end. The layout for both strips is entirely conventional, but both artists thoughtfully explored the anthology's theme in interesting ways.

Most of the best strips in the book are played for comedic effect. Some of them work because the drawings themselves are funny, like Colleen Frakes' hilarious drawing of a hockey player as crush object or Peter Bagge's evisceration of text with his over-the-top stylings. Other strips with great punchlines include those by Jesse Reklaw, Lisa Hanawalt (who also contributes a funny drawing), Tom Hart, Wertz herself and Joey Sayers. Sayers takes an image from an ad and runs with it in the most absurd way possible. There are at least a dozen other worthwhile strips in this anthology, which has contributions from a great number of the most talented young cartoonists working today and a number of veterans as well. If the theme intrigues a reader in any way, then it's certainly a must-read.

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