Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sequart Reprints: Alex Cahill

So far in this column, I've mostly done broad overviews, and irregularly at that. But I've received a number of submissions that demand my attention, and so I'll have a new review every Saturday for the next several weeks.

First up is Alex Cahill's THE LAST ISLAND ($6, It's Cahill's first comic since getting a Xeric grant for 2005's SOMETHING SO FAMILIAR. For those not familiar with the grant, it's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle co-creator Peter Laird's foundation that gives financial assistance to comics creators' publishing efforts. A lot of great artists got their first serious attention through the Xeric (which is a series of columns in and of itself some day), and Cahill's work certainly shows promise.

THE LAST ISLAND is (mostly) wordless, and it meshes its emotional and psychological themes nicely with its stylistic approach. The first thing one notices about it is Cahill's interesting design sense. First off, it's printed in landscape, which gives the entire enterprise a flip-book feel. Cahill's art is simple and bold, using thick black lines to delineate his figures and using black/white contrasts throughout the comic. Using a simple style was an important decision considering that the visuals had to carry the entire narrative. Considering that the narrative (by design) strains credulity, the reader's ability to clearly follow the story's flow was imperative to engaging the work.

The plot is deceptively simple, but I will need warn prospective readers right now of certain spoilers. A blonde young man is living the good life on an impossibly tiny desert island. He's barechested and looks like he's been living there for years. His routine is disrupted by an object falling from the sky: a wheel of some kind. As he sleeps, the current floats him out to a city. Terrified, he manages to swim his way back to the bucolic pleasures of his island. Out of nowhere, another young man appears on his island, speaking on a cel phone. This dark-haired man is well-dressed and possesses a kind of restless energy that immediately distresses the blonde-haired man. The blonde, disturbed by the brunette taking yet another phone call, grabs the phone and smashes it. The brunette retaliates by chopping down one of the blonde's beloved palm trees.

That starts a cycle of mutual aggression. The brunette uses a rope to lasso the city and bring it over next to the island. If the reader hadn't yet started to question the logic of the situation by now, that action would certainly do it. The brunette beaned the stunned blonde from his high vantage point in one of his city-buildings, and the blonde retaliated by smashing a building with a felled tree. As their conflict intensifies, more parts start to fall from the sky, and it becomes clear that the parts belong to an airplane. They're down to one intact tree and one intact building when the full cockpit appears, and the pair form an uneasy alliance as they rebuild the plane. Just as they finish, thousands of slips of black & white paper fall from the sky. On each slip is a squiggle that looks a bit like a wave.

We cut to a psychiatrist's office where we see the blonde man on a couch (and he's wearing all black). His analyst shows him a Rorschach blot that is in fact the squiggle that we not only saw in the last panel of the main story, but also kicked off the whole book. It's a reveal that seems a bit cheap at first ("it was all just a dream!") but resonates with multiple layers of meaning upon reflection. What seemed to be a breezy bit of magical realism was in fact a complex self-reflection by a character who has a number of inner conflicts. In retrospect, it becomes obvious that both of the characters on the island were two sides of the same person, in continuous conflict. The island persona was one that wanted to be free of entanglements, almost irresponsibly free and delighting in solipsism. The city boy was connected to the outside world, but seemed glib and clearly looked down on the island boy. The airplane represented a way of merging the two personalities, of getting them to share their curiousity and work together. The twist in the story is not the reveal of the psychiatrist's office; an astute reader could probably have guessed that this was a fantasy or dream sequence of some kind. The twist is that the dream sequence is one that solved one man's inner struggles, but did so without the aid of the analyst, who thought the session was a waste of time.

Overall, this was an intriguing work with a bold design sense that requires the reader to do a bit of work. Both its ambitions and rewards were modest, but nonetheless quite satisfying for a reader willing to think about what's happening on the page. At the very least, I'm interested in seeing what Cahill will do next. Artistically, his work could use some refinement. I love bold, simple art styles but Cahill hasn't quite simplified enough to make his line seem effortless to the reader. One can sense that his style is still evolving, and hopefully will acquire a greater fluidity. As to the present, Cahill took a simple set of ideas and arranged them in such a way as to create a compelling and ambiguous narrative. He didn't overreach or undercook his ideas, and the result was both clever and thought-provoking.
SOMETHING SO FAMILIAR, by Alex Cahill. Cahill's THE LAST ISLAND was the first submission I reviewed for this column. SOMETHING SO FAMILIAR actually preceded that work, earning a Xeric grant. This comic is also a mute story, an account of the dreams and nightmares of a man who's lost his will to live. There are a couple of killer visual sequences here that make use of a certain kind of panel-to-panel rhythm. One the left half of the page, we follow an argument between a husband and wife--the viewer's perspective is flat here, as though they were in the room with them. On the second half of the page, we zoom in panel-by-panel onto a building, into a bedroom. When the two columns converge, the relationship between the two becomes obvious and tragic.

The second great sequence is when the protagonist jumps off a building to end it all, but finds the result isn't quite what he expected. Cahill obviously loves drawing cities and cityscapes. I'm guessing this is due in part to the way he can use stark black & white contrasts, which is the hallmark of his art. The sequence where the main character flies over the city, flipping between his rapturous face, his tortured memories and the sheer majesty and terror of skyscrapers, cleverly ties together the book's themes. This is a man who lives in a claustrophobic environment and is slowly being driven to suicide by not only his own guilt but by the relentless barrage of oppressive stimuli. It makes perfect sense that the comic is silent, because the character's inability to communicate in the first place is what led to tragedy.

Cahill is not quite a good enough draftsman to pull off everything he tries here. He over-renders a lot of panels and sacrifices a great deal of clarity. While his drawings have a lot of energy, this story demanded something a bit cooler and more restrained. A greater economy of line, and especially a more judicious use of blacks, would have made the book's panel-to-panel and page-to-page transitions much smoother. Still, there's a sophistication in both theme & composition in this comic, and I hope to see more solo works by Cahill.

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