Saturday, June 6, 2009

More From CCS: Dan Archer, Colleen Frakes, Jose-Luis Olivares, Jeremiah Piersol

Rob reviews some recent releases from some CCS grads and alumni. Included are WOMAN KING by Colleen Frakes, ARCHCOMIX #1 by Dan Archer, END OF EROS & POLITE FICTION #1 by Jose-Luis Olivares and THE MARVYNS: PROPER DECEPTION, by Jeremiah Piersol.

Let's look at some recent work by some graduating students and an alumnus of the Center For Cartoon Studies (CCS). The four projects reviewed couldn't be any more different from each other. Dan Archer's comic continues along the lines of the sort of polemics one might see in WORLD WAR 3 ILLUSTRATED. Jose-Luis Olivares' comics fall very much into the "mark-making" school of comics, with thick blotchy lines carrying the narrative almost exclusively. Colleen Frakes continues with her modern myth-making rooted in sex & identity, while Jeremiah Piersol pens a wild tale that owes a great deal to Gilbert Hernandez in its willingness to break boundaries as well as some of its visual flourishes.

WOMAN KING, by Colleen Frakes. Frakes' work reminds me a bit of Eleanor Davis in the way she works in myth and allegory, putting a modern spin on it. WOMAN KING is the final product of a story that's appeared in various stages in anthologies and minis, about a very young girl who is named "king" of the bears, who take up arms against their human enemies. Like Davis, there's a sensitivity in her line that borders on fragility, informing the actions and gestures of her characters. Earlier versions of the story felt overrendered, but the final output has a simplicity and delicacy to its line that put total trust in her own character designs and their ability to convey emotional information.

The delicacy of Frakes' line is usually juxtaposed against a certain savagery of subject matter. In a Frakes comic, someone is usually going to get killed or maimed, and I've always admired the rather matter-of-fact way this is delivered. Old fairy tales were rife with all sorts of mayhem (and sometimes even for instructive purposes), and Frakes recreates that feeling in her comic. The structure of this comic is one of its strengths, as we follow the girl from age 3 to 5 to 7 to 9 and so on, up to age 18. The most distinctive contrast in the book is the innocence of the girl with the ferocity of the bears, who are seeking bloody vengeance on all humans for taking their land. The book brings up questions of the difference between justice and revenge. The child is quietly miraculous, bringing down sheep from her dreams, only to look on horrified as the starving bears feast on them.

At a certain point, the bears' vengeance turns bloodier and bloodier, eclipsing the girls' ability to understand her role. For the bear leader, she's a sort of symbol or token, a way to weaken their enemies in a talismanic fashion. When the leader finally tires of war and plans to marry the girl off to a human king, he's not cognizant of the metamorphosis the girl has made: for all intents and purposes, she considers herself a bear, one of "us" and not "them". This transformation became complete after the girl met a human boy and was then inadvertently betrayed by him, completing the circuit of a cycle of violence. Frakes deliberately quotes back key dialogue and symbolic actions toward the end of the book, emphasizing the cyclical nature of revenge and how it feeds on itself, exploiting the innocent. Frakes is careful not to be heavy-handed in delivering this message, allowing the reader to tease it out (with the exception of the last image in the book, which spells it out just a bit). Frakes' work is all about how we perceive and react to the Other, set against a pleasant line that invites the reader to deeply and fully immerse themselves in the story.

ARCHCOMIX #1, by Dan Archer. With a silkscreened cover image of Richard Nixon, one could instantly tell that this was going to be an attack comic. I've always been made somewhat uneasy by comics that were both directly political and prescriptive, since it's easy for such work to fall into propaganda. Art falls by the wayside in such efforts, serving only to advance a particular rhetorical position. Such comics also tend to stop trying to tell a story and fall into lecture bullet points. I thought this was true at times in Archer's WHAT A WHOPPER, which is what made this collection of short stories such a welcome departure.

Certainly, Archer's political edge is still in full force. "Lunch On K Street" is a lecture about how lobbying is done disguised as a human interest story, and that disguise works quite nicely. "Global Meltdown" is a bit of a fantasy revenge story, but it's also a bluntly accurate comparison of Wall Street predators as deer caught in the headlights. One reason why this comic works well is that Archer varies his tone, writing glowingly positive accounts of a woman who works on a cruelty-free farm and a group of amusing gay marriage protesters. His best short strips are those where a story is laid out but the reader is given more leeway to make their own judgments. "Take Me Out To The Gun Show" is an incisive but playful bit of reportage that allows its targets to hang themselves, while "Beggars" is a memorable anecdote about how a micro-trend of beggars on a bridge (one with horrible gangrene) hints at larger problems.

The centerpiece of the issue is the first part of "The First 9/11", about the US government's direct hand in an infamous military coup in Chile in 1970. Being of Chilean descent, I was already well aware of many of the facts of this incident, yet Archer created a compelling and chilling narrative about the hows and whys of the coup. The source documents he used to spin this story were equally fascinating. What is hinted at but not fleshed out in this part of the story was the way Chile wound up as a lab for the laissez-faire economic theories of Milton Friedman, and how this eventually nearly ruined the nation.

As an artist, Archer needs to play to his strengths, which sometimes contrasts with his storytelling aims. He's not a very strong naturalistic artist, leading to some stiff figures and clumsily-designed characters. When he relaxes and allows himself to work in a slightly cartoonier style, his pages come alive. I'm not saying he needs to marry his political interests with a bigfoot style, but rather ensure that his visuals aren't working against his story. A little exaggeration and a little playfulness with his character design will relax a reader, allowing them to more fully absorb what the artist is trying to say. That's another reason his Chile strip was so effective: he quickly abandoned trying to recreate realistic renditions of Nixon and Henry Kissinger and instead created simpler caricatures that readers could easily identify and move on from. As he continues to loosen up his line, his political comics will only have a much greater impact. I hope that he continues to develop the Chile story, expand it, and redraw certain sections; it could be a potentially fascinating, explosive statement.

END OF EROS and POLITE FICTION #1, by Jose-Luis Olivares. While Olivares is certainly interested in narrative, he's also interested in the visceral qualities of each panel he's drawing. The texture of line, the visual effect of tools like zip-a-tone and the way blacks are spotted are as much on his mind as the story he's telling. This gives his stories a certain raw power and influences his subject matter. In particular, he's fascinated with the way eschatology converges into creation myth. In END OF EROS, a couple engaging in sex literally become physically merged at the same time this happens to millions of others. Taking this to its logical outcome, you have a race of huge, misshapen creates with diffuse and now-primitive wills lumbering about the world. Olivares goes crazy with his monstrous character designs, gleefully approaching this sort of Gnostic idea with a smudgy line and dialogue that devolves into primitive symbology. This is a sort of shaggy dog of a comic, as he stretches and stretches the idea out for a number of pages, but the climax is still reasonably satisfying.

POLITE FICTION starts with "Creation Myth", a story that begins with what we think is a retelling of Adam & Eve but is really about how vowels were created. It's a bit of a visual lark, cleverly designed. The more interesting stories were "Buh", a series of strips about a primitive man engaging in silent adventures and discovering things like art and magic; and "Munster", another wordless tale about a creature kept in a basement who gets out. The former is Olivares' best cartooning: cleverly designed characters, clarity in line despite its chunkiness, and funny punchlines (and sometimes not-quite-punchlines). I don't think he quite had the chops to pull off the desired effect in the latter story, as the creature emerged into a huge, ornate church and was then ordered back downstairs by the hand of god. There's enough information given to have the joke make sense, but with perhaps a lesser level of impact if we had seen something a bit more naturalistically rendered. That said, Olivares is certainly an artist who will benefit from being highly prolific. There's no question that he's imaginative and has an interesting point of view; the rest will start to coalesce as he keeps writing. He's actually only finished his first year at CCS, so we'll see what he builds up to next year.

THE MARVYNS: PROPER DECEPTION, by Jeremiah Piersol. This comic felt like a weird, alternate-world version of Gilbert Hernandez's LOVE & ROCKETS X. Set in Los Angeles, that comic was the intersection of racial tension, punk rock, the sex lives of teens, the status of being a foreigner in the US and much more. It had a huge, sprawling cast and was filled with ambiguity. THE MARVYNS takes a number of cues from Beto. First, the cast is similarly huge and quirkily memorable. Second, it concerns itself with what lies beneath the surface of polite society. Third, Piersol owes a lot to Beto's character design and rubbery line. Piersol's line is not graceful or flowing, but has a sort of fascinating ugliness to it, much like the characters in Hernandez's world. In THE MARYVNS, even the good-looking characters are ugly.

The main difference between the artists is that Piersol is less interested in contocting a balanced stew of fleshed-out characters than he is in cooking up an over-the-top social satire. This is a story in the tradition of Roger Corman: sex as a form of power relation and exploitation, freely mixed in with violence, degradation, social humiliation and every other soap opera trope in the book. When one of the main characters in the vast ensemble explains away being late to work by making up a story about her daughter trying to kill herself, one gets the sense that there are no limits here. Piersol introduces each character vignette with a fake ad that promises total transformation by way of material consumption (like a clothing ad whose tagline reads "Let's start a revolution").

Another influence here is the story (and later film) Short Cuts, one where a number of characters live out there lives and cross over briefly (and sometimes significantly) with other characters. But in THE MARVYNS, every character's story is an operatic one. So we are introduced to a man who was rejected for a loan at a bank one of the characters worked at, promising to blow himself and the bank up with dynamite strapped to his body. We meet a woman who not only has a crush on the woman from earlier in the story, we find out she's a practicing witch casting a spell to capture her heart.

It's a larger-than-life comic, and this 64-page promo version was even printed big: 9" x 12". Every vignette has a crazy twist or weird development that covers as many aspects of the seedy underside of polite society as possible. Subtle is not what Piersol's going for here, but he makes going big and loud work for him. At the moment, he doesn't quite have the chops to create as many varied character designs as he'd like; there's a certain sameness to some of the characters in the book. While his characters have great facial expressions, their body language is sometimes a bit awkward and stiff. This book really needs to flow from story to story to create that sweeping, soap opera feel, and the stiffness of some characters hinders that flow (that's especially true of the male characters in the book). One can forgive this because of the level of his ambition and cleverness, but I do wonder if the finished version of this story will be published as is or if any pages will be redrawn. Piersol is another one of those CCS grads who are utterly devoted to comics and have just finished an intense experience that has made them better cartoonists because it afforded them the time and opportunity to do nothing but draw and write. As long as he continues to refine his style and loosen up just a bit, he has the potential to do some very eye-catching and provocative stories.

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