Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Periodical Lives! Grotesque #3, Delphine #4, Uptight #2

Rob reviews the latest issues of a variety of series from Fantagraphics: UPTIGHT #3, by Jordan Crane; DELPHINE #4, by Richard Sala; and GROTESQUE #3, by Sergio Ponchione. The latter two comics are from the Ignatz line and co-published by Igort's Coconiono Press.

The recent news that Diamond won't be listing comics that fail to meet a certain threshold of orders had an immediate and deleterious effect on a number of well-regarded comics. Series like INJURY, CRICKETS and OR ELSE have been cancelled (some more directly related to the change than others), which is unfortunate for a scene that built up its following through serialized comics. Not every cartoonist draws a full-length graphic novel, and this really hurts a lot of those artists who specialize in short stories. Thankfully, Fantagraphics is still chugging along in producing actual comic books, even if current length and format is perhaps a bit different than the 90s.

Jordan Crane's UPTIGHT series is a lo-fi throwback of a series printed on cheap paper. This issue starts not one but two serials, done in completely different styles. "Vicissitude" is a typically downbeat relationship comic from Crane, who seems to specialize in the depiction of doomed couples. It's about a mechanic who starts to (correctly) suspect that his girlfriend is cheating on him. Crane's line is elegant but unfussy, with slightly scratchy character designs that have a grace and fluidity to them reminiscent of Jaime Hernandez. The way Crane draws Peter, the woman's secret lover, is remarkable: he's all smugness and smirks, with a cigarette cocked in the corner of his mouth. Crane's cover perfectly describes the dilemma of Dee, the girlfriend: she's frumpy and tired but also a cauldron of unfulfilled sexual desires--but sating those desires is bringing about a horrible sense of guilt.

Crane's other story in the issue is "Freeze Out", which stars his characters from his book THE CLOUDS ABOVE. This is Crane as child-book author, completely eschewing spotting blacks or adding any greyscaling. The story's about a boy and his talking cat getting in trouble with a friend in school. On the way to the principal's office, they stop off to help the school handyman in attempting to fix a cooling system. What they find is something blocking the vents, whose true motive are hidden until it's far too late. Even in this children's story with moments of slapstick, there are a lot of dark moments--especially the ending. The character design here is a bit simpler and more exaggerated than "Vicissitude", but both stories share a cartoony sense of character design dominated by Crane's elegant line. Both stories seem perfectly suited for this format.

GROTESQUE has been one of the most playful entries in the underappreciated Ignatz line. Sergio Ponchionne has a very "American" quality to his line in terms of his line (thick and rubbery) and character design (a series of homages to masters like EC Segar and more contemporary figures like Charles Burns). Issue #2, the first part of the "Cryptic City" storyline, introduced a city where citizens were under the heel of two corrupt barons and forced to pay for emotions. A Crumb-like figure named Professor Hackensack was charged by the god figure of GROTESQUE, named Mr. O'Blique, to set things right. Issue #2 unfurled a city where 1984-style paranoia, fairy tales, religious iconography, Lovecraftian figures, gothic settings and detective novel cliches all inhabited the same space. That heady stew was reduced to what amounted to a series of chase scenes in #3 that surprisingly resolved the story in a fairly pat (if weird) manner. The story was still enjoyable, but not quite the visual brain scrambler that the first two issues of this series presented. That said, Ponchionne's sight gags in this issue were something to behold, like a dead baron's tombstone growing arms and legs and coming after his brothers. What I liked best about the issue was that the focus of Hackensack's quest, a skull containing the Meaning of Life, proved to just be a McGuffin. I will assume that the fourth issue of this series will pick up on the events of the cliffhanger from issue #1; I'll be curious to see how Ponchionne is able to tie all of these story threads together in a way that is satisfying.

Reading Sala's DELPHINE has been a somewhat frustrating experience. Sala's comics are so tense that it's difficult to wait for another chapter to spring up. This was certainly true of his stories that ran in ZERO ZERO, for example. Issue #4 of DELPHINE was the conclusion of the series, and it certainly did not disappoint. This comic has been a warped retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, this time from the perspective of the prince trying to find his fair maiden and rescue her from the clutches of the wicked queen. Sala processeed that idea through a young college grad coming across a town where the discovery that Things Are Not What They Seem quickly cycled through to Waking Nightmare. The reader got some key flashbacks in this issue that revealed a bit more about Delphine's past (filtered through the hero's dreams and ending badly). Those dreams may have seemed like mere infodump but the structure they represented was key to understanding the end of the issue.

Sala is probably my favorite horror/suspense artist because of the scratchy, spontaneous nature of his design. There's definitely an EC influence there in terms of the design of his monsters and grotesques, but with a much freer and more playful line. The casual nature of the dialogue is another Sala trademark, emphasized when the protagonist is exasperated by the weird speech of those he encounters in the bizarre hamlet he traveled to. It's interesting to see which elements of the Snow White story that this series picked up on, especially the way in which an obsession with the ideals of sexual purity warped an entire community. In this case, Delphine was far from pure, but her evil step-mother reclaimed her purity in a disturbing fashion...and her presence attracted others. Casting the evil stepmother/witch as a Bible-thumper was clever, especially in how religious fervor is conflated with the effects of being under a spell, but Sala was wise not to overdo this aspect of the story. The undertone of this book was the desperate quality possessed by the protagonist, an obsessiveness that put him squarely in harm's way and ultimately sealed his fate. There's a fake-out of an ending that's followed by the real fate of the protagonist, who looks mournfully out towards the audience with his one good eye after being transformed into a monstrous dwarf. DELPHINE benefitted from the Ignatz format: big pages that let the backgrounds breathe, nice paper, and creepy one-tone color. It was a perfect format for a fairy tale gone horribly wrong.

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