Monday, July 18, 2011

New CCS Minis: Barrett, De Radigues, Christensen, Forsman, Burger

Time for another round of comics by alumni and former fellows at the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS).

The Stag #1 and #2, by Andrew James Christensen. Christensen just graduated this past year and this is the first work I've seen from him. These are the first two issues of a three issue series about an old man living in a snowy, post-apocalyptic environment on an island. Christensen uses a strict four-panel grid on a square page so as to alert the reader that every panel should receive equal emphasis when the eye passes over them. The panels are large enough to absorb at a quick rate so as not to linger too long on any one image. Christensen's line is simple, skillfully creating solidly composed panels with a minimum of fuss. The story is equally simple, as the old man negotiates what is clearly a tediously familiar environment until he runs across and accidentally kills a stag with a disturbingly human face. The second issue sees him going about his usual rituals after introducing the delicacy of stag meat, but his actions have repercussions that leave him wondering what's really going on. The most interesting aspect of the comic comes when he mounts the stag's head and begins talking to it as though it were a friend. I'll be very curious to see how the issue concludes and what direction Christensen pursues as an artist. It's clear that he has a great deal of potential.

Uitke and the Lucky Penny, by Jan Martyn Burger. Burger is another recent CCS grad who is also a puppeteer. This comic is a lovely story featuring Burger's gorgeous, feathery pencils and clear but strong line. The story concerns a girl named Uitke who finds a penny that allows its bearer to receive wishes. She discovers that each wish has its price, even those that weren't requested for herself. The wishes she made for her uncles (a thriving bakery and an invention that works) turn out to be disasters, and while the spirit she first meets that understands the nature of the penny tells her that something can't be unwished, Uitke learns that she can still help. The comic has the rhythm of a fairy tale, weaving in and out of its cleverly-rendered and dreamlike images into the mundane and troublesome realities of everyday life. Burger notes that the story evolved from family-spun tales and it's these little details that stand out, like the interaction between the girl's family members, the way the house is designed, the ancient forest and the way the girl's grandfather scolded her for flying in the house. Burger allows for a lot of silent beats in this story, adding a sense of the stillness of nature to the story. That stillness winds up being the dominant aspect of this comic, as one's allegiance to the land and family turns out to be more powerful than any wish. Burger seems like a natural to do a kids' comic for the likes of Toon Books, First Second or Scholastic; the languid nature of his storytelling makes for a nice contrast to the "louder", brighter and more frenetic styles of many comics for children.

Snake Oil #6: The Ground Is Soft, by Chuck Forsman. This is Forsman's best comic to date, and that's saying something considering the impressive output of his young career. Visually, Forsman has evolved out of his Chester Brown/Sammy Harkham stylizations and has found a style that's more fragile and stripped down. There's even a touch of Charles Schulz to be found in this story about a boy named Oliver and his relationships with his mother, father and step-mother. Set in some unspecified medieval civilization, the mini consists of a number of smaller vignettes that are scrambled chronologically, though both beginning and ending are clearly delineated. What I love most about this comic is what is not said or shown. Oliver's father Arthur is a soldier who is rewarded for his service with a second wife by the priesthood. All he hopes for his son is for him to become a priest instead of a soldier, but he is incapable of showing any form of affection. Along the way, Oliver must endure a variety of baffling and humiliating formal (including riding in "the goat boat", which is exactly what it sounds like) and informal (the unwelcome advances of that second wife) rites of passage. Oliver is Forsman's best-conceived character, with his pile of unkempt hair depicted in a few scratchy lines. The nature of the painful, doomed relationship between father and son is rendered all the more tragic given that both parties wanted to please the other but could never figure out how. The time-jumping nature of this story underscores the ways in which old wounds continued to stay fresh.

Moose #1 and #2, by Max De Radigues. This is a new, continuing series from the talented Belgian with the delicate, fragile line. De Radigues specializes in stories about teenagers, and this series focuses in on a young man negotiating the harshness of a cold climate. That harshness extends to nature itself, as he runs away from an unseen threat in the first issue, vaults a fence in a snow-covered environment, only to vomit as he tries to gasp for breath. That purging seems to energize him, even as he's still in the freezing cold. The second issue finds him avoiding taking a school bus and once again braving the snow to take a shortcut. He encounters a moose who looks like he's about to stomp him but instead is spared. Of course, when he gets to school he is not spared by his daily tormentor, who chokes him and draws a dick on his forehead. These are absolutely beautiful little objects and De Radigues' trembling but clear line and angular character design is perfectly matched to the subject matter.

Oak and Linden #3, by Pat Barrett. The rest of the artists in this article are notable for their restraint and spareness of line. Barrett goes in the other direction, using thick brush strokes and lush imagery to tell his stories. In the third issue of his one-man anthology, Barrett opens up with "Hicough & Belch", an extended adventure/argument between two blocky, bulbous creatures. The simple, cartoony gray-scaled creatures form a Mutt & Jeff kind of duo against a naturalistic background, arguing about nothing less than the meaning of life. The loose, elastic nature of his characters, their casual bawdiness and their odd patois give this comic a sort of Pogo/Krazy Kat quality. The other story is the second installment of a serial called "Petrified Girlfriend", about a young woman who gets cold in her boyfriend's bed and literally stops moving. This issue flashes back to the beginning of their relationship and then flashes to the woman waking up in a dense forest. This story is all about sweep and shock, as Barrett slowly rolls back a number of reveals until he unleashes a splash-page stunner that pushes the remainder of the story. If his first story showed off his chops in building a story around a conversation, then this one illustrates how well he can tell a story with visuals alone. I'm still not exactly sure what kind of artist Barrett will eventually choose to become, but he certainly has the skills to do whatever he wants.

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