Friday, August 5, 2011

The Sleeper Wakes: Mascots

Ray Fenwick is an unusual cartoonist in that his work starts with the plastic qualities of its text before anything else, including the signifying content of his words and the images & colors he chooses to place with them. In his first book, Hall of Best Knowledge, each page strictly held to this "typographical comic" formula, adding visual flourishes and details while still assembling what turned out to be a surprising narrative. His second book, Mascots (published in 2010), emphasizes the image much more than his first book, but it's less a narrative than a series of loosely-connected images that thread in and out of each other. What's interesting about this book is that while there may well be clear page-to-page connections, most of them are strictly in the mind of the artist. That's because of the methods used in constructing the book. To wit: Fenwick took the covers and back covers of cheap paperbacks and started drawing and painting on them. He usually started with text and worked some of them into images and comics. Certain images and ideas reoccur throughout the book, though none lead to any solid narrative ends.

Fenwick's use of fonts is fascinating, as he seems obsessed with their aesthetic and decorative qualities as a way of eliciting a certain kind of reaction. This book closely resembles the early work he did for Mome, where there's a certain kind of almost angry energy in the meaning of his words that's contrasted by an ornate font. The titular mascot of the book is a clown with a butterfly net, a ridiculous and impotent character who represents a sort of chase for meaning (or a narrative arc) that never quite materializes. He pops up at random intervals, acting as a sort of palate cleanser between text pieces. Fenwick slips between the absurd, the thoughtful, the existential and the sublime from page to page, keeping the reader off-balance but engaged.

The most delightfully ridiculous running set of images is that of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulu, going on and on in a florid manner about his awesomeness, his fearsomeness, why he doesn't usually appear as a cute puffball and why his most terrifying form is making you indecisive about your hairstyle. Other pages repeat phrases (like "You were in my dream last night"), differing only in terms of word placement and color, along with a modifying word at the top. There are missives to creators, paens to chill dudes named "Brandon", faces that pulse and undulate, bizarre masks, mysterious aphorisms, inquiries into whether babies see angels and ghosts (turning into a sequence straight out of a flip-book), and a benevolent laser-light projection urging the reader to "feel the humanity". Cthulu pops up again after a series of baffling logos, forcing the reader into an "eternal no a-ha moment".

Mascots flips from image to image with a dream logic that's sometimes whimsical, sometimes creepy, sometimes weird and always vivid. It's that vividness that gives the book its energy and an almost hallucinatory quality. Readers should not expect a coherent narrative but rather simply enjoy the ride. The strict formal constraint Fenwick gave himself (painting on those book covers created a strict rectangular canvas for every image) challenged him to create variations on that formal space on every page. The result is dynamic tension between the rigidly formal and the freely expressive, silly and dense.

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