Saturday, December 17, 2011

Checking In With Caitlin Cass

Caitlin Cass is a young cartoonist mining territory not unlike that of Kate Beaton. In my review of some comics of hers from 2010, I noted that "As she figures out her style, her already-sharp wit will be better served by clearer, more dynamic and simpler images." It's clear that this is precisely what she has done in her most recent work, part of a series of minicomics she sends out in the mail. (The series is called "Great Moments In Western Civilization Postal Constituent"). Design and details like lettering have become much crisper, more powerful and fluid. Her wit remains intact, but she's directing that in a more coherent fashion as well. Beaton's work is primarily comedic, using her knowledge of history and literature as a framework for jokes. While humor is also an important element of Cass' work, it's frequently more subdued and less gag-oriented. It's clear that she's still steeped in her unusual corner of academic obsessions, which is not surprising considering her training at St John's College, an institution devoted to studying the Great Books of the Western World.

What Cass learned from her earlier comics is that it's not enough to simply make references to philosophers and hope the reader gets something out of it. She learned to synthesize her particular and personal ruminations regarding the work of certain thinkers with a visual approach that's engaging for the reader and fairly fully-realized. Take V2 #12 of the Postal Constituent; it's all about Friedrich Nietzsche. This was done on cardstock with duo-tone blues. That's eye-catching on its own, but her character design is simple and striking. The story focuses on Nietzsche's last days, when he was faced with the logical endpoint of his philosophy and lived it all the way through. Claiming "I am god. This farce is my creation." is as close as possible a bridge between what would become existentialism and humanism, yet that path led to madness. Feeling oneself responsible for all of the evils of the world is the logical extreme for Nietzsche's particular brand of megalomania.

"A Thing About Things" (V2, #4), is a huge illustration on a single sheet of paper that also unfolds. It evokes a certain 19th century feel in terms of the way the illustration is carefully designed, constructed and labeled. It's a quasi-farcical history of "things" and man's relationship to them. Cass still doesn't quite have the chops to pull off the complexity of this illustration (her drafting skills are a little wobbly), but it's an ambitious attempt. "Relics" (V2, #1) is a more personal story about the hermeneutics of discovering a shard from a plate as a child. It was found at the site of the first building in her town, and the mere possession of it led to Cass creating creating connections between the shard and its potential history and ramifications. The shard can only be understood in terms of its larger historical context, but that history is brought to life but discovering the artifact. One can see the leap Cass made as an artist between this issue and later issues, both in terms of simple drawing ability and the ambitiousness of her design.

Finally, "The Arabian Babbler" (V2, #8) is a standard minicomic distinguished by some striking illustrations and the boldness of her lettering style. This is the only one of the comics here that deals explicitly with another one of her interests, which is the history of science. That particular field of study is closely linked to philosophy because it is based so heavily on theory, as the works of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper demonstrate. This comic is a more light-hearted but no less pointed critique of the ways in which science can become rigid and its conclusions applied in misguided ways that can be harmful. In it, a scientist comes to certain conclusions about human nature because of a species of bird that gave things to other birds for no good reason. He concluded (certainly not the first conclusion sound reached with a faulty premise) that altruism was counter-evolutionary and we should stop doing it--until he observed a bird stealing something. He experienced not so much a paradigm shift as a paradigm shattering. Cass's drawings of birds make this a distinctive and beautiful comic, especially in the way she combines word and image. Cass is starting to become an artist well worth taking notice of, and I'm excited at the possibilities of a longer-form work from her at some point.

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