Monday, January 30, 2012

Three Minis By Grant Thomas

Grant Thomas is a cartoonist who enjoys working with and around formal constraints to achieve varying effects. His one-man anthology series Dodo provides a grab-bag of stories told in such a manner, revealing his interest in the way other arts can be expressed through comics. In #2, his "Homage To Leone" is a series of panels derived from the Sergio Leone "spaghetti Western" The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Given that that film is famous for its tight close-ups on the principal actors, it was only natural to take that a step further and freeze those famous images on paper. I like the looseness of Thomas' pencils here in avoiding a simple copy of frames, but he loses it a bit in the final panel with a figure that's too sloppy. "Drawing From Life" is an amusing but unremarkable anecdote about art school and nude models, with a whimsical line that heightens the humor of the situation. "Visions of Johanna's Concert" is a Comics Pantoum, which involves a repetition of panels from line to line in a specific, rigid pattern. It's comics-as-poetry of a different kind, emphasizing form over content. That form was somewhat interesting but ultimately didn't make much of an impact in terms of how the strip was read. "Why Have You Shut Your Eyes?" shows Thomas using a more decorative line as a sort of homage to religious art in this anecdote about an encounter between a man and a demon.

His mini My Life In Records #1 has a much tighter focus: autobiography as mediated by his experience listening to records. Starting from his earliest memories, this issue focuses on anecdotes about him and his younger brother. They are represented as anthropomorphic versions of the stuffed animals they held dear: in Thomas' case, a rabbit, and in his brother's case, a bear. It looks very much like they're wearing animal masks, a familiar but effective trope. This book reminds me a bit of Jesse Reklaw's Couch Tag autobio series in that deeper personal truths are expressed through a mediating factor of some kind, but there's not much darkness to be found in this comic. Indeed, it's more a spirited tribute to his brother and the memories they shared experiencing and creating art. That creativity is at the heart of Thomas' work, a kind of restlessness that demands thinking about storytelling in a number of different ways and trying to find any number of different methods of expressing oneself.

As a cartoonist, Thomas' formal thinking sometimes exceeds the grasp of his draftsmanship. Some of his images look over-rendered and more under-rendered, as though he's struggling to find a style that he's fully comfortable with. That struggle emerges in the micro-mini Submarine, which cleverly folds in on itself to amusingly tell the tale of a doomed vessel. The drawings themselves just aren't quite interesting enough to hold my attention, nor is the joke beyond the format itself funny enough to prevent that from mattering. Thomas is certainly getting more assured as he continues to experiment in public, and I expect his formal boldness to match up with the maturity of his linework sooner rather than later.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Changing Fortunes: Streakers

Nick Maandag's Streakers is an odd little book. There's much about this comic that's traditional, even conservative, in the way it tells a story. It's a slice-of-life comic about three losers who have little in common but their unusual mutual obsession. All three of them go through crises of self-confidence and loneliness as all they really have is each other, which is a dubious prize at best. The figures are somewhat flat and stiff, while the hatching and cross-hatching are almost mechanical in effect. What sets this book apart is that the three protagonists are all streakers, a phenomenon once confined to fad status in the 1970s that occasionally lives on in frat houses across America.

The two main characters in the book are a middle-aged streaker named Xavier who can never quite reclaim the fleeting glory achieved streaking during a marathon in his youth, and a nebbishy younger man who hasn't yet screwed up the courage to actually streak. That character, Tim, is a hilarious sad sack who is subjected to a series of humiliations at his job. Harboring dreams of being a chef, he's a dishwasher who's eventually demoted to "junior dishwasher"--with all of the other dishwashers being named as "senior dishwashers". Amazingly, Maandag creates real pathos and depth for this trio of losers, as the reader comes to care about their struggles.

The fact that so very little is at stake here makes their quest to return streaking to its former status of cultural phenomenon all the more compelling. Everything about this book is both quiet and unassuming in its comedic approach, and outrageous only in that its protagonists are naked throughout much of the book (and not especially attractive). The flatness of Maandag's line highlights the characters' nudity without going too far in the direction of the grotesque or the exaggerated for the sake of a laugh. The end of the book has a surprising moment of human empathy followed by an exhilarating bit of silliness and a moment of epiphany for the boorish Xavier. Mining the humor of discomfort while still managing to get the reader to empathize with these weirdos is a neat trick for Maandag, whose potential as a humorist is intriguing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Checking In With Rob Jackson

Rob Jackson continues to be one of the most prolific minicomics makers in the world, as crazy ideas seem to flow out of him faster than he get them down on paper. While his draftsmanship remains rudimentary at best, there's a delightful wit to be found in his comics. I got the impression that his most recent comics "It's A Man's Life In The Ice Cream Business" and "Flying Leaf Creature" were more about him just wanting to tear through an experience and record it in the former example and playing with a new format and color in the latter.

"It's A Man's Life..." (the title is a take-off on an old slogan for the British military service) is an autobio story of Jackson abandoning his cushy job in order to sell home-made ice cream and soup at local farmer's markets. Jackson gets into the nitty-gritty of how he tried to find new markets, the experience of trying to offer something no one else did and the frustrations that went along with the times where ice cream wasn't selling. This is a very British comic in that Jackson discusses how certain fruits are only enjoyed by people in a small radius, but that a ice cream made from that fruit becomes a real delicacy in that market. Jackson's dry, self-deprecating wit (the notion to quit his job comes from a Cat Wizard talking to him at work) and bespectacled, blank-eyed self-caricature give what is otherwise a straight procedural comic a large degree of warmth and humor. While his line here is strictly for utilitarian purposes, there are portions of the comic where his drawing is rather lovely, like when he's drawing old cottages and vegetation. The second issue of the series is more of the same, as Jackson tries to create new flavors and figure out new wares to offer. Battles with the weather and other cheese & ice cream distributors emerge as new annoyances for a family trying to make a living in an unconventional manner.

Jackson is perhaps better known for his sardonic fantasy comics, and "Flying Leaf Creature" is an interesting variant on this sort of story. It's printed on a newspaper broadsheet and in full color, both of which are firsts for Jackson. Of course, Jackson makes odd use of the extra room, essentially jamming four pages' worth of material on each broadsheet page. One gets the sense that he originally wrote this comic as a regular mini and transferred its contents late in the game. This is a typically demented story, mashing together mad scientists, inter-dimensional travel, stereotypical gangsters, mysterious woodsmen and monsters into one delirious package. The figures are a bit more raw than usual for a Jackson comic, but he makes up for that with his bright, almost lurid use of color. That use of color seems arbitrary at first, until Jackson ingeniously shifts the reader into an alternate dimension of grey-scaling. While that was clever enough the first time he did it, the story's climax features a grisly but subtle use of red in that world of grey that made me laugh when I saw it. It was an extremely clever storytelling solution, to be sure.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Good Stuff: Feynman

Jim Ottaviani is a writer who's been doing comics about scientists for fifteen years now. While he's written about scientists and pseudo-scientists in any number of fields, he's most at home in his own field of interest--physics. His first comic, Two-Fisted Science, was mostly about physicists, including some colorful anecdotes about Nobel prize winning professor and teacher Richard Feynman. Feynman was not only well-known as a theoretical genius who had a hand in the success of the Manhattan Project, he was also known as a quirky raconteur who strove to make his theories clear to laymen. He was most fascinated by everything when it presented itself as a puzzle or game--a code to be cracked. Such activities were fun, but he inevitably was able to apply seemingly random events to deeper theoretical problems. That philosophy of fun was one he also applied to his personal relationships, disregarding the potential disapproval of others with the phrase "who cares what other people think?" Like Albert Einstein before him, Feynman became known beyond the scientific community as the model of "genius scientist", an approbation he did not take seriously. He did take education seriously, in part because quantum mechanics is so difficult to explain that it drove him crazy that he couldn't explain his Noble-winning ideas without a great deal of difficulty.

Indeed, it really came down to the fact that no one could explain quantum electrodynamics (how electrons and photons interact at a subatomic level--that is, light and mass) in an intuitive manner. One thing Ottaviani emphasizes in the book is that it not only bothered Feynman because this was a puzzle solved that couldn't be easy explained, it was vexing because the answer was so inelegant. Seeing the beauty in science and the world was a life-long interest of his that extended to the mysteries of art and why some things simply look right and why some things don't. There's a lot to admire in how Ottaviani approaches his subject, unearthing stories about his early life and peppering the reader with plenty of amusing anecdotes. However, Ottaviani does not shy away from the science. Like Feynman, he tries to keep things as simple as possible for readers without a background in the subject, but there was simply no possibility of creating a full picture of Feynman without discussing his theories in some detail.

Ottaviani takes the risk of immersing the reader in a first-person account of Feynman's life told by the man himself in his later years. It's a risky move because the reader is thrown into the deep end of physics right away, but the charm of the subject quickly helps to quell any narrative difficulties. Ottaviani wisely breaks the book up into dozens of three to four page chapters that each have the feel of an anecdote even if they're carefully crafted to create a narrative. Another smart move was leaving the details of Feynman's theory to the very end; by skipping over its details in the main part of the narrative, the reader doesn't get stuck on challenging material. Instead, the reader gets the benefit of having absorbed Feynman's other but related thoughts on the world before diving into particulars. One also gets to read Feynman's account of working on the atomic bomb, being part of an advisory committee that determined what went wrong with the space shuttle Challenger, his relationships with friends, family and lovers and assorted adventures on the road. Ottaviani packs a lot of material into 250+ pages, but it's so compulsively readable that the book flies by.

The quality of Ottaviani's artistic collaborators has varied wildly over the years, and while Leland Myrick had a difficult task in drawing a comic this long and without many obvious visual hooks, he didn't do the story any favors with his bland art. His thin line is devoid of liveliness, his character design is dull and his page layouts are unimaginative. The art simply does the bare minimum of not getting in the way of Ottaviani's prose. The austerity of Myrick's line is a spectacular mismatch for a personality as colorful as Feynman. The coloring only make things worse, graphically displaying the lack of imagination at work in terms of layouts and backgrounds. This is all very unfortunate, given that Ottaviani turned in the best script of his career and tied story threads together in an elegant fashion.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Another Minicomics Round-Up: Jihanian, Dragons!, Ayo, Robinson, Davis, Burke/Harris

Let's dip into yet another set of minicomics that have come my way:

A.R.R.O., by Alison Burke and Tara Harris. This is clearly an early effort by the artist and writer, but this low-fi sci-fi comic is ambitious in its own way. It's a day in the life of some sort of military/scientific base and the people who work there. The book is full of character interaction and seemingly minor schemes and betrayals, leading into much bigger stakes by the end of this first chapter. Burke has a nice ear for dialogue and adeptly creates an easygoing, relaxed pace for the narrative. Harris has a strong eye for color, making the choice of using subdued tones like olives, browns and mustard yellows to match the languid nature of the story. There are a number of signs that this is beginner's work. The lettering and letter balloon placement are both distractions due to their sloppiness. Harris' character work and overall line isn't confident or fluid; the stiffness of the characters is another distraction for the reader. Depicting motion and how characters relate to each other in space are other problems. One thing that would help is learning to vary her line weights in order to help give her characters more pop on each page. Her style does possess a certain idiosyncratic charm even at this stage of her career, but fixing some of the basics would go a long way in playing up that charm.

Buster Monster and the Roughage of July, by Chris Davis. The artist notes that this comic was inspired by Jesse Reklaw's Ten Thousand Things To Do (which in turn was inspired by Lynda Barry), a daily diary strip. Unlike Reklaw, who uses a strict four-panel grid and provides a scale to measure his energy level, alcohol consumption, pain level, etc, Davis uses a free-form, sketchbook approach. Davis makes the crucial decision to provide as little context as possible regarding his life to the reader, trusting them to figure it out. We learn about his routine working for a cafe/caterer, working a variety of events in the Portland area. We see him deal with waking up with pain, living with his girlfriend, and a variety of crabby co-workers to whom he gives funny aliases (PB&J, The Frog Princess, etc). There are also a number of comics about his dreams, which give him an opportunity to draw more interesting imagery. There are two major factors in his favor: his lettering is distinctive--stylized but legible; and his drawings are full of life. His figure drawing in particular is sharply observed, but he's not afraid to get a bit silly or stylized when the occasion calls for it. There's a lovely image of him shaking the hands of his elderly grandmother that captures both his respect and her grace simply by the way he draws the figures. This looks like it's done mostly in pencils and is slightly smudgy, but Davis makes that work for him. Hopefully his output as an artist will continue to increase.

Vortex #2, by Don Robinson. This is a good old-fashioned underground comic book in the vein of Gilbert Shelton. Robinson uses a dense line and makes his pages busy with tons of detail and eye-pops. While most of his strips are gag-oriented, there are a few fantasy/sex drawings reminiscent of S.Clay Wilson and a story that's a tribute to EC horror stories.. There are also a series of more simply rendered parody strips that are less interesting to look at and certainly to read. Most of his parody strips (like The Flintstones or Catcher In The Rye) revolve around smoking pot; others are weak-sauce pokes at Johnny Ryan and diary comics. There's not much of a gag there beyond "I don't like these things". It's ironic that he makes fun of Ryan's scatological humor, given that much of Johnson's humor revolves around coarse material and that Ryan himself is so much more effective in his own parodies. Ryan may be mean-spirited and unfair, but there's no question that his barbs stick because he is so familiar with his subjects. It's the vagueness of Robinson's jokes that rob them of their effectiveness. I'd love to see Robinson illustrate someone else's stories, because his rubbery, lively line and attention to detail are both solid.

Lizzie's Tail, by Darryl Ayo. Ayo won the Promising New Talent Ignatz award at SPX this year, and this comic is a highly assured sign of his progress as a cartoonist. I've been following his career more-or-less since he first put pen to paper, and it's clear that he's done the hard work of getting better in public. This comic is a flight of fancy that tracks one woman's story about how she got a particular object hanging around her neck. That turns into a borderline absurd fantasy piece wherein she possesses a tail, walks in a stream alongside a forest and battles several opponents with her knife and mermaid ally. Ayo takes some cues from Fusion comics in the way he blends in a certain kind of fantasy character design with a certain roughness and odd pacing common in alt-comics. He spots blacks to create dramatic tension as well as using zip-a-tone effects to create texture in his panels. After a mini full of conflict and dramatic poses, Ayo pops the balloon of this narrative by inserting a gag at the end. This is a minor work but one that illustrates that Ayo is certainly on the right path.

Dragons! (Comics and Activities for Kids!), edited by Greg Means. A Free Comic Book Day mini for kids that's not simply an Archie comic or a superhero comic is a tremendous idea, and leave it to Greg Means (editor of Papercutter) to put such a thing together. Using a number of regular contributors to that minicomics series, Dragons! is chock full of comics, mazes, jokes (by two superior gagsmiths in Karen Sneider & Joey Sayers), detailed drawings, word searches, find the hidden image drawings, connect-the-dot drawings, mad-libs, mythological tidbits and more besides. The "Dragon Maze" is an especially impressive achievement, as Kazimir Strzepek jams every inch of the page with eye-pops and gags. The lead comics feature is by Alec Longstreth, and it's a typically agreeable feature emphasizing the joy of reading and how a dragon finds an optometrist. What was impressive about this comic is that it's clear that no contributor half-assed their offering, which I attribute to Means' strong editorial hand. The overall effect is that of an issue of Highlights For Children with a dragon theme and in minicomics form. As a kid, I'd devour that sort of publication, so I imagine this comic might be appealing to children even now.

Danger Country #1, by Levon Jihanian. This fantasy comic is typical in terms of its set-up but fantastic in terms of its narrative execution and character design. The issue ends with three characters being thrown together for a quest: the apprentice daughter of a wizard, her cat-warrior companion, and the sole survivor of a village that was wiped out at the beginning of the issue. The pacing and Jihanian's sense of detail make this issue stand out. Jihanian stretches the narrative over its first sixteen pages, emphasizing the grief and shock of Evan, the sole survivor of the village. The quest he's given is what the reader expects will take up the rest of the book. Instead, that journey is sped up so that we can see his immediate goal (a wizard city hidden by mists) and the threat to it (a vampire wizard dressed in armor). Jihanian employs a clear-line style with a minimum of hatching or spotting blacks; the level of detail on his faces despite the simplicity is remarkable. That's because of the level of control he clearly has over his line, which is the key to creating a world that's at once strange and accessible.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Two From Koyama Press: Comics Class and Gloria Badcock

Publisher Annie Koyama has a knack for providing homes for unusual projects that are somewhere between comic book, graphic novel and art object. Simply by publishing Michael DeForge's series Lose, her Koyama Press has attained instant credibility and importance. It's obvious that she has a discerning eye for talent, and is especially (but not exclusively) focused on the works of Canadians who might not have another publishing option for a shorter work.

Matthew Forsythe's Comics Class is a good example of this sort of in-between book looking for a home. Best known for his children's comic Ojingago (published by Drawn & Quarterly), this book is a quasi-autobiographical work that satirizes his own attempts at teaching comics. This was an interesting departure from the mostly sweet and clever Ojingago, a book aimed at children done in a very precise, labored style. Comics Class is satiric and heavily self-deprecatory, as Forsythe lampoons his own persona as artist and teacher on page after page. The art is much sketchier and heavily dominated by shortcuts like zip-a-tone effects; he was clearly going for something quick and punchy.

This is a funny series of events that falls outside of the art object aesthetic of Drawn & Quarterly. Forsythe's self-loathing sense of comic timing is sharp, like in a sequence where his supervisor is observing the class and his young students spit back his complaints at him ("You said you were a fraud....oh that you had writer's block"). There's another sequence where another supervisor tells him that some of his students were having nightmares of "Villages burning. Rape. Beheadings", and an excited Forsythe is simply glad they were paying attention while he was talking about Lone Wolf and Cub. This book is full of such comic beats and well-constructed gags. They tend to pound the same notes every time, but the brevity of the book (just 44 pages) allows him to wring every last bit of humor out of this scenario without outstaying its welcome.

Maurice Vellekoop's The World of Gloria Badcock is so frothy it fairly threatens to float away. This is a delightful, sex-positive romp that skates on genre as its narrative skeleton, but all of that merely serves to provide a platform for Vellekoop to draw various characters having sex in an assortment of positions and with an assortment of partners. His clear-line, cartoony style is backed by a rock-solid understanding of anatomy as well as a sense of how bodies (literally) relate to each other in space. This book is a perfect example of the niche that Koyama Press serves to fill. Vellekoop hadn't published a comic since the late 1990's, but I can't imagine his old publisher (D&Q) putting out this sort of comic. Koyama understands, that as a boutique publisher, she can afford to publish a boutique item like an old-fashioned porno comic book. Vellekoop is a perfect example of a Canadian alt-comics artist whose current work doesn't quite fit within the interests of other publishing concerns.

This comic is silly (the time machine runs on cole slaw, and it wasn't until the populace started the French Revolution that they got the cabbages they needed, thanks to those vegetables being thrown through a window), beautiful and unabashedly sexual. Each of the characters is having a good time, where it's a French count, fashion maven Gloria dreaming she was Dorothy and having sex with the Tin Man, or young Gloria getting off on images of Adam & Eve. There's not much else to say about this comic other than that it's porn with a healthy sense of humor about itself but that still is very much porn in execution and intent.