Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Clown Show: Cycles

Cycles, an odd book written by Kyle O'Connell and drawn by CCS alum Beth Hetland, lays out everything that is to happen in the book thanks to one of its main characters perusing his "Index of interests and technologies. That list includes things like dynamite, women, lying, hot air balloons, famous criminals, single action revolvers and bicycles. The book slowly unravels the wacky scheme hatched by a pair of oddballs in 1870 England: "Dorothy" and "The Professor". The reader is simply introduced to them as two men living together in a small apartment, as one man sleeps most of the day and another bespectacled man is always fiddling with machines.While the Professor is trying to develop a modern bicycle, Dorothy gambles at high-stakes card games, gets repeatedly arrested and attends an opera wearing only a pair of boots. At one point, the duo dress up as clowns, rob a bank, and lead a huge crowd on a merry chase through the city, culminating in setting off dynamite that blasts their money over the crowd like rain.  When Dorothy is put in jail, the professor busts him out and they escape via hot air balloon. Connections are implied throughout the methodical and episodic nature of the book, but the whys and wherefores as to their actions are not explained until the very end.

What's funny about this book is that it winds up being a mystery wrapped up in a caper story, but many of the book's events seem entirely unconnected. Indeed, the Professor and Dorothy (a funnily-drawn tall man with a droopy mustache) themselves seem to be characters whose connection is so tenuous that it seems as though they are inhabiting entirely different stories. O'Connell and Hetland are careful, however, to clue the reader in that the mousy and eccentric professor is capable of some true public lunacy, just as the outrageous Dorothy is capable of meticulous long-range planning and highly detailed & skilled work as an artist. That their scheme was an entirely benign and even beneficial one makes the convoluted events of the book even more amusing: while the duo was trying to do something beneficial for society, they couldn't help but do so by way of a series of elaborate gags. The pacing of the book is deliberate, but the way that the audience is kept in the dark, along with the bizarre pranks perpetrated by the duo, makes this a lively read.
Hetland's figures always have a softness to them that is almost cute, and the whimsical nature of her art is entirely appropriate for such a lighthearted story. I did find myself wishing for a depiction of their world that was a little more lived-in and detailed. There are a lot of pages with no backgrounds or minimal backgrounds that feel thin and even dull. Her character work alone isn't enough to make those pages interesting on their own. Color might have helped add some depth and weight to the book, but barring that, I would have liked to have experienced the city as a city, complete with its requisite grime and squalor. Indeed, given that the duo are described as grimy and threadbare, seeing a few more examples of that in their surroundings would have added an even sharper contrast to the silliness of their actions. In a book where so much of its action is clearly meant to be delivered by way of the art, that visual punch is sometimes lacking. At the same time, Hetland's use of body language and gesture, even for simply-rendered characters, gives her protagonists a marvelous life of their own. She's also skilled in terms of panel-to-panel transitions, especially in scenes where there's a lot of forward movement or chases. In particular, she clearly relishes drawing both of the protagonists, but Dorothy in particular is a marvelously realized character. This is an unconventional book with a strange structure whose payoffs aren't immediately obvious, but O'Connell and Hetland manage to pull off an affectionate tribute to the idea of creativity unbound, one where art and science intertwine with an absurdist sense of humor. If it's a little wobbly at times in terms of its details, that's mostly because the authors' ambitions outstripped their reach at times. It's a very solid first book.

1 comment: