Monday, August 27, 2012

Minicomics Round-Up: Willberg, Vasile, Shiveley, Stiner, White, Cass, Gustavson/Peck

Trackrabbit #5, by Geoff Vasile. Jesse Reklaw has long listed this series as one of his favorites, and this crazy first issue that I read does not disappoint. Subtitled "Guy and Kylie's Tiny Dinosaurs", it posits a slightly different America where the nightmarish idea of Sarah Palin as president has come to pass, forcing a geneticist named Guy out of a job. Guy has a bone-dry sense of humor and a sense of ethics that is gray at best, making his new job as head of a home for developmentally disabled adults all the more hilarious a match. Paired up with a hippie caretaker named Kylie, his main conflict in the issue is to come up with a way of deflecting the hatred the residents of the home aim at him after he puts their pet dog outside, leading to its death at the hands of a couple of deranged teenaged kids. Guy's background as a geneticist mixed, his access to a lab and the residents' need for pets inspires him to create the titular tiny dinosaurs, which the residents name things like "Batman", "Santa Claus" and "Paul Bunyan". Vasile's clear line and lack of fussiness in designing his pages allows him to put the pieces he builds into play with some darkly comic results. For example, the scene where the residents take the dinosaurs (which are incredibly cute, yet obviously dangerous) out for a walk results in one dinosaur eating a cloth flower off of a little girl's dress, a triceratops chasing a panicked dog, and a pteranodon munching on someone's kite.

When Guy finally has to get rid of the dinosaurs, his solution (breeding a flesh-hungry mini-T-Rex) is as demented as it is brilliant, though this leads to his eventual exit from the home. In Vasile's world, life and death come at a pretty cheap price, as does loyalty, considering that Guy winds up being forced to work for the government in order to breed more tiny dinosaurs for military purposes. Just as cold is Guy's dismissal of the highly deluded Kylie, who had fallen in love with the highly unavailable Guy (as he hints: "Don't ask, don't tell") and is brushed aside. The essence of Vasile's work is its light-hearted nature, even when it touches on violence and morally questionable acts. None of the characters in the book are meant to be especially likeable or easy to identify with, but that constant deflection of audience identification is what gives this book its comedic charge. I wasn't crazy about Vasile's slightly bland character design, but I suspect that choice was made in part to point the reader toward the real stars of the issue in terms of pure drawing: the dinosaurs. They were just exquisitely drawn and a constant source of both action and sight gagsin a comic whose humor otherwise was either dry bon mots from Guy or else a broad send-up of crunchy-types in Kyle.

A Guide To Injury Prevention For Cartoonists, by Kriota Willberg. Willberg is a professional massage therapist as well as an artist and teacher. This 56-page mini is frankly a public service for all cartoonists, given the way that it not only addresses all of the ways in which cartooning is not only debilitating because it's a sedentary activity, it's harmful because it can encourage poor posture and muscle damage. On top of that, Willberg provides a battery of stretches and muscle-strengthening exercises designed specifically for cartoonists and even provides a couple of sample routines that artists might follow. The mini is obviously copiously illustrated with her own clean-line cartoons, many of which are quite funny. That's especially true of the running motif of a cartoonist working til her arm falls off. Even as a non-cartoonist, there were bits of the mini that made me check my posture and how I stretched my muscles; she notes that improper care of one's muscles can literally shrink a person down as muscles shrink. I'd especially recommend this mini to young artists who are just starting to develop their work habits that will no doubt follow them for life. They may well be less likely to listen to pain or go to doctors, so the advice given in this comic could be quite important for a long time. Willberg's key point to cartoonists is to think of themselves as athletes and to train as athletes, given that they are involved in a very specific kind of intense physical activity on a daily basis. That's a simple but effective technique in getting artists (many of whom lead very interior lives) to think of their bodies before they start thinking about their pages.

March 29, 1912, by Jordan Shiveley. The date is the giveaway on this comic: it's about the end of the ill-fated Robert Scott expedition in the Antarctic. It's quite literally about the end, as Shiveley provides clues about the desperation of the four men in this crew: the cans of food were all eaten, the bones of whatever small animals they could capture are long picked-over, and the inadequate tents reveal that most of the party is dead. The last member (presumably Scott himself) desperately trudges out into the snow before keeling over, as the unforgiving night falls on him, only to reveal the haunting beauty of the aurora australis. This is a slight yet beautiful-looking little comic, done in landscape to accentuate the hugeness and hopelessness of Scott's quest.

Underwater Crystal Zone, by Daniel Thing Stiner. This is a small collection of playfully psychedelic comics originally published on the web whose look is somewhere between Skip Williamson and Fort Thunder. That is, the figures in this book are clearly designed if somewhat loopy-looking, with lots of long and exaggerated limbs and bizarre character designs, but the comic itself is very much an exploration of environment for its own sake. The taste that we get in this mini features a lot of clean and attractively-designed characters going about their business: finding underwater gems, playing music, building "reindeer machiens", and interacting with Mayan gods from the past/future. The comic feels more like a variation on a theme than something truly original, but that variation is still enjoyable.

The Index #1, by Caitlin Cass. Cass, best known for her Great Moments In Western Civilization Postal Consituent, takes a stab at long-form narrative with this first issue. There are certainly traces of her Great Books-inspired series to be found here in the story of two people whose pathology is that there's nothing wrong with them. Susan's totally bland life devoid of conflict was only given comfort thanks to buying several thousand blank index cards; for her, they represented the hopes and struggles of everyone who had hopes and struggles--she could project the lives of others on them. Her ex-grad school boyfriend John was crippled with the inability to finish any endeavor, getting 75 pages into his dissertation before he realized he had no thesis, and so he set out to fill up the cards. That's where the issue ends, setting up a non-conflict conflict for two passive-aggressive individuals who might well have thrived if they simply had a conflict that needed to be overcome and resolved to completion. The couple is essentially reduced to the philosopher's dream of living a life of the mind, but neither has anything to say or anything to think, until their own conflict begins. It never even occurred to them to create their own chaos as a way of alleviating boredom until John felt compelled to do so. Cass' line continues to improve, which is crucial given the way she relies so much on facial expressions in this comic. She still has a way to go to truly refine her line to the point where its crispness would be a perfect match for her dry, refined storytelling tendencies, but she's getting there. I'll be curious to see just how far she takes this series.

Territory, by Andrew White.White, an artist whose work I know through working with Brian John Mitchell's Silber comics, drew this mini working with Frank Santoro's comics correspondence course, and White credits Santoro as the editor. It's got Santoro's influence all over it mainly through the way White uses color (and color contrasts in particular) to drive both the story narrative and emotional narrative. This 16-page story is very simple but also completely enigmatic: a young man goes off to the woods under false pretenses, leaving behind his partner. He's there to play an unspecified strategy game against an unseen opponent, something he keeps hidden from his partner for unknown reasons. The comic is told using a time-fractured scheme, something that is only revealed with the appearance of a beard on his chin. Blue in the story represents the tether he has with his partner; her scenes are done entirely in blue and he's colored in blue when he's talking to her on the phone. Red represents the game, fire, danger and alienation. Yellow is a neutral color here, and the hidden connector to the sight of the forest as it actually might look, since yellow and blue combined make green. The title of the book refers to territory won and lost during and because of the game, as he makes a phone call to her in a panel where the phone keypad looks like the game board. The man, talking out loud to his unknown opponent, at one point understands that his mere appearance there was part of a larger game that he played into in order to try to make some kind of sense out of his life. White leaves it vague as to whether he is able to truly leave the game and go back to his partner, or if the moves he's made have trapped him forever.

Mogman, Prologue and Chapter 1-3, by Henry Gustavson and Tyler Peck. This is a very odd comic that flirts with horror but instead is simply enigmatic and strange. It follows a man with a disfigured face who lives in an abandoned factory with a Frankenstein doll that talks to him and what he does with his night. Early on, the reader's perspective is that of a new security guard at the factory, who is frightened by the monstrous presence of the man before realizing and understanding that while enigmatic, he seems essentially harmless. After the guard goes away, the man and the doll have an extended argument, capped by the man going out for a walk and seeing what sort of reactions he might get. There's a funny scene where he silently walks up to a woman outside her house, ignores her questions and then simply says "Do you know what it feels like to die?" before she goes back into her house.  Later, he admonishes himself for saying something so dumb--the monster having second thoughts. The third issue ends with him being assaulted and left on the ground by a homeless man, who steals the doll. This is a slowly unfolding comic that is extremely heavy on atmosphere, shadows, wrinkles, and thick lines in general. The artists aren't afraid to go off on long, strange visual tangents, like the man staring at his hand and causing it to break up into first a cubist form and then an abstract one. The artists list Bernie Wrightson as an influence and one can see them try to create an almost Gothic atmosphere for a story that otherwise feels quite modern and even quotidian, despite its strange trappings. At the same time, each issue does significantly advance the story, even if the story itself still seems rather shapeless. I have no idea where this is going, which in itself is intriguing.

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