Thursday, August 2, 2012

Short Reviews: Cathy Hannah, Stan Yan, Graphic Classics, Sam Henderson, Kyle Baker, Sara Varon, Colleen Frakes

Ambrose Bierce was a friend of Mark Twain's, with whom he held a similar worldview. They were both satirists and cynics, continually pricking the overinflated balloon of modernist thinking. If anything, Bierce's work was much darker than Twain's and certainly more vicious. Unlike Twain, he's no longer very well known; he may be most famous for simply disappearing without a trace after he left the United States for Mexico. In adapting his work for comics in this second edition for the Graphic Classics line, editor Tom Pomplun used perhaps his most varied set of approaches. Much of Bierce's material is difficult to adapt, so Pomplun was careful not to stretch the boundaries of Bierce's work too far.

Instead, he let the prose speak for itself whenever possible, and then let the artists interpret Bierce's writing as they saw fit. This was certainly true of the most spectacular success in the book: the adaptation of twenty of "Bierce's Fables" by a dizzying array of artists including Shary Flenniken, Mark Dancey, P.S. Mueller, Roger Langridge (who was born to illustrate Bierce), and Johnny Ryan. Ryan's gross-out humor was a perfect match for a fable about a dog rueing his age and ablity to frighten others but taking some solace in the fact that he was still able to frighten others with his smell. Ryan cleverly turns the dog into a fetid version of Snoopy.

"The Devil's Dictionary", perhaps Bierce's most famous work, was mostly just excerpted without illustration. Steve Cerio's few bizarre illustrations suited the work well (sample: "Bait: A preparation that renders the hook more palatable. The best kind is beauty." His genre work feels a bit tame and predictable today, though it must have baffled audiences of the time. "The Damned Thing", about an invisible creature and the paranoia it inspired, presaged some of Lovecraft's work. "Moxon's Master", about a robotics experiment gone wrong, is one of the best-looking stories in the book. Stan Shaw's scribbly-yet-elegant line serves the darkness of this story well, but it's not difficult to predict what's coming.

On the other hand, Bierce's stories about the horror of everyday life are still quite effective. The nasty first-person story, "The Hypnotist", is well served by the grotesque illustrations of Michael Slack; however, it's not really a comics adaptation per se. "Oil of Dog" and "Curried Cow", illustrated by Annie Owens and Milton Knight, respectively, are true comics adaptations. The former is a delightfully warped story of a young boy who accidentally encourages his parents to become murderers in order to produce the best possible oil feels Swiftian in its inspiration.

The latter story is drawn in Knight's typically exaggerated style and well exemplifies Bierce's dark sense of humor. The story's longest adaptation is "The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter", which Bierce himself adapted from other sources. It feels like Bierce all the way, given his cynicism toward religion and hatred of hypocrisy. Still, the way the story slowly twists around reader expectations is remarkable, with the grey-washed art of Carlo Vergera a nice match for Bierce's prose. There are a number of interesting creative flourishes, like the stained-glass fantasy of the monk

I think one reason why this collection works so well is that Bierce's prose, while vivid, had a spareness to it that lends itself to comics adaptation. Compare that to Lovecraft's prose, which overwhelms the reader with its weight and power. Translating that has proven to be a much trickier proposition. Given that Oscar Wilde is up as the next Graphic Classics volume, I'll be curious to see how the preciseness of his prose is translated.


MAGIC WHISTLE #11, by Sam Henderson. Sam Henderson has few peers when it comes to conceptual humor. His ability to make jokes about boners, bathroom graffiti and eating cat food and turn them into a sort of metacommentary on humor itself never ceases to amaze me. He's somehow able to dissect the corpse of a joke, explain it to us in some skewed fashion, and then make the original joke ten times funnier. Henderson seems to simultaneously feel the urge to feed his audience non-stop gags while stopping to think about each one--the way they're constructed, how they affect an audience and how to stay original. The strip about Henderson drawing "X-Treme Jesus" for a Christmas card and the way his audience reacted to his cartoon is a perfect example of this sort of exercise.

Henderson is at his best with his longer stories. "The Groucho Duck" is a masterpiece of subverting expectations in panel after panel. When one character's attempt at pulling a gag is met with total obliviousness by his target, the way the first character breaks down and starts screaming "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" is funnier than the expected gags in the story. "Monroe Simmons' Blog of Revenge" is all about the humor of unexpected escalation by way of satirizing blog culture. There's a density to this strip that's made all the more satisfying by Henderson's deliberately simple line. Indeed, this 96-page comic feels absolutely jam-packed, requiring multiple readings to absorb every gag. Henderson remains in the top of rank of humorists working in comics today.


HOW TO DRAW STUPID, by Kyle Baker. Baker is a mainstream artist in the broadest possible sense of the word, aiming books at every possible audience imaginable. He is first and foremost a humorist, and his early work relied most heavily on verbal, situational and character gags. The character interplay in WHY I HATE SATURN is deliciously acidic, while THE COWBOY WALLY SHOW is delightfully absurd (though raw in comparison to later works). After several years in animation and a number of advances in computer technology, Baker altered his style and went to a much more visual style of humor. In the relentless YOU ARE HERE, Baker promises either a chase scene, a fight or a pretty girl on every page--and he delivers, and offers up the laughs as well. His KING DAVID adaptation continued to employ his slicker animation style that was still stripped down to tell a classic story.

More recently, he's attacked on many fronts: an absurd war comic (SPECIAL FORCES), a moody history of the slave riot leader Nat Turner; illustrating the political satire BIRTH OF A NATION and pumping out several volumes of gag cartoons. The latter seems to have been the biggest hit, especially his autobiographical gag strips about his own family. Baker seems like the last artist in the world who would do something autobiographical, yet there's something remarkably general in the specific gags he throws out--particularly in the way he uses exaggerated character design.

His newest book, HOW TO DRAW STUPID is less an instructional manual than it is a manifesto. It's certainly not a text in the manner of DRAWING WORDS AND WRITING PICTURES. There's a smattering of practical advice that's filtered through his very particular philosophy on cartooning. This book is really an interesting companion piece of sorts to Linda Barry's WHAT IT IS. Both books dip heavily into the artist's own experiences, and both provide extremely simple but effective methods to get started. Both artists arrive at the same path by different means: just draw. Baker's book doesn't discuss aesthetics or the origins of creativity the way Barry's does. He just wants to tell you why he's successful, and just importantly, why and how he has fun as an artist.

The key thrust of the book is Baker conveying that intent is the key to success as an artist and that anyone can do it. Figure out what you want to do, use the visuals to tell the story first, simplify and exaggerate character design based on how you want the audience to react to them. Baker rejects preciousness about one's work and encourages artists to take feedback; after all, it's just a cartoon and you can make more. It's important to note that he emphasizes the audience over everything else, which is antithetical to what many cartoonists do and is even a bit crass at times. However, his emphasis on creating material that will appeal to a broad spectrum can lead to some important and useful work habits, and I can admire the way that Baker sublimates the need to be an "artist" into being an entertainer. HOW TO DRAW STUPID certainly never fails to entertain, as Baker can't help but crack wise on every single page as well as provide many examples of his own work that he then breaks down carefully. This book is a must for any Kyle Baker fan and recommended for artists starting out in humor work. It doesn't really have much to do with the literary wing of comics, more or less by design, but there are other books that address that. Someone's got to tell the people how to make 'em laugh.

WINTER BEARD, by Cathy Hannah. This odd little comic won a Xeric grant back in 2005. I first read it a couple of years ago and didn't know quite what to make of it. At first glance, this autobiographical work is pretty much a direct rip-off of the Jeffrey Brown style of episodic memoir. Like many of Brown's imitators (Liz Prince probably being the most prominent), it at first appears to be much more lightweight than Brown's work. Brown has the rare knack of injecting quotidian moments with enormous emotional weight. He is also constantly deflating himself as the protagonist but never makes the mistake of portraying himself as a martyr. In this vein, Hannah uses a similar episodic style (though it's roughly in chronological order) to tell a bunch of cute anecdotes relating to her and her best friend. On the surface, it's almost self-consciously and nauseatingly cute.

A deeper look reveals a level of meta-awareness that informs every page, and she finds it important to inform the reader of her own awareness. The book's hook is that she is in love with her best friend but isn't brave enough to tell him face-to-face, but rather would eventually do it by way of a comic. Hannah turns the notion of a passive diary comic on its head by making the recording of her thoughts part of the story itself. Even as she's creating the strip, she reveals (to her friends, never to an imagined reader in first person) her doubts. She's afraid people will think she's ripping off Brown. She becomes uncertain if this is a good idea. She becomes unsure of her feelings about him. She becomes unsure of her own feelings, period, and implies that this whole exercise was a passive-aggressive way of safely sabotaging herself. She wonders if she even wants a relationship; instead, it's clear that she's addicted to the feeling of falling in love. It's one-sided and almost narcissistic, yet she can't help herself. The project has taken on a life of its own.

The ending, where the depths of her own passive-aggressiveness become fully revealed, does not find her getting her man. Instead, he reads the book, is charmed by it, but notes that Hannah is moving away. In a sense, Hannah was exactly right in knowing that there never would have been a relationship, just this deep friendship with lurking possibilities. The idea of the relationship, coupled with the reality of their everyday friendship, was better than slogging through the messiness of such a relationship. Hannah would rather that random people think she's his girlfriend than actually make a move. A pleasant stasis is the order of the day for two people who are obviously very wounded in their own way, and it's suggested that ultimately this isn't such a bad thing. The end of the story, while not gleeful, certainly portrays a sort of bittersweet understanding.

If one is topare Hannah's comics to Brown, I'd say it's a "clean" version of his sort of story. Brown's relationships get messy, while the story of Hannah's crush is entirely "clean" and theoretical. That "clean" nature is matched perfectly by Hannah's artistic decisions. She employs a clear, simple style that maximizes simply-apprehended facial expressions and bodily gestures. For someone wearing their heart on their sleeve, it's a perfect style and Hannah is quite skilled in it. The thick blacks she uses in character outlines give each figure a bit of weight and gravity, pointing the reader's eye to what they really need to pay attention to.

THE WANG: THE BIG ONE, by Stan Yan. I reviewed the second volume of this series a couple of years back. THE BIG ONE was the first volume of the saga of the Goodman Beaver/Candide-esque Eugene Wang, and while the situations were slightly different, the humiliations were similar. THE BIG ONE lays out the territory that he would carve out more successfully later, especially in terms of his comic timing. Still, the series of gags relating to his mother and (soon to be ex-) girlfriend were cringe-inducing and direct hits.
Yan's work can best be described as "grotesque", in every sense of the word. His figures are exaggerated and elongated, composed of all sorts of jutting and deliberately ill-fitting angles. Hair sticks out at odd angles, giving his characters a vaguely crazed, asymmetrical appearance. His stories are also grotesque in terms of their settings, and one can tell Yan takes a special pleasure in brutally satirizing cold-call stockbroker culture. He saves extra venom for "Milestone", a letter-perfect satire of the sort of cultish "personal growth and transformation" groups that were especially common in the 90s. Having Wang as a sort of hapless, passive protagonist allows Yan to satirize these institutions without having to preach against them. Wang is bewildered by everything in his life and about the only thing he knows how to do well is run away.

Yan's art is at his best when he shows confidence in his character design and doesn't over-render, as when he introduces us to a panel of lunatics in the Milestone group. In earlier portions of the book, he sometimes uses too much black or makes his line too heavy, which chokes the life out of his gags and reduces the clarity of each page. One can see this becoming less of a problem for him in his later work, because clearer composition allows the reader to apprehend the gag quicker. Any time spent trying to interpret a panel or page kills the timing of jokes, and that's lethal for what Yan is trying to do. Yan's not an innovator, but he's a worthy artist to carry on a tradition of the grotesque in comics.

DAD!, by Scott King. This "documentary graphic novel" is an interesting experiment that doesn't quite work but also has a lot going for it. The story documents the weeks King spent with his seriously ill father before he left to go to graduate school and the guilt he felt in making that decision. He filmed and photographed his family and himself, then changed the effects on the photos to create what looks like highly detailed line drawings. In essence, it's a variation on fumetti, only much warmer thanks to the way King processed and filtered the images.

What works best about the book is its rawness. King doesn't hide the stew of emotions he feels regarding his father and the rest of his family. He resents that his father wasn't really there for him in the way he was for other members of his family. He resents the way his father doesn't act in the best interests of his own health, as when he gorges himself on food only to quickly get sick. At the same time, King doesn't present himself in the most flattering of lights either. He makes himself out to be a martyr more often than not, he is often combative and also deliberately irritating to his sister. The rawness of those feelings combined with King deliberately clearing the reader's palate with descriptions of quotidian tasks like how to make coffee or cook an omelet are the most emotionally powerful moments in the book.

The main problem with the book is that it doesn't quite hold up as either a book-length documentary, or a nuanced examination of family relationships. The reason is that King tells us up front that this project isn't about his father or family per se, but rather as a way of dealing with his own feelings of guilt. That lack of ambiguity pervades every page, leading to a great deal of repetition of ideas and themes without really teasing them out further. The long text sections on the specifics of his father's history of illness are an especially tough slog and seem unnecessary for the purposes of the narrative

The book works best when it focuses on dialogue; the scene where King's father has an argument with his daughter, who won't let him bring his coffee into her car, spoke volumes about the dynamics of the family in a way that obviated King's own narrative. Indeed, King's long narrative text section almost seemed redundant; as a reader, we already know this is told from his point of view and his reconstruction of events. Despite the book's problems, this is, intermittently, a compelling read. This feels like an overambitious first project by a young creator, but I admire both King's ambition and the way he tackled such an intensely personal issue.

Sara Varon's ROBOT DREAMS is a simple, wordless tale about starting and then betraying the bonds of friendship, but it's also about how those bonds tend to linger on, years later. I've been following Sara Varon's work for quite some time. She specializes in cute, anthropomorphic animals engaged in the minutiae of day to day life. Varon's thrust has always been that these moments are what makes life worthwhile. While her comics have always been cute and pleasant to read, there's never been quite enough "there" there (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker) for me. ROBOT DREAMS adds a bit more meat to what she typically does, while still staying squarely within her comfort zone.

The story is simple: a dog sends away for a build-it-yourself robot companion. With Dog's new best friend, they watch movies, eat popcorn and generally bring happiness to each other's lives. One day, they go to the beach and Robot gets in the water with Dog. When they lay out in the sun, Robot finds he can't move--and Dog, not knowing what to do, abandons him. Most of the rest of the book has Dog trying to find new friends to take the place of Robot, while dealing with his guilt over leaving his friend in the lurch. Robot is still quite alive on the beach, if immobile, and spends his time daydreaming about Dog rescuing him, then others rescuing him and being reunited with Dog, then being freed and seeing that Dog has a new robot friend, etc. These daydreams are the most affecting part of the book; they're funny and desperately sad at the same time.

For Dog's part, he attempts to help his friend after his first act of cowardice, but is thwarted: the beach is closed for the winter when he goes back there with repair equipment, and when he goes back again the next summer, someone had picked Robot up and sold him to a junkyard. Poor Robot gets his leg ripped off, snowed on and turned into spare parts. Meanwhile, Dog tries to connect with others, but suffers a fitting fate--his new friends (a family of ducks, a snowman) wind up leaving him. Eventually, Robot is salvaged and becomes a sort of walking radio companion for a raccoon, while Dog finally decides to get another robot. The ending is quite sweet--Robot sees Dog and his new friend out of his window. Instead of reacting with anger, he instead turns on a nice song on his radio, which Dog hears (not seeing Robot) and starts whistling as he walks down the street.

This book is charming, lovely to look at, whimsical and wistful. I'd also say that both its ambitions and its rewards are on a small scale. Despite the simplicity of the linework, there's almost a slickness to her use of color and design that makes this feel more like a typical children's book than a comic. These surface qualities made it difficult for me to fully engage this book on an emotional level; I could see what Varon was doing and the emotions she was portraying, but it all felt a few layers too removed for me to really feel for these characters. That said, I can easily see this becoming some ten-year-old's favorite book. As a children's book, the clearly outlined feelings and gags in this book work perfectly. At such a level, the languid pace allows the characters to amble on pleasantly, albeit with a sad, haunted undertone. As a reader, I think it just comes down to a sense of personal aesthetics. Varon's visual style doesn't draw me in, intellectually or emotionally, but that doesn't stop me from appreciating her skill, design sense and storytelling ability.

Back in December, I did a review of the career-to-date output of several artists from the Center for Cartoon Studies. I found the work of Colleen Frakes to be quite intriguing, and I wanted to follow up that review with a quick look at the revised version of TRAGIC RELIEF #1. Frakes won a Xeric grant in 2007, and the revised edition was just recently released.

Frakes redrew and slightly altered this tale of a fisherman seemingly doomed to live a life of romances derailed by the (accidentally?) homicidal impulses of his mother. The original book ends rather ambiguously, as the fisherman is comforted by his new love after his mother died. This version is much more suggestive about the whys and hows of his mother's death, and the ending has been altered to something with a lot more punch. After the fisherman has found his romances with a mermaid, a genie and a harpy end in tragedy (though the deaths had a strong element of black humor), he finds that the woman he ends up with isn't precisely the happy ending he was hoping for. Indeed, he winds up with a woman very much like dear old mom, in the creepiest of ways.

The redrawn version of this comic has a much thicker, bolder line. This really helps the drawings pop off the page more dramatically. Frakes' sense of composition and design were already excellent, but this handsomely-packaged and printed version simply added clarity and polish to what was an already strong bit of storytelling. Working without the use of dialogue or any words at all, Frakes' ability to clearly get across the emotional narrative of this work is aided by the playfulness of her line. The darkness of the humor is complemented by the loose, joyful nature of her line, making the book's nasty punchlines all the more effective. This is a very strong first published work, and it was interesting to be able to compare her first crack at this story with the revised edition. Unlike some well-designed comics, the format here enhanced the format but didn't eclipse or overwhelm it. I hope that she's able to collect material for future editions.

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