Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Miscellanous Comics: Beckmeyer, Russell, Kerlow, G.Harris, Mazur/Lonergan,

Everything Unseen (parts 4+5), by Drew Beckmeyer. This comic may well be inspired by Gary Panter's work, but Beckmeyer goes in some directions unique to his vision. The story follows a character named "Charles Grodin" who is a lower-caste doppelganger in a world where avoiding meeting one of the seven iterations of self is an event that is to be avoided at all costs.  Beckmeyer fills the comic with moments of lighthearted absurdity along with visceral, post-apocalyptic terror. After escaping the regimented weirdness of caste life in a work camp, he meets up with his higher-caste doppelganger and winds up leaving him for head after assuming his identity. As this issue opens, Charles is wandering the desert until he encounters a strange being who demands that he "fartle" him until Charles managers to kill it and assume its form. The book goes into a sort of Mad Max riff at that point as Charles kills a bunch of warlords and becomes the warrior god for a group of prisoner/savages. He winds up abdicating his position to escape with a woman as they ride (just like Slim Pickens in Dr Strangelove) atop a rocket out of the desert. The woman eventually has her head detonated in a strange ritual as Charles is left to move on.

Beckmeyer's internal logic in telling this story is impeccable even as he deals with issues related to divinity, fate, and (most of all) identity. His open-page formatting, ragged line (the biggest example of Panter's influence) and cartoonish crudeness reflect a comic that appears to be a lost scriptural tablet as much as it is a narrative. Beckmeyer veers from almost precise caricature (his drawing of the being as a giant floating head almost looks like a Mort Drucker drawing) to scribbles and scratch-outs to heavy use of smudges, primitive lines and child-like drawing techniques. That approach is also present in his mini Testimony and Religious Duty, which is fascinating because it reveals his chops across a broad spectrum of approaches. Scribbles, repurposed photos, smeared paint, found objects and an invocation of cave drawings are all at play here as Beckmeyer creates something that is solemn and meaningful but still playful and even cheeky. Beckmeyer certainly treats the collapse of civilization seriously; he just doesn't treat civilization itself seriously.

Diathesi #1, by Fourth Way Comics. I'm not sure who the actual artist is for this intriguing bit of comics-as-poetry about the mind-body split, but they certainly didn't skimp on production values. Indeed, the washed-out colors of what is described as "processed photography" give the whole comic a sort of triple-exposure feel not unlike the final sequence of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The measured, clipped nature of the narrative captions push the reader slowly and gradually through the visuals, adding context to the unnamed narrator's attempts at total presentness. That is, the narrator laments that the mind and body are rarely united in focus simultaneously, as the mind wanders off during tasks and the body "performs on its own". The comic is a record of a series of attempts to unite mind and body for just six minutes a day, an attempt that routinely results in failure. There's a real sense of desperation in these attempts, given that life "greets me with opportunities/and I squander the time." That theme of waste is fascinating, seeing that the author has some idealized notion of mind and body working together that would automatically validate time and attention spent. I find the underpinnings of the comic to be philosophically nonsensical but still interesting because of the genuine belief of the narrator that the split is real and something to be overcome.

Pedestrian, by Gordon Harris. This is certainly the most mellow post-apocalyptic conspiracy theory comic that I've ever read, which is a deliberate measure by Harris. In this modest and low-key book, a man in a bellhop uniform wanders around the remains of a desolate city, narrating both his own daily routine and the basics of what caused the end of everything. Right-wing states seceding from the union, the introduction of virulent nanotechnology by terrorists and a general sense of distrust fueled everything, but Harris postualtes that this is all beside the point. In introducing a conspiracy theorist living in a treehouse, he gives himself the luxury of delving into all sorts of theories as to how civilization might collapse while gently mocking them. Indeed, the whole point of the comic seems to be not so much lamenting about how the world ends but rather the ways in which the world has changed that will make it different and potentially better. The crazy ending seems far less crazy when one thinks about the end of the world as a way of all worlds connecting with each other in new and strange ways. This is a comic that ultimately affirms the possibility of human connection and emphasizes the essential beauty of the world even after humanity's works lay in ruin, thanks in part to Harris' lovely use of rich, saturated colors.

Cold Wind, by Dan Mazur & Jesse Lonergan. This is a very stylishly designed and told fantasy espionage story whose content will be familiar but whose high concept makes it worth a look. Essentially, an assassin is hired to kill the physical embodiment of winter for an old man and then finds out why this was done, given that the embodiment will soon be replaced by one of his daughters. It's a clever idea that's told in a fairly direct manner, as the amoral killer is nonetheless not without some degree of introspection as to his employer's purposes in temporarily killing off winter. The answer is also clever, if not surprising, a fact that Mazur is able to put off by keeping as much information from the reader for as long as possible. What sets this book apart is the spectacular and effective use of spot color, as the initially dominant blues and greys are broken up by brief and lively explosions of red and yellow. And of course, the employer's reason for wanting winter delayed is depicted in vivid and spectacular color, brighter than anything else in the book. Longergan's line is blocky, spare and muscular as he lets the colors do much of the storytelling. It's an impressive feat for a small press book to have these kinds of production values.

Something Big, by Victor Kerlow. This is a fascinatingly scratchy and casual series of short stories by the well-known illustrator for the New York Times and New Yorker that serve as a way to explore variations on body size and mutations in a fantastical setting. "Little Guy" is the lead story and examines a common fantasy concept: waking up to find oneself tiny and naked. The main character, Frank, finds himself next to a full-sized version of his naked girlfriend Laura, and the obvious thoughts about how sex might work are squelched when the sleeping woman absent-mindedly flicks him away from her nipple. Kerlow explores the ramifications and possible cause of this as the comic proceeds, and while there's nothing mind-blowing about the comic, there's an exciting rawness that pulses from each page, thanks to his chunky figure drawing. "Big Mouth" seems inspired by the grotesque surrealism of the great Bill Plympton that segues into a stream-of-consciousness narrative by the Frank character waking up out of a dream. Sleeping, dreaming and the sometimes unreal connection between the two is a constant through-line in these short stories, as "Weird Things, Downstairs" is about Frank's almost visceral inability to fall asleep and the accompanying sense of frustration. "Big Crocodile Tears" and "Understanding" both involve monsters in mundane situations, as Frank tells off a clingy monster ex-boyfriend of his girlfriend's to get out in the former story and negotiates wisdom in the latter. Kerlow loves drawing monsters almost as much as he loves drawing the nude human form and especially enjoys low-key, low-stakes interactions between the two. In all of these bizarre stories that emphasize shadows, grit and unexpected turns on reality, there's an essential mundaneness that grounds the work and is the real source of Kerlow's inspiration. I hope he continues to release these short stories, because he's really on to something here in these sloppy, sketchy and spontaneous works.

The Happy Prince, by P. Craig Russell and Lovern Kindzierski (colors). This is the latest volume in the series published by NBM of Russell's attempt to adapt Oscar Wilde's classic children's stories. This being Wilde, they all have a nasty, bitter edge to them that nonetheless is leavened slightly in the name of imparting moral lessons. I've found that I enjoy Russell's Wilde adaptations more than I do his opera adaptations, in part because these stories offer a bit more in the way of traditional story structure than the operas do. Russell has long been one of my favorite mainstream artists for a variety of reasons. First, he was one of the first to really understand the possibilities and importance of color to his work. Even in his earliest days, when he was drawing Killraven for DonMcGregor and Marvel, there was something about the way he drew his figures that absorbed brilliant colors better than his peers. Working now with Kindzierski, it's obvious that that this is still a top priority for him as an artist, leading to the eye candy nature of his work. I love looking at a Russell page as much as I enjoy reading it, in part because of the way the colors pop out.

Russell has also always been the happy medium between the artist who uses extensive photo reference for his figures who nonetheless can step back and go more cartoony when the situation calls for it. Indeed, he's always been quite adept at maintaining that balance between realistic and cartoony, which in turn has always allowed the reader to access his work quickly rather than have their eyes bounce off of slick, overproduced work. That balance also allows Russell to retain the organic feel that his figures possess and that would not be possible if he used too many clever production effects, the way that many mainstream comics do. In terms of acting as an illustrator of an author's vision, Russell plays up the dramatic aspects of the story: children cheering, the poor weeping, the foolish government acting imperiously, etc. This is a very direct, basic story that Russell doesn't try to change around, but he adds genuine emotion in the relationship between the titular statue and the bird that befriends him when the statue directs him to help the poor and desperate in the city. Thanks to the sheer beauty of the figure immortalized by the state as depicted by Russell, the reader is able to really feel the depth of the relationship between him and the bird, and their final fate is gratifying.  I've always admired Russell for walking away from mainstream comics despite the opportunities presented to him (working with McGregor was always the exception), preferring to collaborate with writers like Neil Gaiman or continue to work on his life's work of adapting classic operas, plays and stories. He work combines finely crafted elegance and rough-hewn earthiness on the same page, a mixture of the magical and mundane. For him, they often seem to be one and the same.

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