Wednesday, February 27, 2013

John Martz and the Art of the Robot Gag

Let's look at a smattering of publications from Canadian cartoonist John Martz.

Machine Gum #2 and #3. These comics contain Martz's many, many robot-related gag comics. When Martz wants to work out an idea, he does it with his robots. Some of these strips are less gags than simple visual exercises exploring transformation, evolution, joy, despair, decay and anxiety. There's a lot of classic cartooning in Martz's work (it's clear that he's read a lot of New Yorker cartoonists), not to mention Lewis Trondheim's more stripped-down work. It's also a chance for Martz to play a horrible, merciless god to his pitiful, restless robots; in one strip, the robot literally prays and gets zapped by a lightning bolt from above. Martz also gets to the the physical qualities of line and ink in these comics, exploding his figures and often abstracting them. Really, these comics are a form of play--serious play, but play and exploration nonetheless. They're a way of telling stories or expressing emotions in as few lines as possible with a figure that will be instantly recognizable to the reader. Some are delightful, some are baffling, some are disgusting, but all of them exercise different aspects of Martz's imagination and toolbox.
Heaven All Day. This attractive Xeric Grant winner is a sort of graduate project for his robot experimentation projects. There are two parallel narratives: one involves an amateur scientist who's a glorified garbage-counter in his day job, and a down-on-his-luck robot in a world where robots are common but are considered to be second-class citizens. Little by little, we learn the man is building some kind of device out of robot scraps, and the downtrodden robot has a moment of hope followed by a brutal dismemberment at the hands of a cop. However, the one tiny part of the robot that remained wound up in the hands of the scientist, who created a device that looked like either a weapon or a portal or both; the implication at the end of the story is that change was imminent. It was interesting to see the kind of robot abuse from Machine Gum transferred to this comic and given an entirely different emotional context. Here, the beatings are poignant as well as kind of funny, especially because the reader is given little context as to what's happening on this world and why. The blue wash adds to the vague sense of melancholy in what is otherwise a cartoonish work.

Gold Star. This was my favorite of Martz's comics. It's sharper and meaner than his other works, and the intricate structure has quite a payoff. It's about a nebbishy artist of some kind coming to an Oscars-like ceremony in Hollywood and how his casual indifference to the well-being of others as well as his astounding naivete winds up having disastrous consequence. The left-handed side of each spread is a single-panel gag with text at the bottom, and they are flashbacks. The right-handed side of each page is a four-panel grid in the present at the awards ceremony, where the main character (Bunny Buckler, an anthropomorphic rabbit) wins the award and gives a rambling, bizarre acceptance speech. As the flashbacks flip by, we learn that Bunny was seduced by the LA party scene, got massively hung over, and frantically had to call down to the front desk in order to have an iron sent up.There's one hilarious page where the frantic Bunny is on stage, guzzling down an entire glass of water before he's capable of speaking. The nasty punchline of this strip is the result of meticulous, clockwork planning and clever callbacks, delivering a bit of horrifying hubris to the main character and relentlessly punishing the bell hop who was inadvertently abused by Bunny. Reading these comics felt like Martz slowly building his comedic and drawing chops from the ground up, finding out what worked on the page and what didn't, until he was confident enough to unleash a comic as intricately designed as Gold Star. While he's a good gag artist, his real talent is in long form humor, mixing poignant emotion with vicious punchlines. 

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