Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sequart Reprints: The Ignatz Line: Sally, Igort, Giandelli, Sala

I've stated more than once that the Ignatz line of comics are undervalued and underdiscussed. The all-star lineup of artists (matched with an exquisite format, nice paper and top-notch production values) delivers issue after issue of superb reading. It's a particular treat to be exposed to so many non-American artists, especially the Italian artists whose work is particularly flattered by this format. I'm guessing the price point scares off some readers ($8 for 30 or 40 pages), as does the fact that these are serialized comics, not "graphic novels". These books, in my view, have single-handed revitalized the relevance of comics as periodicals, even if their overall impact has been muted.

Let's start with Delphine #3, the latest issue in Richard Sala's demented take on the Snow White fairy tale, told from the perspective of the male lead. The way that Sala obliquely refers to Snow White (a poisonous apple, deranged dwarves, a menacing forest) while reframing the story as a Sala-style tale of horror is truly inspired. As much as this book is a dark reworking of a fairy tale, it's also very much touches on horror-movie tropes. The protagonist experiences multiple dream fake-outs (twice dreaming he was reunited with his lost love Delphine, and twice waking to horror), unexplained danger (he'e never given the slightest clue as to what's happening or why), and an array of grotesque but familiar creatures who dog his every step. Sala's scratchy, wobbly line is a perfect fit for this kind of fractured fairy tale, both cartoony and grotesque. The brown color tone contributes to the dirty, grungy feel of this story.

The main weakness of this issue is that it felt much less like a complete story (which Sala had managed in the first two issues) and very much like a whiplash ride that leads to a cliffhanger. The hero met the one figure from Snow White we hadn't yet seen in the story (the wicked Queen), and it'll be interesting to see how Sala wraps up the story. Sala's protagonists are always very active and propulsive, but their actions don't necessarily always lead up to solutions. Given the relentless darkness of the series to date, it'll be interesting to see if the hero manages to actually find Delphine, and if so, what the nature of their reunion will be like.

Baobab #3, by series editor Igort, is another pitch-perfect, achingly beautiful comic. Igort's sense of composition alone is worth the price of admission; BAOBAB is the most strikingly attractive of the Ignatz books, where every page is worthy of simply being stared at. This is a deliberately-paced story involving multiple threads and locations and will take a while, I'm sensing to fully coalesce. Most of the action has centered on cartoonist Celestino of the fictional South American island nation of Parador. Thus far, Igort has thrown the kitchen sink at the reader in terms of themes, motifs and storytelling concerns.

The storyline involving Celestino is about the power of comics (including many pages of Celestino's own comics), the struggle to create art, the way art survives under an oppressive government, the nature of friendship and family, the relationship between science and spirituality, and the ways in which the unconscious guides everything. There's a sequence in which a mesmerist accidentally coaxes Celestino into confessing his love for his longtime friend Tecla that fits perfectly with Igort's exploration of spiritualist practices of the early 20th century and his obvious affection for his characters. On top of everything else, Igort's use of negative space is ingenious. In one panel where Celestino describes bad news as though he "had been kicked in the face by a willful mule", Igort draws an image of a man being kicked (with a starburst impact) by a donkey, the men rendered only in terms of shadow and light. He returned twice more to that particular visual motif, going from violence to understanding to cooperation.

We also get another glimpse of the young Japanese boy Hiroshi, who learns that his grandmother is dying. These pages incorporate some traditions of Japanese art, like the emphasis on landscape vs figure drawing, where the background becomes an important character in its own right. It's a bit frustrating as a reader to be given so little forward momentum regarding this part of the story, but the key to engaging BAOBAB is simply to enjoy the ride as best as possible without worrying too much about where things are headed.

In the last pages of Interiorae #3, the languidly-paced bit of mythology by Gabriella Giandelli, we finally start to get an explanation of why there was an anthropomorphic rabbit feeding dreams to a creature living in an apartment building's basement. This is a comic with a number of sharp contrasts that don't fully emerge until after it's been read. It's the story of the lives of the people in the building: quotidian dramas that seem like life and death to them, but seem rather quiet and muted when compared to this mysterious, ominous mythological narrative. The creature that feeds on dreams is a kind of godlike being, and the rabbit is his go-between. The implication is that he's performing some kind of service, and the fact that some people are able to detect him is a bad sign. The figures are simply but expressively, but the intensity of the hatching and shading on each page adds a sort of neurotic underpinning to everyone's lives. What seemed like the most rambling and episodic book in the Ignatz line may well end up having one of its most conventional narratives; the next issue will conclude the series.

Zak Sally's comics have always had a powerfully visceral quality to them, especially with regard to pain and confusion. I'm not talking about emotional pain, but rather the feel of splitting headaches, bones splintering, waves of nausea and the like. What's more is that he's able to play these sensations off for dark laughs, like in his gloriously rambling Sammy The Mouse #2. The opening sequence, where poor Sammy is in a field and gets poked in the head by the finger of god, was a hilarious one--especially when he's jolted out of a fitful sleep and awakes with a deadly hangover. Sally structurally takes us back to the first issue, where an unwelcome visitor demands that Sammy leave his house, and a voice from above tells him he must do so.

Like in the previous issue, the person rousting him from sleep is a lunatic. This time, it's a woman that Sammy has never met who insists that she knows him and must drag him off to a picnic. Sally's line is gloriously ragged and expressive, once again evoking a world suggestive of classic comic strips, only much grimier and more frightening. Sammy is constantly being propelled forward against his will, but finds ways to bend back against that influence. The woman (who oddly wears a fake mustache to look more "exotic") is an especially frustrating influence: she claims to know him, demands his time, never listens and never stops shouting enthusiastically. Meanwhile, there's all sorts of weirdness going on in the background: a short man with sharp teeth emerging from the ocean (who in the last issue mysteriously fired a gun), the disappearance of Sammy's friend Puppy-Boy, and some kind of oceanic prison. Above all else, it's frequently gruesomely funny. The scene where a rabbit buries a nail into the forehead of a drunken duck who was taunting him made me both flinch and laugh, which roughly sums up the experience of reading this book so far. I'm not sure where the narrative is going, but Sally's stories, no matter how odd they may seem, tend to eventually cohere.

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