Wednesday, July 17, 2013

CCS-Powered Anthologies: Irene 2 and Sundays 5

Irene #2, edited by Andy Warner, dw and Dakota McFadzean. This is another strong entry from this mostly-group of grads from the Center for Cartoon Studies. I like the push-and-pull in its sensibilities with Warner (a naturalistic storyteller), McFadzean (an artist with a delicate but cartoony line) and dw (who specializes in abstractions, patterns and text appropriations), leading to a book that has a bleakly humorous streak. Take McFadzean's "Standing Water", for example. This one features a young boy making his way around his neighborhood wearing a mask, only the entire area is under water. Friends, family and pets float limply in the water, and his attempts at interacting with the world reveal a hidden well of meanings that have lost all their significance in the wake of what is essentially the end of the world. What seem to be acts of revenge or cruelty lose their meaning, leading him to a sense of sad resignation in a totally absurd situation.

Both sets of "Drawings" from dw serve to accent and set off the more conventional narratives, sounding a discordant and occasionally confrontational note in the way they use text and challenge the eye with their psychedelic patterns. After his first set of drawings come three dark stories in a row: Beth Hetland's "1838g", Warner's "Champions" and Sean K's "Ghosts". The first story is about the steady drumbeat of a nightmare that stops and starts. Is the woman in this story pregnant and afraid, imagining her baby to be a hideous parasite? Is she giving birth in the end or having an abortion? Warner's story is from the point of view of a young teen living in the rebellious glow of his older brother, following him as he storms away from his step-father and gets into a drunken snowmobile race that can only have tragic consequences. That Warner has the young narrator filled with nothing but hope makes its subtext all the more sad. "Ghosts" is shockingly straightforward: a young couple enters their house, douse themselves with gasoline and set themselves on fire. The causes of their despair are never mentioned; the drawing of a pentagram on the floor simply indicates that they had run out of options.

I was unfamiliar with Omar Khouri's work before seeing it in Irene, but his smudged, brushy story about a young man in Lebanon refusing to accept his father's legacy as a political strongman was funny and fascinating. The story is filled with scathing political satire that reflects both the sense of hope and cynicism inherent in the "Arab Spring" of the past few years, getting across the sense that the reins of power are loose enough for protest to make a difference but leaving a lingering sense of doubt that any change could be lasting or real. The back half of the comic is slightly less bleak, as Sophie Yanow's account of being escorted by a kind African cabbie in Paris consists entirely of the view from the cab, with no human figures present at all. Marc Bell's rubbery drawings and comic eye-pops make for a nice contrast to dw's drawings. Jonah McFadzean's "Monster Soup" actually works to reduce a sense of active dread with a child's logic and problem-solving. Finally, Bailey Sharp's story about being a poor cartoonist working in an art gallery and being confronted by a high-rolling elite asshole ends the book on a much-needed laugh. Her grotesque approach and willingness to take the piss out of everyone (artists, punks, the rich) leads to a number of very funny plot and character twists, and her critiques of the art world are as dead-on as her self-critiques. The book is well-edited and nicely designed, and it has the potential to be an impressive series if the editors decide to do future volumes.

Sundays #5, edited by Chuck Forsman, Sean Ford, Alex Kim, Joseph Lambert and Melissa Mendes. The Sundays anthology debuted years ago at the MOCCA festival and caused a big stir, thanks to its production values, ambitiousness and unusual format. This was especially the case because it came from a group of total unknowns, and it acted as a shot across the bow from CCS that its cartoonists were worthy of attention. The third and fourth volumes were absolutely outstanding, with the third coming in an innovative three minis in way package and the fourth simply loaded with cutting-edge cartoonists. The fifth volume, released a year ago, is filled with strong work but doesn't hold together like past volumes. Simply put, I'm not sure every participating artist had the same commitment to publish their best work here as they had in the past.

For example, editor Chuck Forsman didn't even contribute a comic--just a two page illustration. Max de Radigues seemed to have contributed a few pages from his Moose comic. The first four pieces in the book took up a lot of room but looked ill-suited for a black & white anthology. The lack of a clear link or theme also made these stories a slog; I eventually gathered that a loose theme may have been "life and death" or more specifically the line between the two. Damien Jay's "leaf writing" comic was fascinating as an experiment in immersive comics making, but once again it seemed to cry out for color to add greater clarity. Some of its pages were very difficult to read.

Things picked up in a stretch that included a grim but hopeful story by Melissa Mendes and a James Hindle story that popped off the page thanks to its cartoony clarity. Joseph Lambert stepped up with one of his best-ever short stories about a fight between two best friends. No one expresses sheer rage quite like Lambert does, and though its protagonist winds up in hell, she makes things very unpleasant for the Devil. Michael DeForge contributes just a couple of pages, but he manages to cram in a lot of story, as a hunter brings back a stray animal from the forest for his family to eat. It's just that the animal is a human child, eaten entirely with nonchalance. Alex Kim's young girl bringing animal heads to her "papa" in the forest is chilling and enigmatic; even if this is just an excerpt.

John Brodowski's "Wolf Eyes" is a typically hilarious piece that follows his exceptionally-rendered heavy metal fantasies out into the desert, as a sax player's furious solo and the cries of a wolf become one. The final image, of his sports car driving off into a sunrise that features the image of a woman's legs and ass boldly astride mountains, is typical of the wonderful ridiculousness of his comics. The highlights of the final third of the book include Warren Craghead's fascinating drawings of what seems to be a tidal pool over the span of a few hours, his drawings directing the reader's eye by numbering lines as he tries to depict simultaneity; his comics are as much about time in a single image as they are about place or object. Jeff Lok's chicken comics are typically alarming in their comedic structure, as his use of static images clashes in an interesting manner with the cartoony nature of his stories. Colleen Frakes' story about a woman getting food from the ocean was later expanded upon in her own mini, but it fits snugly here. Finally, Alexis Frederick-Frost's short about balloonists encountering a giant bird was typically elegant, horrifying, funny and delightfully-rendered. Sundays 5 is not a bad anthology. At least 2/3 of the work is good-to-excellent. It's just not quite as groundbreaking or sharp as its most recent predecessors, which to be fair is a tough standard to live up to. Given that its editors are busier than ever with their own projects, I'll be curious to see if they continue to publish the anthology.

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