Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #17: Jesse Mead, Carl Antonowicz

Carl Antonowicz's The Black Dog & The Hole At The Heart of the World is a magical realist romance story, only the fantasy elements border on the horrific rather than whimsical. It's the story of a first date between Gabi and Caleb and everything that happens after. It's obvious that Antonowicz has thought long and hard about these characters and the ways in which a couple creates a new narrative when they get together. That is, whatever narrative and characters were present in one's life become inextricably linked to the other person's own sense of continuity and "supporting cast", often creating new, branching storylines. Antonowicz writes this concept large when the two characters indeed have crazy things happen to them, and dealing with these things and revealing them to the reader becomes a central point of each issue.

Gabi lives in an apartment with a giant black hole in the wall; her flatmate, Em, simply sits and stares at the hole all day while she provides some minimal level of care for him. Caleb's secret is that every woman he's ever been with winds up dying, though the causes vary and seem unconnected. Except that Caleb sees a magical black dog following him around, working as a kind of silent avatar of death. Antonowicz has quite an ear for dialogue, especially the sort that buzzes around bars. The level of understanding that he has of his characters allows him to spring new facts about them on the reader with a minimum of clumsy artifice; instead, one gets a real sense that both Gabi and Caleb are lonely and a little desperate but see the possibilities down the road for themselves. What I'm less convinced of is Antonowicz's drawing style. It's a naturalistic style that frequently looks striking, but it lacks panel-to-panel consistency. Some of the drawing is downright sloppy in a way that clashes with things in the comic. Some panels and faces are over-rendered while others look hastily sketched, and the way he over-uses shading and grey-scaling is frequently a distraction. It simply seems to be a matter of learning to trust his line and finding ways to simplify things, allowing the more fantastic images (like the creepy black dog) to pop out even more forcefully on the page.

Jesse Mead is another artist whose comics mix personal and fantasy elements. His art has a shambling, pleasing sketchiness to it, threatening to unspool on the page yet just barely hanging together enough to support his interesting page composition choices and character designs. He also excels at drawing evocative nature scenes using a minimum of lines. The Adventures of Juniper Black is a brief and tantalizing comic that starts with a young girl traveling with a party through a dangerous forest, only to see a beloved companion disappear before her eyes. Mead switches from a blue wash to a dramatic yellow spot color in the second chapter, one dominated by his use of blacks. Here, the hardened, adult version of Juniper is out exploring, when she encounters a blob-like mass that surprises her by speaking. This is smart, dense fantasy storytelling; I could easily see Mead hopping on the Cartozia Tales bandwagon, because his storytelling interests would fit that anthology like a glove.

Mead self-describes Black River as being made solely for his own enjoyment, and it shows. It simply seems full of images that the artist enjoys drawing: forests, monsters, swords, bars, etc. Roughly speaking, it's about a group of friends that somehow winds up in a magical world where "leveling up" in the role playing game/video game sense is a real thing when they kill monsters or do something heroic. Again, the art has a relaxed, ramshackle feel to it as Mead studiously avoids over-rendering and places a clear premium on spontaneity. The story itself is equally as relaxed and even in-jokey at times, as Mead is in no hurry to tell the reader too much of how and why the characters got there, instead preferring to concentrate on character dynamics and an array of clever visual jokes. I normally have a strong aversion to the sort of RPG comics that pollute the web, but this comic feels so personal and the high concept is so clever that it quickly won me over.

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