Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #19: Adam Whittier, Josh Kramer, Andy Warner

Josh Kramer's fifth issue of his comics journalism comic The Cartoon Picayune continues its steady improvement, thanks in part to the participation of two polished artists known for their powers of observation and history. Andy Warner's "Sex Workers of the World, Unite!" is an even-handed history of the sex worker movement that was born in San Francisco. It's a movement designed to gain rights and legal protections for all classes of sex worker, from stripper to porn actress to prostitute. Warner did the legwork of getting interviews from a variety of different points of view and key members of the movement. Starting from a place of at least being sympathetic to the plight of sex workers led Warner to making a number of fine distinctions in the internal conflicts within the movement, which I found fascinating. As always, Warner's naturalistic style is clear and bold, with an emphasis on thick lines and spotting blacks as a way of drawing in the reader's attention, and a slightly cartoony style used for character design.

The other major story in this issue, Emi Gennis' "The Radium Girls", fits into her interests by being about unfortunate and unusual deaths but also snugly fits into this issue by unearthing the facts regarding the radium poisoning of female factory workers and the astounding callousness with which the Radium Dial Company treated these young women. Radium poisoning, which was in fact encouraged by the factory owners when they told the workers to swirl the radium-laced paintbushes in their mouths, is an especially painful way to die, but the company sandbagged and died until the end. Gennis' elegant, clear and decorative style frequently used an open layout and distinctive lettering, making it an appropriate pairing with Warner's piece. Kramer's own "Feeding the Meter" is much sketchier and lighter by contrast, which makes sense for this short story about a food truck owner's struggle to stay solvent in the face of onerous new laws. Erik Thurman's "Seoul Grind" is about the explosive coffee shop market in South Korea, how shops struggled to find out the best ways to make coffee and how shops manage to survive in the face of stiff competition. It's less a story than an interesting anecdote, one suited for just a couple of pages. This issue really seems to get it just right, mixing past and present while juxtaposing certain commonalities between both while getting at issues with some resonance.

Andy Warner's The Complete Brief Histories of Everyday Objects is a skillfully assembled mini that uses a consistent design model to deliver interesting stories about the origins of common objects. He manages to find intrigue in objects like ballpoint pens (which initially sold for an outrageous $12 apiece as part of a speculative demand bubble), cinnamon sticks (which were protected and monopolized by Arabs for nearly 3000 years thanks to a monster story) and the safety pin (created in a rush to settle a debt). I especially liked his piece about the bath tub, which is less about the tub and more about legendary writer H.L. Mencken gleefully spreading misinformation about its origins. This makes him the father of fake trivia. Warner then ends each two-page piece with bonus "fun facts", cramming additional research into one row and creating punchlines with single panel commentary. 

Adam Whittier's Phoenix: The Ford Pinto Story, is a tirelessly researched history of the Ford Motor Company's disastrous and dangerous Pinto model that was responsible for several deaths due to the way its rare gas tank leaked and exploded, even at slow speeds. Whittier documents the culture of auto makers at the time, which was that "safety doesn't sell", which led to the Pinto being rushed into production to compete with foreign competitors. The comic directly quotes the many outrageous things said and done by Ford executives, led by Lee Iacocca. Whittier makes some interesting story choices by going with a bright, whimsical drawing style as well as the decision to make "Phoenix", the Pinto prototype, have anthropomorphic qualities. In the context of the story and Whittier's rendering choices and (especially) color choices, having Phoenix talk made sense. In a story with events that were hard to believe (balancing profit over human lives), the fantasy element of Phoenix (as well as the prototype Edsel that came around telling Phoenix the real story) fit right in with larger-than-life characters like Ford and Iacocca. Balancing that fancy with direct quotes and stringently-researched hard numbers gives Phoenix the unusual distinction of being a critical documentation of corporate culture that's also entertaining. Whittier also touches on the idea that trying to recreate historical scenes always adds a fictive, narrative element; putting a talking car in there simply heightens that for the reader and allows Whittier to create a sort of Candide-like character whose fate is controlled by others.

Whittier's A Most Unfortunate Face is a smaller minicomic that shows off his facility for creating grotesque character designs, something that plays into Phoenix on a lesser scale. Whittier's exaggeration is limited to that character design, because he's careful not to overstate his case by using erroneous information that overinflated the number of people who had died in Pintos. Phoenix isn't Whittier's attempt at doing a Ralph Nader-esque Unsafe At Any Speed screed. Indeed, he is even-handed and understanding of certain aspects of corporate logic, especially when it's driven by consumer demand for cheaper products that don't sacrifice certain luxury add-ons. He condemns Ford and Iacocca for the lengths they went to in ignoring the pleas of their safety engineers and their sheer arrogance in how they thought a jury would never punish Ford. Whittier also notes how this trial was the flashpoint for making safety something that consumers would start to demand. This is a solid piece of historical writing, one backed up by primary documents and that has a carefully considered point of view that focuses on historical context as well as the events themselves.

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