Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #28: Adventures In Cartooning, CCS Booklet, Jai Gronofsky, Dan Archer, Ian Richardson

The newest book in the First Second line of Adventures in Cartooning, Characters In Action!, returns to the original's tactic of doing a full story and then explaining its techniques for imitation at the end.  CCS chief James Sturm once again teams up with grads Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost (who handles most of the art chores) to create a charming, funny and ultimately useful guide to character generation. The story follows the knight who's been the protagonist of each book, trying to figure out why her castle is under assault by a host of weirdos. A Hollywood director named "Otto Airs" (ouch) is casting his new movie, which leads to all sorts of shenanigans. It was quite clever of the team to compare casting a movie with creating one's own comic book characters, which made it natural to discuss "wrong" fits for roles, what a "right" fit looks like, etc. When it came time to actually discuss specifics, the reader is ready to absorb the highly useful tips on how to design simple characters that are easily reproducible from panel to panel, how to tell characters apart using only body language, how to draw different character expressions, etc. There isn't an emphasis on more advanced ideas like panel-to-panel and page-to-page transitions, just a grounding in the basic skills to encourage a fledgling cartoonist to draw a story with confidence. In that respect, it's the most useful book yet in the series.

The promotional pamphlet for CCS has traditionally been a strong comic in its own right. This year's pamphlet, drawn by Brandon Elston, is no exception. His style is a mix of underground exaggeration and alt-comics cartoonyness, drawing from the same sort of classic comics and kids comics that folks like Terry Laban, Jaime Hernandez, Peter Bagge and Robert Crumb did. His style is in the same ballpark as fellow underground enthusiasts Joseph Remnant, Ed Piskor and Noah Van Sciver. However, Elston's art is much more rubbery and clear-lined than those artists. Elston uses cross-hatching when appropriate, but his work is nowhere near as dense as those peers; instead, he prefers to use strong black and white contrasts to heighten his goofy, grotesque character work. This is a talented artist still cycling through his influences but already demonstrating he has the chops to do any kind of work he wants.

Let's take a further look at a trio of CCS cartoonists who sent me word of their on-line efforts.  First up is Jai Granofksy, who's doing a traditional webcomic called Waiting For Baby. It's just 29 pages in at the moment, but there's something wonderfully earnest and intimate in the way he's revealing both himself and his relationship with his girlfriend, Shira. The story starts with his courtship of Shira, one that spanned a number of years, and has stopped with Granofsky encounter a minefield of self-doubt and depression as he's wondering if he's a fit candidate to be a father. His character design is fleshy and cartoony, with lots of big bodies and expressive faces. He reminds me a bit of Mike Dawson, who employs a similar style of expressive realism in his comics as the reader always knows that this is a story with real emotional stakes that's given just a hint of distance with character design and expressions that occasionally get rubbery and distorted. His use of color is mostly muted and restrained, until he needs to emphasize something like a bedbug infestation. That restraint allows him to occasionally use color as a sort of exclamation mark,and it's an effective storytelling tool. Granofsky's story is one that's as much about his own painful self-exploration as it is (at this point) about the pregnancy and fatherhood, as a family dynamics experience hammered home his terror that he might pass on bad genetic traits. The framework of the pregnancy takes it out of the realm of simple autobio navel-gazing, as does his honest devotion and care for both his girlfriend and the future baby.

Second is Ian Richardson, who sent me links to three stories. All three are about prey and predators to some extent. "Prey" is the most visually direct version of this kind of horror story, as a creepy man follows a young girl (complete with balloon) down into a deserted subway stop, only to find out that prey that was too good to be true certainly was. This comic is interesting because of Richardson's interesting use of weird angles to create a disorienting effect for the reader. "Husk" has a visceral quality not unlike that of a Tom Neely comic (without the same level of polish), as this time the predator is a former companion: a black, mossy substance that has sharp, needle-like edges. That substance protected a mariner who happens upon a magical island (that looks not unlike human skin), but when it looks like the island's magic will free him of it, the substance acts violently. The least successful of the three stories is "Alpha", an overly talky comic about a dog that eventually takes revenge on an old woman who kills her husband (and the dog's master). This revelation is not made explicit, but is telegraphed way ahead of time like an old EC comic. That's the oldest story discussed here, and the subsequent stories feel like Richardson attempting to explore the same kind of idea in more subtle and visually exciting fashion. "Prey" in particular is especially promising  because it succeeds in providing the kind of visual shock that "Alpha" does not.

Lastly is the prolific Dan Archer, the cartoonist/journalist whose work is everywhere these days. His "Introduction to Comics Journalism" is a useful an d visually fluid overview of the discipline/art, one that gets to the heart of the "objectivity" debate in journalism. Archer makes up for his limited rendering ability by trying to think of innovative, interactive ways comics can relate a story, like in this account of the 2007 Nissor Square shootings in Iraq. Archer uses a slide show to advance the timeline on top of a map with simple icons, and the reader then clicks on "hot spots" to read a brief comic describing the action. It's an amazingly effective way to get across eyewitness accounts of a complicated and awful incident. This strip is a more standard approach, as Archer uses the effective device of using one person's anecdotal experience to bring the global slave trade into sharper relief. When Archer uses a single shade to accentuate his drawings, it gives his comics power and consistency. However, when he tries to use too much color in too small a space, like in this strip about the US banking crisis, the result is a cluttered and fussy looking page that's hard to read. That strip about the shootings in Iraq was like nothing I've never seen before; it had some small elements of animation but its design and heart was all about comics. I'd love to see a similar kind of comics/map/timeline combination for other events in the future from him, as it really takes advantage of technology without simply having bells and whistles for their own sake.

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