Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #5: Aaron Cockle

As Aaron Cockle grows ever more prolific as a cartoonist, his confidence as a storyteller is increasing at a similar rate. In addition to his own one-man anthology Annotated, he's also doing an intriguing series for Oily Comics called Word and Voice. Semiotics has long been a key focus of his work, as Cockle is constantly looking for new ways to explore the relationships between words and their meanings as well as words in connection with images. He frequently merges this preoccupation with a fascination for doomsday and post-apocalyptic scenarios, with the breakdown and manipulation of language being a key to bringing down or irrevocably altering civilization as we know it.

Word and Voice is an expansion on this idea, slowly unraveling life as it is lived in the wake of such a catastrophic meltdown. In each twelve-page issue (I have the first six of seven published), the reader is slowly clued in on that society is in ruins as a lone man scouts the streets until he finally finds a woman and child holed up in their apartment. Silence is finally broken in the form of dialogue that appears to be gibberish. Hints are given of a "word virus" that afflicted humanity, including a couple on the moon. These comics are powerful in terms of getting across emotion, like when the man is able to reunite the family with a larger, hidden subculture that's taken refuge from the apocalypse. It's even more poignant and heartbreaking later in the series when Cockle conflates the deterioration of a relationship with the loss of communication that all of humanity was experiencing with one character's monologue. What's interesting about the series is how languidly-paced it is. Cockle lets images wash over the reader before slowly introducing new narrative elements from issue-to-issue, which is the opposite of how he normally works in Annotated.

Annotated #10 is a classic example of Cockle coming to a story in media res and demanding that the reader keep up. This is perhaps his best-realized story to date, and it promises to be the first part of a longer story. The story is told in flashback, as a man talks about certain kinds of technology he bought and how it changed his life, then jumps ahead to how he first met a particular, remarkable woman that he later became involved with. From there, Cockle has the man discuss the roots of an elaborately plotted "soft coup", tactical missile strikes, a new technocracy and other craziness. All along, however, the story is rooted in the man's relationship to her and he felt ever more distant as she became an important part of this new world order. What's fascinating about the story is the way Cockle has the man become obsessed with what he calls "The Game" (the specifics of how the coup worked), but it's obvious that it becomes a substitute for truly knowing her. By the end, the reader understands that the coup has ultimately failed as he is being interrogated by whatever government is now in charge. It's the perfect Cockle story, as he grounds conspiracy theory and philosophy in the very human preoccupations of love and connection. It's also impeccably designed, as it's read from top left to bottom left and then top right to bottom right, with a cascading panel design that makes this flow quite naturally. There's a simplicity to his drawing that makes the comic all the more effective, as Cockle keeps his images clear and easy to parse, even if their actual meaning is deliberately obscure. I'd hand this comic to anyone who wanted to know what Cockle's work is all about.

Annotated #11 is more of a grab-bag of ideas and images. "The Drones-Eye View" is a fascinating series of interlocking thoughts about how we see art, given distance by certain meta tricks. Cockle uses the phrase "False start stories made up of random images. Titles added to elicit some sense of uneasiness" on page three, and this precisely describes what happens on pages one and two. From there, he launches into "The Review of the Reviewers", about a zine critic and a film critic who are assigned a zine and the movie made out of it, respectively. Again and again, the story is about both this other project but can also be interpreted as self-criticisms ("Too much ill-conceived collage.") From there, Cockle moves on to wonder about how the director Roberto Rossellini decided what material he would use from James Joyce's "The Dead" in his film and what he would change as a way of thinking about how an artist decides what elements an artist takes from life for their work. The other stories in this issue are digitally-produced reactions to certain news stories, like a transcript from a military commission that is a perfect segue into a transcription from Franz Kafka. The issue concludes with fragments from particular readings about various artists being aware of outside influences in terms of inspiration, competition, verisimilitude and necessity. Each anecdote reveals how much a work of art can be influenced by one of these outside forces, like Russian montage filmmakers being constrained by a small supply of actual film and no money to buy more. Fittingly, Cockle ends the issue with a list of recommendations and reviews of comics and other media that are currently of interest to him, coming full circle to this phenomenological exploration of aesthetics. 

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