Friday, January 24, 2014

Sweet Home Chicago: Chenette, Modlin, Galloway, Leipzig, A. Dahm

At Autoptic, I saw a lot of work from some young artists living in Chicago that I wasn't familiar with. Let's examine these minis, artist by artist.

The Ruins, Chapter 0-2, by Amara Leipzig. This is an interesting narrative following an old woman who was seemingly birthed from and nurtured by a vast sprawl of abandoned ruins. The prologue and first two chapters take the reader through the earliest moments of her life and go into great detail regarding the trial and error nature of learning one's environment. As such, these comics have a powerfully visceral quality to them as Leipzig tries to get across the physical sensation of smooth stone, cold rain and ripe fruit--as well as the sensation of vomiting when eating the wrong things. Chapter One is perhaps the most interesting entry, given that it covers the birth of the woman, who was presumably abandoned in the ruins by her actual mother. Leipzig leaves that and many other details deliberately vague at this point, because what's more important is relaying the way a life is lived without any social input. The comic features a parade of problem-solving exercises on how to depict things like hunger without words and heavily relies on motion lines and sound effects to make the reader understand precisely what's going on in each panel on a phenomenological level. Leipzig's line is functional and simple, getting out of the way of her interesting page compositions and getting across information in a direct manner.

In The Sounds and Seas Volume 1, by Marnie Galloway. This a silent comic that speaks volumes. Galloway's intricate but organic style of creating patterns is absolutely beautiful to behold. Opening with a dense but geometrically precise forest, we see three women open their mouths to emit wave after wave of rabbits, birds and fish. Their three strands merge into a larger wave reminiscent of an M.C. Escher drawing, until they coalesce into an actual ocean wave. We then see a young woman in a small, chilly coastal town. She visits what seems to be a combination of museum and workshop in a large barn, marveling at the skeletal models of boats and whales and imagining a whale being made up of that very song/wave that we saw earlier in the book. She asks the curator for three things, and the curator opens up some old trunks in a storage room and dives into them, going to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve a rope, an anchor and a chain. The young woman sees a painting of the three singers from earlier in the book and opens up her mouth hoping for her own song, but finds nothing. Galloway's images are flexible and offer multiple interpretations, but the three women we see earlier are clearly creative spirits, collaborating on a greater work. Whether they're singing or bringing forth life isn't important; the fact that they have their own powerful voices and have learned how to use them together is key. The curator is a guardian of secrets and knowledge who can help the young woman in her search, but cannot actually give her the spark of creativity. Galloway makes that painfully apparent in the final pages here, as she is despondent that she literally doesn't have anything inside her that desperately needs to come out. She has no voice of her own. This is the first of three planned volumes, and I imagine the next two will address this sense of desperation and discovery. This first volume won a richly deserved Xeric grant (one of the last ones awarded), and the quality of the book's design speaks to how much thought Galloway gave to her story. Galloway cleverly ties in the patterns and waves we hear in music with the patterns we see in art and the waves we see in water, blurring the lines between the concrete and the metaphorical. It's a beautiful account of the struggle for meaning, for one's voice as an artist and one's desire to be part of a continuum of creativity.

Melba and Malbik and The Big Sweet, by Talya Modlin. Modlin's brushy, slightly distorted and grotesque character design remind me a bit of Leela Corman by way of Aline Kominski-Crumb. Modlin's gift is being able to uncannily depict the language of teenagers--both in terms of dialogue and body language. In particular, she's adept in depicting how the two are at constant odds in teenagers, with the awkwardness of their bodies and posture belying tough talk and braggadocio. At the same time, she takes those particular sorts of interactions and plants them in slightly off-kilter scenarios. For example, The Big Sweet is about two boys in a grapefruit tree, trash-taking each other as they try to get the best fruit. When one of the kids starts talking about the sexiness of the fruit, it leads to a bizarre and hilarious hallucination after he falls out of the tree. Modlin's touch of the absurd thrown into the proceedings is a perfect counterbalance to the verisimilitude of the dialogue. She goes a step further in part one of Melba and Malbik. It's about a young girl moving into an apartment building with her family. She meets a boy living in the building who takes an immediate shine to her, and this first chapter serves as an effective tour of the building's eccentric inhabitants. Of course, the last inhabitant, a hulking man named Malbik, proves to be the most mysterious and dangerous, given his history of uncontrollable rages and strange behavior. It's unclear if Modlin aims to make this the story of an unusual friendship or something else, but there's a vividness to the way she outlines each character that once again has an almost visceral quality. The reader can almost smell and touch the apartment building, even if much of it is depicted using a shadowy technique that puts the emphasis on atmosphere over clarity. It's a messy place with messy lives, and Modlin gets that across on every page.

Thoughts Become Things #2, by Danielle Chenette. This is a sketchbook collection of assorted odds and ends, and as such it has a typically rough, immediate quality to it. There's page after page of crisp, expressive figure drawings that really capture the essence of each subject, revealing them as living figures on the page rather than drawn to death. The short story "Cheery Beery" was rendered quickly and simply, and depicts two young men on a boat, with one getting drunk for the first time and diving into the ocean, like a fish ready to be caught on a hook. In her drawings, I especially liked the way Chenette varies her line, going from a fine line to a shadowy scribble that becomes increasingly abstracted as it depicts motion. "Quickly Evolve" depicts an argument between tadpoles wishing to accelerate their development so that they can join in the frog chorus. Using dense, wavy lines, Chenette relates a tale of yearning, jealousy and a failure to heed good advice. This all feels a bit like a series of warm-up exercises rather than polished projects, but one can still see Chenette's promise as a cartoonist.

Sorry If That Was Weird, by Alex Dahm. This is a brief collection of four-panel gag strips, rendered in a crude style that plays up the slightly grotesque nature of Dahm's character design. The bulk of the humor is in the dialogue and set-ups, but it helps that Dahm's drawings are worth looking at in and of themselves. The strip above, where in the final panel we get a close-up of Dahm's face with gaps between her teeth, disheveled hair and a scrunched-up nose is simply a funny image. The strips themselves never overreach into trying to squeeze humor out of everything, like one scene where Dahm is vomiting into a toilet for three panels and is asked by her boyfriend if it was worth it. Dahm is simply reporting on direct, powerful images from her daily life; it just so happens that most of them are funny. As she refines her line and storytelling, Dahm could really make an impact as a humorist. While her character design is great, how the characters relate to each other and their surroundings in space is sometimes on the awkward side; that's the sort of thing that gets sorted out with time.

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