Monday, April 21, 2014

Catching Up With Ryan Cecil Smith

Ryan Cecil Smith is one of my favorite young artists to make extensive use of genre tropes in such a way that is true to the concept while subverting it for humorous results. There's also a certain restlessness about his work, as he's exploring different narrative and visual styles. He also clearly thinks long and hard about the worlds that he creates, using world-building as a way to explore different visual and linguistic tricks and tangents. Smith also has tried his hand at other types of comics, like sketchbook diaries, collaborations, and humor. Let's take a quick look at some of those other types of minis over the year before examining the jumbo third issue of his ambitious S.F. series, which was published by Koyama Press.

Howard or "Howie" is a funny little fourth wall experiment, as an increasingly belligerent, musclebound meathead. The narrator cautions the reader that even though Howie is just a creation of pen and ink, he's still trouble. That leads to the hilarious punchline of the book, one that takes advantage of it being on actual paper. It's a good gag, and Smith takes full advantage of the physical space on the page and the grotesque qualities of his steroidal subject. Weird Schmeird #1 is a flip-book he did with fellow Closed Caption Comics member Lane Milburn, using that particular phrase as the central meeting place for their flip book. Smith's portion is about a fantasy adventurer looking around his environment for glory, and he spends much of his time incredibly bored. Suddenly, he's pushed into absurd combat sequences that feel every bit as artificial as the other sequences in the story, finishing up various "levels". It's a silly story that finds Smith subverting the fundamentals of video game adventure tropes, just as Milburn subverts horror tropes in his side of the book.

Cold Heat Special #5 was done in collaboration with Frank Santoro (who did the layouts), as a supplement to Santoro's series with Ben Jones. While I've never been sure of exactly what's going on in the overall series, this mini is simple. A frail man and his daughter are living out in the woods in a society where food is scarce and there's danger around. She goes out in an effort to get food. She encounters a man who kills a dog to get food, and when she tries to do the same, she finds it doesn't work. There are a series of heartbreaking scenes when she gains genuine comfort from hugging a dog before she unsuccessfully tries to kill it. The minicomic is done in a 2 x 3 panel grid; what's clever about it is the way that Smith occasionally has the action from one panel bleed into the next, like one two-panel sequence where she's hugging the dog, or another two panel sequence where they man is using his knife to slash a dog's throat. It's a clever strategy, having action so powerful that it busts through the sequencing strength of a panel border.

Mostly Girls and Cafes is one of Smith's earlier comics, and it's exactly what it sounds like. On a trip to France in 2007, he kept a sketch diary of the places he saw, the people he met and the things he ate. The best pages are those where he gets to draw women who pose for him, like Courtney towards the end of his trip. You can see Smith's style begin to coalesce in this mini, with lots of big, chunky lines for some of his figures, alternating between realistic and cartoony drawing styles, varying line weights to create different effects, lots of hatching and use of blacks to create mood. It's also a nice snapshot of a young man who's on a European adventure and looking to meet interesting people and create connections, though there's a sense of caution running throughout the book as Smith is careful not to waste too much money. Mostly, one gets the sense of a young artist trying to experience and record as much as possible, and finding that balance difficult at times.

This brings us to Smith's most current work, the epic sci-fi homage/parody S.F. Modeled after the feel (rather than plot) of manga and anime tropes, this third issue of S.F. continues to follow the adventures of S.F. mascot Hupa, a young boy whose parents were randomly killed by the Seductress, leader of the Pirate Nation. S.F. is Smith's all-encompassing and telescoping series of abbreviations. At its root, it's unstated that it simply stands for "science fiction". In the story, it stands for Space Fleet Scientific Foundation Special Forces (or S.F.S.F.S.F.). There's a large and colorful cast of characters that include talking cats, intelligent birds and duck-billed men as well as more traditional "scientist-fighters". Getting to work big here suited the scope of Smith's ambitions, as the first part of the story is a giant space battle and cat-and-mouse game in an asteroid field. The second involves suspicion on the part of S.F. member Russell (the cat) regarding Hupa--is he a robot spy? They investigate the site of Hupa's parents death, as Hupa recovers some stationery and some mysterious gems wind up in the hands of the disguised Seductress. The third part of the book details the bumbling yet successful adventures of Agent Man, the lazy S.F. member who somehow lucks into defeating his enemies on a mission. As always, Smith leaves the issue on a cliffhanger, once again highlighting the secret importance of Hupa. The comic is a success in part because of Smith's kitchen-sink approach, which is part parody of wacky adventure manga but also an understanding that having no limits to the kind of cartooning he can bring to bear on his series only makes it more appealing. Smith alternates between highly detailed and clever space battles to using rubbery figures, absurd perspectives and a use of zip-a-tone and other effects to give each page depth and texture. That mix of larger-than-life reality on the page is a perfect match for the space/soap opera nature of the characters and their struggles, as well as the silly wordplay and slapstick humor Smith throws in. Even the craziest jokes and bigfoot gags fit together with more serious drawings if the narrator keeps a straight face throughout, and that's just with Smith does here.

Smith is continuing to make "supplementary files" (yet another SF) for S.F., the most recent being S.F. v P.N. It's an adventure story wherein the fleets of S.F. and the Pirate Nation battle each other, but it's also a clever constraint comic in that all dialogue and text in general is laid out in a pattern where words beginning with "s" and "f" are then followed by "v", "p" and "n".  Not every word begins with those letters, but there is a cycle where words beginning with those letters (and in that order) are used. What's remarkable about this little comic, is that this constraint is remarkably fluid and entirely consistent with the sort of dialogue used in Smith's other comics. He's not afraid to use florid language, nor is he afraid to use slang. As always, Smith's comics look like bizarre artifacts, managing to seem both old and new. The use of spot reds add both text and clever visual effects, taking the reader slightly out of the action, as though we were watching the events on a television screen somewhere. The extensive use of zip-a-tone effects heightens that feeling of artificiality, that these are images instead of real events. In all of his comics, Smith never wants the reader to forget that they are looking at drawings and wants them to think about the sheer beauty of lines and dots on paper while getting swept along with the story. That push and pull between his vivid imagination and acceptance of the artificiality of drawings qua drawings is at the heart of Smith's work, working in parallel to his love of genre and desire to turn it inside-out and see what makes it tick.

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