Monday, April 14, 2014

Three From The Triangle: Adam Meuse, M.R. Trower, Jenny Zervakis

One of the reasons I helped create DICE (Durham Indie Comics Expo) was to spotlight the interesting and diverse range of cartooning talent that's emerged here in what's known as The Triangle portion of North Carolina (Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill). Mineshaft of course publishes out of Durham, and there are long-time cartooning veterans like Eric Knisley (a DICE co-organizer), Kevin Dixon, Mark McMurray and many others. Here, I thought I'd spotlight the work of three cartoonists who had these comics available at DICE last November.

Roh and Eik, by M.R. Trower. Trower is a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and these comics reveal a young cartoonist with an interesting point of view who is rapidly developing. Roh was student work (done in Paul Karasik's class) and there's a lot here that makes that plain. Trower works too small in this comic, with a number of scenes lessened in terms of emotional impact because Trower tried to cram too much onto one page. This is unfortunate, because their linework is quite excellent, with an expressive quality that matches deft draftsmanship along with a fluid understanding of panel-to-panel transitions. Roh follows a high school girl who was born with frog-like creatures who's treated as a freak by her peers, teachers and parents. Only a P.E. coach (herself an "other" because the students think she's a lesbian) see Roh's potential as a track star on the hurdles. I thought that was a nice touch, adding a clever real-life use of her frog-related abilities. When Roh is told to dissect a frog in class or else, she rebels against the teacher, principal and even her parents, who want her to have "the surgery". All of this is, of course, a pretty clear metaphor for queer issues in general and transgender issues in particular. The latter half of the book gets a bit messy, as Roh runs away from home, meets a soul mate, and then encounters an actual demon in human form that tries to kill them. When Roh saves them both, they are provided a deux ex machina out of their entire existence: the opportunity to live on another world where everyone is "strange". This was clearly a wish-fulfillment scenario, one that came out of nowhere, and it took what was an emotionally wrenching and powerful story and gave it an easy way out.

Eik, finished in early 2013, is a more nuanced and interesting story that touches on similar themes. The story once again opens in a school, with a figure named Eik who's a sort of anthropomorphic set of geometric shapes, running for their life. Chased by a mob of slightly different shapes and patterns, they manage to escape underground. From there, Trower takes us on a tour of Eik's world, where children are allowed to change their shapes only up until a certain age, when that shape must harden into a societally-acceptable form that directly informs their role. Be it labor, enforcement or simply "filler", once you line up and take your form, there's no going back. Eik's dilemma was realizing that they were due to become part of the "martyr" class, whose members could help "beat back enemies of society by participating in a noble suicide mission". Trower's work is all about subverting the idea of binaries, fixed roles and the societal pressure that demands this sort of conformity, and Eik's world proved to be a more flexible way of exploring this metaphor than Rho. When Eik literally goes underground and is given a variety of choices that include isolation, surrender and confrontation, they choose confrontation. That leads to a battle with self that results in a sort of blossoming that transforms the whole of society, but not without personal cost. It's an ending that has a utopian quality, only this time it's one where society is transformed instead of escaped. The cartooning is uniformly excellent, as the vagueness of the characters' forms allows Trower a lot of room to invent their own set of cultural norms that are still closely tied to ours. The clear linework is dazzling, especially in the sequences where Eik is trying to negotiate pipes underwater and the populace is transformed; indeed, there seems to be just a touch of the Fort Thunder aesthetic to be found in those pages, only with far greater use of spotting blacks. In these two comics, Trower's already shown an interesting use of genre tropes for metaphors related to identity and oppression and has demonstrated an impressive set of cartooning skills. They promise to be an ambitious and challenging artist as their work continues to mature from a storytelling perspective.

Strange Growths #16, by Jenny Zervakis. John Porcellino has long listed Zervakis as an inspirational figure for his comics; in fact, he will be publishing a collection of her work for his Spit-and-a-Half distro in the near future. It's easy to see why Zervakis, whose output has been greatly slowed in the past decade because of family and work, was such an important figure for Porcellino and others interested in comics-as-poetry in the 90s. In her most recent issue of her series Strange Growths, Zervakis focuses on drawings of her environment, her children, her pets and the simple implications of everyday life and everyday sensory experience. Take "Winter Wonderland", for instance. This is a simple story about a rare snow day in Durham, one that she and her daughters took advantage of by making a trek to the local college campus. With great precision, Zervakis describes the feeling of the air and environment around her. With her scratchy and grey-scaled imagery, she depicts how alien the landscape became covered in snow and ice, most of all getting at the stillness and sense of magic that all three felt.

Zervakis' comics also have a warmth to them thanks to a creator not afraid to fully express her emotions without worrying about a particular kind of payoff or a potential lapse into sentiment. In "I Am Thankful For Betty The Dog", Zervakis transforms a simple story about a lost dog with health issues into an examination of her family structure, the emotional development of her older daughter, and her own feelings when that dog reappears again as though by magic. "Postcards From Ripley's Aquarium" shows the artist ilustrating the weirdness of aquatic creatures, using a fat line and lots of black in a manner that captured something essential about these animals. There's a crude beauty in Zervakis' line; it's not quite as refined as Porcellino, but there's a sense of immediacy and even urgency in the way that she draws her stories, her dreams and the observations of both her children and herself. This is a must-read for any fan of this kind of thoughtful, reserved sort of storytelling.

White Cards, by Adam Meuse. Meuse was a revelation for many at DICE, because while he's fairly well known locally, this hilarious cartoonist doesn't have much of a national profile. The out-of-towners who saw his witty, absurd and frequently filthy cartoons were impressed. While he generally works with a simple and uncluttered line, there's actually a great deal of studied clarity and simplicity to be found in his work that clearly came after a great deal of thought. In White Cards, comics that Meuse drew at work to stave off boredom for him and his co-workers, the opposite was true. These are totally off-the-cuff, disgusting and hilarious gag strips involving him and his co-workers Heather, Tracy and Curtis. They are frequently violent, scatological, sexual and wholly inappropriate. My favorite part of the book was a series of cartoons involving Tracy having a sexual relationship with a giraffe that gets every bit out of this possibility as one can imagine, including a giraffe's neck/cunnilingus joke that had me rolling. Meuse excised the cartoons that were too in-jokey and provides all the necessary information needed to enjoy each series of jokes. Mostly, he expertly captures that sense of frustration and mind-numbing boredom that can lead to shared moments like this, where there's that one co-worker who does something to make one's day more exciting. Meuse just happened to be that co-worker, who was fueled by their interactions to create something memorable.

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