Thursday, September 11, 2014

Catching Up With Sam Alden

Sam Alden has come a long way since I reviewed some of his earlier work, deservedly winning the Promising New Talent award at the Ignatz Awards in 2013. He's since proven to be a restless talent, constantly looking to refine his work in new and interesting ways.

Let's begin with It Never Happened Again, his release from Uncivilized Books. It contains two stories: "Hawaii 1997" (which was nominated for an Ignatz last year and was in many ways his stylistic breakthrough) and "Anime" (a far more ambiguous story that reflects many of his current storytelling concerns). When I first wrote about Alden, he was drawing in the highly naturalistic, detailed style of a Craig Thompson or Nate Powell. An initial breakthrough came in the crazy Brazilian anthology GBGB and his surreal, viscerally erotic story "Fluxo"; this story seemed to find Alden giving himself permission to break a lot of cartooning rules and start to simplify his line. "Hawaii 1997" not only finds Alden stripping his line all the way down to pencils, it's done in the most spontaneous, expressive manner possible. The story really looks like what many artists would consider to be breakdowns for a story they redraw in greater detail later, but the nature of this particular story demanded a different approach.

It's about a ten-year-old Alden on vacation with his family and just beginning to become curious about sex, as the opening sequence with him shyly peeping on an older girl sunbathing reveals. Later, he leaves his beachside room when everyone else was asleep to take in the vista of the ocean at night. Here, we can see how his visual strategy pays off: there are times when one's surroundings take on a visual quality that seems magical, almost hyper-real. In expressing these memories and the various senses involved in the experience, Alden plays with the reader a bit. At one point, young Sam takes off his glasses, turning the nearby hotel into a smudge on the page. With his glasses back on, it's remarkable how clear the pencil drawing is in depicting the setting, even if the drawings are simplified. Of course, this is all prologue to the real meat of the story: meeting a girl about his age who simultaneously harangues and flirts with him. When she suddenly decides to run through the fairly dense palm trees on the beach, he chases after her. At this point, the "camera" points away from Sam and instead we see through his eyes, watching the shadows and bright starlight cascade across her running form. We can almost feel him running, hear his strained breath as he pursues her. When she finally stops, he awkwardly introduces himself. That simply prompts her to run away again, and before she disappears entirely on a golf course, she says "You will spend the rest of your life trying to find me." It's simply the best and worst thing anyone could say to another person; it's a phrase that burns into one's consciousness and is the first of two reasons why the collection is titled the way it is.

"Anime" opens with a girl named Janet planning her escape in the form of a vacation to Tokyo with her boyfriend. She's an outsider who's a huge anime enthusiast, imagining that a trip to the promised land will finally put her in a place and a culture where she finally fits in and is understood. Here, Alden mixes sympathy and derision for his character; he's obviously sympathetic toward her feelings of alienation (especially as she's frequently derided in her tourist-oriented job), but is less forgiving of her attempts at cultural appropriation in lieu of having an actual personality of her own. That's especially true when it comes at the expense of her connections with others, especially her boyfriend. Still, the last panel of the story, where she receives a huge compliment, once again ties into the book's title: a moment that is pure and wonderful but entirely fleeting. This is where the reader is left, even as one senses that things are not going to go well for her. Once again, light and shadow play a huge role in this story, as the passage of time is often aided by their interplay. Alden shows more facial detail in this story, which is both crucial to the story (reading Janet's emotional expressions is a powerful indicator of the story's narrative) and appropriate given that the softer pencil work in the first story befits the fuzzier memories of a child.

Alden's story Household was another big breakthrough that came out a bit after "Hawaii 1997". It's a far darker story, almost a horrible mirror image of "Hawaii 1997" wistful memories being warped into an ugly adulthood where grown-up children have no sense of emotional or physical boundaries because of trauma. Here, Alden's pencil style focuses even further on light and shadow, with a remarkable amount of hatching giving physical form to the seething emotions just under the surface. The simplified drawing style also gives Alden the freedom to go a bit broad when his characters express emotion--especially when those emotions are raw and ugly. The story follows a young man named Tim visiting his older sister Celeste in New Orleans; the aim is to stay with her for an open and extended period of time. Family troubles are alluded to early in the story, with Celeste diminishing them. When the physical and emotional boundaries between the two break down in inappropriate ways, Tim acts out, gets intentionally fired from his job and threatens to leave, even as specific images flash through his head of him and his sister. The story concludes with an extended look back at Tim and Celeste as kids, kidnapped by their father and kept in a seedy hotel room.

The critic Sean T. Collins thought that Alden came down way too hard on Celeste seducing her brother in an interview. That's not how I read the story, though. I saw Celeste as every bit as damaged as Tim, and the role she played in his life was always that of a flawed protector. As a kid, she did what her dad told her to do, which obviously had a traumatic effect quite separate from what Tim experienced. At the same time, she protected her brother and was both a mother and sister figure to him at times. However, her own father issues (and physical & sexual abuse is at the very least implied, especially with regard to the way she acted out sexually in later life) made her exactly the wrong kind of person to be in his life, especially since she wasn't able to set a boundary to stop Tim's obviously unresolved feelings for her. Neither of them had the capacity to function as adults in terms of relationships, which further makes sense in the way that Tim acted out to get fired instead of simply quitting. The one flaw in the story is that Alden felt the need to use the metaphor of a bird building a nest on a ladder and then stacking twigs from the ground up in a vain effort to stabilize an already tenable situation. At the end of the story, we see the ladder and nest are both gone, just as Tim's attempts at creating a stable life have been demolished. While an interesting visual, it felt just a bit too obvious.

Wicked Chicken Queen, a book published by Retrofit, combines Alden's pencils-only approach with the surrealism of Fluxo. Alden is big on using single-panel splash pages and tends to avoid using a grid, giving his comics an open feel that emphasizes each page as a single unit and image. Wicked Chicken Queen has the flavor of being a children's book in terms of its fairy tale qualities along with the way it leads the reader's eye across the page in a deliberate, winding manner. The character design is killer, with the denizens of the story's small island having a single, huge eye in lieu of other facial features. Alden works sloppy and loose with the figures when they're running around but tightens up when it comes to the fairy tale backgrounds, a juxtaposition that works well because it causes the eye to move in different ways. The story itself, which is about a woman finding an egg that eventually hatches into a "slithering monstrosity" but grows into a beautiful and intelligent chicken. She eventually marries the woman who discovers her, and then disappears from public view when her wife dies. The story then jumps ahead, as the island's society grows into a modern one and forgets the Chicken Queen, until she suddenly emerges and starts wreaking havoc before her death. It's a story about faith and foundations that lurk in a society's collective unconscious that emerge in surprising and often disturbing ways. It's also a bit like the Shelley poem Ozymandias in that it's about a powerful cultural force that has been forgotten in the sands of time, though in this case the power of that force is such that it had a lingering influence. The title itself is intentionally deceptive, as the Chicken Queen is quite noble for most of the story and only becomes destructive after she was forgotten, lonely and near death. That loneliness is recapitulated by the narrating character at the end of the story, who feels a lack in herself but can't quite pin it down. This is the comic, and Alden's career, in its essence: trying to find and hold onto moments of connection in an avalanche of loneliness and alienation.

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