Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Koyama For Kids: John Martz & Britt Wilson

Annie Koyama continues to expand her reach into the children's comics arm of the market, and her two publishing choices have entirely different approaches: one is built on gags, and the other is built on propulsive action. John Martz is a gag technician. He has an astonishingly fine-tuned sense of how a drawing can convey humor in as few lines as possible. He's quite skilled at coming up with simple but memorable character designs created to be as flexible as possible. While I've enjoyed much of his other gag work (mostly in Team Society League), his kid's book A Cat Named Tim And Other Stories may well be his best comic. Each gag is well-designed, easy to understand and packs a genuine laugh. I tested the book on my five-year-old daughter to see if she could follow it (she's just learning to read), and the way that Martz continually subverted audiences expectations led to laugh after laugh.

While she enjoyed the adventure comic starring Doug the Duck and his mouse friend, the lack of a specific punchline made it of less interest to her. I found the strip to be flawlessly executed in terms of page composition and the characters had a charming Lewis Trondheim-esque quality to them, but it was less about the gag than it was the journey. On the other hand a basketball gag involving Tim the cat and a trampoline used a simple subversion of expectation and finished with an over-the-top sight gag that had her rolling. Similarly, a gag involving a chemistry experiment and transformations into other characters and different sizes delighted her so much that she demanded multiple readings of these two pages. Martz's cartooning rhythm is so steady that even an inexperienced reader could pick up on how to follow it.

My favorite character was easily Connie the bunny girl, which I felt was one of the best-designed characters I've ever seen in a kid's book. The bunny ears, huge eyes, triangle dress with a plaid pattern and straight hair are so compact, even I could produce a reasonable facsimile of the character. With a character both funny and cute, Martz had room to do some strips that didn't have specific gags (like a day in the life featuring Connie that had a sort of Rube Goldberg quality in terms of all the machines that did things for her) but also put her in more jokey situations, like trying to fish. The book's real masterpiece gag is the last one, featuring Mr and Mrs Hamhock, two pigs waiting for a bus. Using the familiar trope of seasons passing as they waited, Martz carefully let the reader fall into his trap of expecting that passage of time to trigger the joke and then pulls the rug out from under the reader and throws two separate punchlines at the reader. Once again, Martz's mastery of rhythm on the comics page was key in making his constructs effective.

Britt Wilson is less interested in the interlocking nature of static images to create a gag than she is in creating a fluid chain of increasingly frenetic events to create wave after crazy wave of situation-based humor. Her Cat Dad: King of the Goblins, starts off with certain absurd givens that fuel much of the book's humor without needing to provide much explanation. The book follows a family of four and a friend of the kids. Of course, the mom has turned the dad into a cat, and the kids' friend is a talking frog. Using a frantic and elastic character design style reminiscent of Kyle Baker, Wilson's bright colors pop at the reader as much as her linework does. The book follows the disappearance of their dad into a linen closet that's the gateway to the kingdom of the Goblins, who have named Dad as their new leader.

The kids endeavor to get him back in a series of chase sequences, narrow escapes and generalized peril. There's no real sense of danger, however, as Wilson is careful to make even the Goblins look sort of cute, even if they are trying to menace them. Eyes bulge, bodies stretch and distort as they go into motion and are propelled both by the environment and their own energy, yanking the reader along with them. Once the adventure starts, the book's pacing is breathless. That said, the brightness of the colors and Wilson's rendering skills give the book a flamboyant decorative quality that nonetheless doesn't interfere with the book's pacing. The reader is encouraged to stop and take a look around, but not for too long. One unstated aspect of the book that I found pleasant was that this is a family of color (possibly multiracial), a factoid that had no bearing on the story but was still unusual enough in such books to stand out.

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