Monday, November 10, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 10: J.P. Coovert, Melissa Mendes, Rachel Dukes

Frankie Comics #2, by Rachel Dukes. This is a collection of Dukes' elegant and sparely-drawn strips about her cat. Dukes became momentarily famous when her strip "Life With/Out A Cat" was stolen from her website and used elsewhere without her permission, pointing to the sheer, naked piracy that occurs on an everyday basis on the internet. Dukes, of course, is a comics lifer who's been making ambitious anthologies like Side A and Side B while still a teenager. No one every went broke by making comics about cats, and many smart cartoonists like B.Kliban and Jeffrey Brown have had mass-market success with their cat comics. Dukes' Frankie comics are clear, well-drawn, and (most importantly) funny. Building off video game tropes in some strips and quotidian activities in others, Dukes alternates between quick-hitting gags (like a Cat vs Human fight) and slow-burn gags that build to a single punchline (like letting the cat manipulate her into increasingly difficult and annoying requests). This black & white comic adds zip-a-tone to give it depth and weight, but they look far better using the two-tone approach seen on her website or even the full color treatment she's used in some anthologies. At some point, I hope she collects enough of these to present to a publisher.

Joey, Lou #17 and A Very Special Lou, by Melissa Mendes. If there's a running theme connecting the three artists in this column today, it's that all three have a genuine sense of warmth and empathy that shows through on the page. Mendes has slowly built up a body of work about the lives of children, from comics about a version of her own life to new series like Lou that deal with similar stories of outsider tomboy types. The last issue of her Oily miniseries Lou found her exploring unfamiliar territory: putting her characters into actual danger. The events that led up to the younger brother character getting a gun pointed to his head in an abandoned building are complicated, but they're all a byproduct of what Mendes does best: family dynamics, family conflicts and the relationship between families and their pets. I'm not sure she quite stuck the landing in this issue, as she seemed to struggle with providing a happy ending with creating dramatic tension. The way she created the latter almost seemed gratuitous and random, and these are qualities I never associate with her work. A Very Special Lou, a follow-up to the series, finds her on more sure ground. It's about the contentious relationship between Lou and her younger brother, John. On his birthday, the one thing he really wants is some kind of input from Lou, who seems put off by him. When he finally gets it after an otherwise idyllic birthday (complete with attending a local wrestling card), it's clearly the gift he values most. Mendes adds a single-tone red accent to this comic that doesn't quite show up right on many of the pages (there's lots of bleed), but it's interesting to see her experiment with color after relying solely on her scribbly, expressive line.

As such, Joey is a big step up, both in terms of content and form. It's more reminiscent of a Max de Radigues comic than her prior material in that it deals with a kid who's having a lot of trouble at school and at home with constantly arguing parents. His only ally is his older sister, who at one point buys him a wolf mask. Given the opportunity to be someone else, and someone scary and powerful to boot, he naturally never takes the thing off until he's confronted by bullies. When this happens, there's no chance for solace from his parents, who are too busy screaming at each other to notice that he's not there. There are several lovely grace notes at the end of this comic, which has what can be called an ambiguously happy ending. Adding that level of ambiguity gives this comic a different quality than her prior stories, even as the rigid 2 x 4 grid keeps the story on a steady pace. I'm enjoying the restless quality of Mendes' comics, as it indicates a cartoonist who's trying to grow and expand.

Simple Routines Volume 3 and Broken Summer, by J.P. Coovert. Coovert's a member of the great 2008 graduation class at CCS, and he's been slowly cranking out gentle, warm comics for a number of years. His autobio/journal series, Simple Routines, is always a welcome presence because of that warmth, optimism and general decency that emanates from him and his comics. I don't generally consider the works of an artist as a referendum on their lives or personalities, but it's hard to not like the Coovert that we see in these pages. He's someone who's not afraid of his emotions, as the strips about graduating from CCS show in some detail. Most of all, he talks about his friendships and the way that they keep him connected to his past, and the lengths he goes to in order to keep them fresh. The strips about missing his fiance' (and later wife) Jacie are equally touching. Not everything is sunshine and roses, as there is real desperation in the strips where he's looking for a job and worrying about his worthiness as a person .His spare and lovely line that is as expressive as Duke's is laid out in classic Kochalka-style four-panel grids, and he alternates between strips with punchlines and strips with memorable and more serious final moments. There's nothing ground-breaking about his work here; it's simply an excellent example of the form.

Broken Summer is, in many ways, what cartoonists should aspire to do from time to time: make a comic that literally includes all of your favorite activities. This is about a magical world where monsters, kids and anthropomorphic animals all hang around and play video games, ride skateboards and go to concerts. It incorporates Harry Potter-style magic in a library as well as body-image issues in one neat package, making it a perfect all-ages comic. The stories are episodic and slightly aimless, but Coovert has a few through-lines that connect the characters and their activities together. All-ages comics seem to be Coovert's calling, as he infuses them with an easy charm that still has a little bite and sadness to it.

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