Saturday, November 15, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 15: Wade Simpson

When Wade Simpson sent me the first two chapters of his serial Hell Or High Water, he noted that he didn't consider himself to draw in the CCS house style. That statement pressed me to think about just what that house style might be, if there even is one. To be sure, few CCS graduates are drafting virtuosos in the sense of classic cartooning and illustration. Katherine Roy, Joseph Lambert and Dakota McFadzean are examples of three grads with incredibly precise control over their lines. Many of the CCS cartoonists use a ratty, loose and highly cartoony line, which is not a surprise given the institution's embrace of multiple styles but especially funny animal comics. A few of them go even further than this and more into Gary Panter mark-making territory, like Dan Martin or DW. The smallest subsection of CCS artists are those heavily influenced by manga and those who draw in a traditional, naturalistic style.

That certainly describes Simpson's Hell Or High Water series, which is a work of historical fiction. Everything about it is off the beaten path. Each issue is a hardback board book, with the backings attached to a couple of signatures inside. I've never seen anything like it in comics, giving it a distinctive and even old-fashioned style. The story is set in Prohibition-era Detroit, at a point when the city in many respects was one of the most beautiful in the US. It's a story about the corruption of authority in both church and state and about those who stood to make a lot of money running alcohol during Prohibition. It's about lives shattered by the hypocrisy of authority and how those traumatized by the past lash out in the future. There's murder, double-crossing, and politics all in a dance together.

The series' greatest strength is Simpson's obvious and meticulous research. Not just in terms of period detail (though this is clear and heavily footnoted), but in terms of the larger cultural and political trends. The comic is stylish even as the figure drawings are mostly utilitarian. If there's a CCS influence to Simpson's work, I'd say it's from faculty member Jason Lutes, whose Berlin series would seem to be an obvious predecessor. Unlike Lutes, who unfolds history entirely within the flow of the actual narrative, Simpson often makes asides to the audience regarding key members of the cast and their histories. In that regard, his work reminds me more of Rick Geary. From his extensive use of hatching and blacks, that would seem to be a match, but Simpson quickly returns from tangents to get back to the increasingly complex narrative and expanding cast of characters. Simpson is a solid cartoonist whose figures look like he's trying a little too hard. There's a stiffness to some of them that inhibits panel-to-panel flow. That said, Simpson has a knack for creating tension, as when two hired killers go after a woman who double-crossed a bootlegging gang. Simpson is also quite clever in terms of how he titles, organizes and presents information, using multiple meanings and levels of different concepts related to drinking. The story is only two issues in, but Simpson has created some beautiful-looking art objects that mix in true accounts of criminal activity with a cartoonist's flair for the dramatic.

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