Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 19: Sophie Goldstein

Sophie Goldstein, in her time at CCS, evolved to become one of the more promising cartoonists to ever come out of the school. Her skill as a draftsman is obvious, but what's developed is her ability to couch sophisticated, sensitive commentary in science-fiction tropes. If the minis that emerged from CCS represent her graduate work, then her webcomic with writer Jenn Jordan, Darwin Carmichael Is Going To Hell, represents a sort of undergrad honors thesis. Spanning four years and 350+ pages, it manages to keep a single through line for the duration of the strip, with some wobbly tangents here and there. It's a little flabby and unfocused to be considered a single, coherent story but the strip's conceit practically demanded some kind of resolution.

The story is set in a world where every mythological being and god of every religion is quite real, and they are mostly hanging around earth looking for jobs. Ganesh is a waiter. Muses hire themselves out. The minotaur is a hard-drinking building super. Karma is real and determines one's afterlife. In the case of the titular character, he picked up a huge slab of bad karma when he didn't pay attention to a baby that he was sitting, right at the moment the baby became the newest incarnation of the Dalai Lama. The kid hit his head and became (in the unfortunate phrasingof the book) "retarded", resulting in poor Darwin's fate. No amount of good deeds done seems to be helping with his balance sheet, either. His best friend (and one-time girlfriend) Ella is the daughter of saintly missionaries, so she inherited their good karma despite having done little with her life. That kind of bureaucratic, almost arbitrary assignation of one's fate is one of my favorite things about this book, especially as it implies that both characters would need a significant shake-up to change their fates.

The way the strip was done was Goldstein & Jordan collaborated on ideas, Jordan wrote it and Goldstein drew it. It's a bit slicker and more cartoony than her current style and seemed to have drawn a lot of influence from similar strips. The strip is at its strongest when focusing on specific relationships in the context of mythology, as Jordan clearly did an extensive amount of research for each strip. It's at its weakest when the strip devolves into slacker humor or satirizing the hipsters of New York and Brooklyn. That's when the strip feels generic and loses the unique genre elements that make it funny and often disturbing. The way that myths and religious figures are brought into the modern world is frequently hilarious and on-point; while this isn't necessarily a new idea, Jordan & Goldstein manage to stay true to the original ideas without beating the reader over the head with backstory but still providing enough information to make it intelligible.

Ultimately, this is a story about relationships: the one between Darwin and Ella and the one between Darwin and his talking pet manticore, Skittles. Jordan and Goldstein are able to wring pathos out of both relationships, even though Skittles is mostly used for comic relief. There are a lot of smart jokes about relationships and the way they're writ large in this particular world of every myth being real, but there are also quite a few self-indulgent tangents that take the narrative off-track for pages at a time. I see this as a natural function of serialized web comic publishing, as both writer and artist try to find ways to stay motivated and focused over time. For example, a silly tangent about being "bike pirates" stemmed from Goldstein wanting to draw bikes. The jokes surrounding this bit were low-hanging fruit to be sure, but Jordan and Goldstein turned around and used it to reveal the intensity of the emotional relationship between Darwin and Ella. For every halting wrong turn the strip took, the authors always managed to find a way to turn it around and remain true to its overall emotional narrative. The apocalyptic climax of the strip manages to combine the character work, the mythological work and the snarky modern take on same together into a beautifully satisfying and cohesive package. There's a temptation as a critic who was once an editor to suggest cutting this or that parts of the book to make it a tidier and tighter read, but I see Darwin Carmichael Is Going To Hell as a glorious mess--and the glory can't really be separated from the mess.

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