Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 27: Dog City 3

Dog City, edited by Juan Fernandez, Luke Healy and Simon Reinhardt, is the perfect blend of aesthetics and content, a sort of McSweeney's for minicomics. There's also a strong Chris Ware/ Jordan Crane influence at work, in that every aspect of the package is a comic or an illustration. The central conceit of Dog City is that rather than publish a conventional anthology, the editors preferred to create a package full of individual minicomics, a magazine, a broadsheet, a poster, prints and other visual goodies. The cast of contributors includes CCS students and alums, of course, but it also reaches out to other scenes (Pittsburgh's fertile ground in particular). A popular item at shows, each mini is silkscreened and lovingly produced, with the sales pitch that the combined package is a bargain at $20 considering how much is in there.

Healy's own Starlight mini is one I covered in his own spotlight article, but the cover of the Dog City version is colored differently. Reinhardt's How We Ride is a quotidian tribute to a group of three small-town friends depicted as anthropomorphic dogs. These teens ride around, listen to music, play dice and cards, and "stand around a lot in parking lots". Reinhardt captures both the energy and ennui of friends stuck in a place who nonetheless refuse to stand still, and the simplicity of his line works to his advantage. Laurel Lynn Leake's triptych poster and Steven Krall's print are both bright and attractive, though I'm not sure they add much to the overall package.

Strands by Sophie Goldstein is an unusual outing for the artist. It's rendered in a very simplistic style that emphasizes the flat colors, which seems to be a deliberate choice. I think this is because the subject matter is about the false promises and fronts of commerce and how they can be conflated with real connections, often with disastrous results. They Won't Get To You, by DW and Juan Fernandez, is at its heart a mark-making comic about a dog trying to escape its demonic pursuers and ultimately turning the tables on them. It seems to be a deliberate counterpoint to the sort of narratives and visual styles seen in the rest of the anthology, as Fernandez' scratchy and visceral art is a perfect match for DW's loose story. Going In Blind is clever in that two different cartoonists took differing views of the lead-up to the same story: a blind date between Beth and Derek. It's a flip book, as Allison Bannister covers Beth's story and Tom O'Brien handles Derek's story. Naturally, the lead-up is very different for both, as both individuals process nerves and excitement differently. O'Brien's half was distracting in that it had these weird grey scale effects; it seemed clear that the comic was meant to be in color. Bannister's half is clearer and cleaner, making it flow in a more organic fashion.

Caitlin Rose Boyle's (Mice) is an autobio mini about having to deal with the visceral reality of having to deal with pests and the guilt seeing an actual dead animal can trigger. There are some striking images here, like a rising tide of mice and the author being stuck in glue and drowning just like a mouse did. Her cartoony but warm style (she's sort of in the Kate Beaton school) was a perfect choice for this sort of story. Jennifer Lisa's Garrettsville was one of the best minis in this batch, as it's about her dead-end hometown and how growing up there as a near-invisible introvert had a profound effect on her development and current personality. The comfort level of knowing every inch of a place was superseded by the anxiety of remembering who she was and how she was treated when she lived there. The rough pencil drawings are wonderfully expressive, especially when she hits on the "phantom girl" metaphor and then later learns much of the town caught fire and burned down. I was unfamiliar with Lisa's work prior to this mini, but this is a bold effort.

Iris Yan has emerged as one of my favorite CCS cartoonists, thanks mostly to her witty authorial voice. The Tarot Man makes use of her preference of using animals as characters to tell the story of a penguin with a rigidly-defined life. One day, he gets a card in the mail of a tower being destroyed by lightning: the Tarot card The Tower. This is a symbol of massive change and upheaval but also the possibility of real transformation. The story features him loosening up, allowing him to break out of the prison of his habits and meeting someone. It's a story about how love and transformation often go hand in hand. Along similar lines is Amelia Onorato's clever princess deconstruction Fortes Fortuna, which is about a young king being pressured to marry and his clever declaration that his wife should not speak (among other things). He becomes enchanted by a princess who runs off, doesn't speak and seems his match in every way. When he realizes that he's in love with her, she speaks and lets him know about the economic disadvantages that women face--and they live happily (and justly) ever after. The story is funny but pointed, and Onorato's line is absolutely charming and perfect for a fantasy story.

Dog City and CCS have often been known to celebrate older styles of cartooning. Dan Rinylo's cartooning is very much a throwback to to Milt Gross and George Herriman, with a modern sense of pathos frequently added. He can spin a good gag, like in his Mangy Mutt feature in this comics broadsheet, but his Danny autobio feature contains all the elements of both a classic strip as well as a modern memoir about mental illness. It's a remarkable blend of an older visual style and a modern and personal subject. From homage to archival project comes Who's Zoo, a comic by Tom Dibble, Jr. Dibble was CCS student Reilly Hadden's great-grandfather, and this strip ran in the 1920s. As it turns out, Dibble shared a studio with the great Milt Gross, and there's a bit of Gross' absurdity to be found here. The strip concerns a couple of hawks looking to kidnap a baby duck for ransom and how the baby was eventually recovered by a pistol-packing emu. George Herriman was an obvious inspiration with regard to the visuals, but the whole kidnapping plot felt directly lifted from something similar in Gasoline Alley. The strip is an interesting curio and was certainly well-drawn, but it feels entirely derivative. Dibble was a young man when he drew it, and I imagine that if he had stayed in the strip game before his untimely death, it might have evolved into something more interesting.

Some of this info was revealed in Dog City Magazine, which featured an article by Hadden on his great-greatgrandfather's strip. There's also a retrospective by Reinhardt on Steve Bissette's classic anthology Taboo with Bissette's own recollections and evaluations, an essay by Julia Zuckerberg about the benefits of doing a diary comic and an essay by Nik James on why it's useful to study classic adventure strips. That had the feel of a school assignment (and it may well have been, because I know CCS students are required to critique comics as part of their curriculum) and was a bit on the stiff side. Still, the magazine itself is very much a value-added feature of this excellent package, one that features a handful of outstanding minis and several good to very good ones. The editors embrace a wide variety of styles but make their own aesthetic priorities obvious: every mini should have a strong visual appeal in terms of both packaging and content. Even if the drawing style is stripped-down, of the mark-making school or more naturalistic, the editors eschew conventional, generic drawing approaches.

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