Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Static and Motion: The Comics of Glynnis Fawkes

Glynnis Fawkes is a part-time archaeological artist, meaning that she sometimes goes to digs in places like Corinth and is paid to draw various artifacts. Having a skilled artist can actually bring greater insight into the artifact than a simple photograph. Her own personal work as a cartoonist centers around travel, her children and her place in the world of comics, as well as her interest in retelling old myths with a modern slant. She compares her work to that of Guy Delisle's in her mini Time Out In Palestine, which she was just finishing up when Delisle finished his comic. She rued the timing and similarity of the comics but was self-deprecating in terms of how Delisle seemed to handle the experience as well as what he had to say compared to her experience and comic.

However, those differences are precisely why I like Fawkes' work better. While Delisle is clearly a skilled cartoonist, there's an other effect that's at work in his comics that I find off-putting. It's not quite a colonialist attitude, but it's very much a Western perspective (that's especially true of his books about his experiences in China and North Korea). He also has a way of smoothing out the experience and his line that takes away the rough edges of the experience. Fawkes' work and attitude is truly warts and all. That's especially true when she talks about being a mother to two high-energy, lovable but highly difficult children.

The Palestine mini is a combination of Fawkes' sharp eye relating the details of daily life while living in Palestine and her desperately trying to keep her children entertained with very little outside support. With a tearful thought of "I might actually hate the kids! I'm a failure!" showing just how real she was getting with herself on one page, there are moments of triumphant days of keeping the kids intellectually occupied on others. The real treat here is her no-nonsense line getting down details as quickly as she could, because her children gave her few opportunities to work. Her loose line nonetheless allows her to capture essential details of each subject, especially with regard to to how they move in space and interact with their environment. In the image above, Fawkes captures how bored her daughter is with both the pose of her head and a single line of an eyebrow. There's no narrative to speak of in this comic other than a basic chronological one, and the comic is at times hampered by repetitiveness. That said, Fawkes gets that slow passage of time across with a great deal of force, so while the comic can be a slog at times, it's a slog that she experienced as well.

The Story Of The Cheese is centered squarely around her children and her experience taking care of them as a full-time mom. Fawkes delightfully manages to nail down the details of the ways in which her children are bizarre individuals. Her son, the incredibly intense and willful character whose in-store tantrum actually drove a merchant to shame her over his behavior, is mostly a witty but odd bystander in this comic (other than screaming "I DON'T WEAR PANTS!" when winter came). The more eccentric of her children is clearly her daughter, who has a crying jag when she thinks of her cheese being thrown away after she didn't want to eat it, of saying "You hate me" to her mother after an incident where some toast was thrown away, etc. Fawkes gets at that sense of time spent with children as simultaneously incredibly valuable and incredibly frustrating. She wants time to work, but she also knows that there will be a time when her kids will want nothing to do with her as teens. Once again, her body language is the star in these comics, especially the facial expressions of her kids that scream a thousand words.

Not having other people close to her to bounce off of made her Corinthian Diary less cohesive. There were certainly interesting moments, like when she discussed her career and method, or she reveled in the casual friendships she had made. At the same time, half of the book seemed to be about Fawkes scheming up ways to go to the beach or lamenting that she wasn't really part of the academic crew that hired her. The drawings are no less beautiful, but one got the sense that a comic about half as long as this one would have been just as effective and better paced. On the other hand, the short mini Woods Hole, based on a map of where her husband grew up, is succinct, evocative and revealing. She talks about the experiences that her husband had growing up in a tiny seaside village as well as her own experiences as a new mother living in the town. This is a comic about coming to terms with one's physical surroundings and looking for the most joyful aspects of them.

Fawkes' adaptations of the classics and myths are where she really gets a chance to go all-out with her storytelling capabilities. Bad Dad Agamemnon (an adaptation of Euripedes' Iphigenia in Aulis) is all about Agamemnon trying to get out of using his daughter as a sacrifice to please the gods and give his fleet wind so that the Greeks could finally attack Troy. The slightly abstract but highly emotive figure work in black and white reminds me a bit of Steve Ditko's work in some places, as Fawkes hits the high notes of grief, betrayal and loyalty.

Fawkes is also quite adept with a paint brush. Her four-page story about Alatiel from The Decameron is lusciously painted, highlighting dark blues, reds and exotic greens. The open panel storytelling style makes this an especially fluid read, as the images and narrative flow quickly into the next, creating a heady experience for the reader. Her Kinyras comic, on the other hand, was written by her husband, John Franklin, and drew on the academic side of things, as he contextualizes the myths behind this figure. He was known as a king who was seduced by his own daughter, as a king who defied the requests of fellow Greeks in attacking Troy, how in another account he hosted Helen and Paris, and his divine talent as a lyre player. Fawkes' experience in academia, combined with her lighthearted approach and figure drawing, made her a perfect partner for Franklin's research, anecdotes and theorizing about how certain mythological figures pop up again and again in different cultures.

While Fawkes could do quite well in illustrating comics about history, it's clear that her heart is in something more expressive, as The Homeric Hymn To Dionysus displays. Here, Fawkes seems to be using colored pencils and water colors, using sweeps of red and purple to tell this story of Dionysus being kidnapped by a group of sailors, only to meet their doom when the captain revealed a plan to try to extort the god. A lot of cartoonists have taken on mythology in their works, but Fawkes' experiences and contacts (this comic was translated by Gregory Nagy) make her uniquely qualified to really run with this idea, either as a longer project or an anthology of shorter stories. To a certain extent, Fawkes seems to be dabbling in comics more than jumping in with both feet. Her talent is obvious, but it feels like she's trying to find a project that's really worthy of spending an extensive amount of time on, given her status as a caretaker. When she does find that project and pours herself into it, I expect her to be able to shop it to a variety of places.

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