Sunday, November 1, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #1: Josh Kramer

Josh Kramer's comics journalism reminds me most of what Josh Neufeld is doing, as well as Brendan Burford's old Syncopated anthology. Kramer is still spinning a comics narrative out of a particular subject, only he's doing so in a closely-sourced and tightly-reported. This kind of slow, expansive journalism flies in the face of factoid news, but it's always the best kind. Issue #7 of Kramer's journalism anthology, The Cartoon Picayune, collects some of his most recent pieces published in places like The Atlantic. Cartoon journalism is more than just a novelty at this point, because its best and most devoted practitioners have shown that they can make a news narrative come alive.

As a draftsman, Kramer is solid and competent, but lacks the sheer chops of a Joe Sacco or the polish of a Matt Bors. Nevertheless, it's clear that his time at the Center for Cartoon Studies taught him how to draw with clarity, eschewing any kind of overdrawing that might interfere with his narrative. In that regard, he reminds me most of Neufeld, who's smart and innovative in terms of his storytelling techniques but devoid of technical flash. Kramer's "Counter-Shading" is a great example of telling a story with a significant visual component and bringing it to life with cartooning. It's about the history of camouflage in World Wars I and II, focusing on the "Razzle Dazzle" ships the US used to throw off U-Boat attacks, as the color schemes of ships would be deliberately confusing. Stories about Japanese sniper, US towns that threw painted nets on top of themselves to throw off enemies, and the use of a "ghost army" consisting of decoys and deception were all fascinating. Kramer makes no particular judgments regarding this history, only making a connection between technology and trying to stay ahead of one's opponents through trickery. He efficiently gives examples of each type of camouflage, with the diagram of a typical Japanese sniper being especially illuminating.

"Tundra Green", about the history of the criminalization of marijuana in Alaska, similarly takes no sides. It cleverly goes from the specific to the general, as it focuses on a man named Irwin Ravin, who intentionally got himself arrested for possession in order to challenge state law. The article recounts the fascinating history of the tension between state law and traditions against federal law with regard to personal liberties, while talking about how a particular strain of pot grown in Alaska might have a potency level that further mucks up rulings. This piece was far less visually interesting than the first one, with lots of talking heads and charts.

On the other hand, "Our Favorite Orbits Are Getting Crowded With Space Junk" is highly interesting on a visual level. This sort of story is what Kramer does best: delving into a meaningful, fascinating but unusual topic about which the Ideal Reader (an educated person who doesn't know about this subject) is a perfect target. That's because Kramer provides that reader with all they need to know, both in terms of the basic facts and the ramifications of said facts. In this case, it's about how the space junk that we've thrown up in earth's orbit is starting to cause collisions and accidents. Zeroing in on just how small a piece of space junk can be and still cause tremendous damaging was both sobering and vividly presented. The ramifications of this were also chilling: the potential destruction of communications , weather and navigation satellites. A number of potential solutions were pointed out, but what the article really gets at is that this is a topic that needs to be taken more seriously, and soon.

There are also a couple of smaller pieces by guest-artists. Emma Woodbury Rand's "The Grey Ghost" is all about a particular rum runner during prohibition whose garb and M.O. were so outrageous as to practically make them a super-villain. The fact that they were never caught only adds to the legend, and Rand's use of blacks and dynamic lines plays up the mystery and action aspects of the story. Craig Schaffer's "A Pagoda In Pennsylvania" is all about the ways in which importing a style of architecture into America can create a unique synthesis of styles and promote aesthetics as something as important as sheer functionality. Schaffer's line here is clear and naturalistic, as he really just had to get across the beauty of the building in question.

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