Friday, November 13, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #13: Reilly Hadden

Reilly Hadden has an intriguing series called Astral Birth Canal, which reminds me a bit of the early Chuck Forsman Snake Oil series. There are interlocking, nightmarish fantasy stories that weave in and out of each other. One follows a girl who appears in a forest and is immediately surrounded by giant crows, one of whom places a noose around her neck. She becomes friends with a bird girl and ends up in an even worse situation, in the sky house of a demonic figure on stilts. Then there's a narrative that features a young boy waiting for his warrior father to come home, but when the event happens, his father ignores him. A third narrative involves a peaceful race creating a warrior to avenge their yearly disaster when a monster comes around to raid their city. The warrior is surprised to find that the monster robbed them to build a staircase to the sun--and she is invited to join the monster.

All of this happens in just the first issue, and the other three issues follow from this. I'm not sure how much of this was planned out and how much of the storytelling wound up as improvisation; either way, there's an appealing looseness to Hadden's line without sacrificing coherent narrative structure. If it is improv, then he's following the rules of long-form improv, a story-based art that keeps adding on to an initial premise while creating surprising links between sketches through callbacks. The second issue (in glorious color) features the stubby young boy, Edward (son of Bork) trying to find his dad and winding up in a series of caves suspiciously shaped like his father. The third issue finds the female warrior going up the stairs, only to have the narrative pulled back to reveal that the demonic feature was reading a story to the girls--and literally ripped the face off of the bird girl when she tried to escape. The fourth issue is a cosmic adventure featuring Bork that ties back in with the second issue.

What's immediately noticeable about this series is that it has so many possible but disparate influences that it's impossible to really isolate them, because Hadden has created his own style and visual language. I mentioned Forsman before, but there's touches of Jack Kirby, Josh Simmons, Chester Brown and possibly Jesse Moynihan as well. Horror and absurdity are mixed in equal measure, often in the same panel. The effect is disorienting, even dizzying, at times, as Hadden's aim is to keep the reader off-balance while still keeping his various narratives afloat. In many ways, Astral Birth Canal feels like a comics PhD project, where Hadden is exploring different styles and techniques while attempting to expand his limitations. There are still plenty of rough spots as he doesn't quite stick the landing on some of the drawings, and the line between loose cartooning and sloppy cartooning can be a thin one. That said, Hadden's greatest attribute is his understanding of effective and memorable character design, putting weird characters into strange situations with a great deal of restraint. Every issue expands on the ideas more and more, as each of the characters must deal with being out of place and in a totally insane new steady-state. While there are lots of fantasy and horror trappings to be found here, it's all in the service of a greater psychological probing of his characters and not just dumb fun.

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