Friday, December 4, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #34: Dakota McFadzean

Dakota McFadzean's comics are among the best created by CCS alumni. He's got every technical tool to be a great cartoonist already. He can draw, convincingly and fluidly, in virtually any style. I'm not sure how much of that came from prior experience and how much of that came from CCS demanding that students learn to emulate different visual approaches in their assignments, but he's equally comfortable drawing in a naturalistic style, in a cartoony John Stanley/Irving Tripp pastiche, or in a sweaty, cluttered Evan Dorkin approximation. Beyond being technically accomplished as a draftsman, he has rock-solid storytelling chops. His panel-to-panel and page-to-page transitions are smooth and clever, though he rarely steps outside of standard grids and fairly conventional formal choices. He's not so much there to dazzle the reader as he is to tell a story and create an atmosphere.

There is a natural confluence of style, aesthetic influences and narrative choices in McFadzean's comics. His focus on loneliness, wide-open spaces and working class families most likely got its start from being raised in a small town in Saskatchewan. However, McFadzean often channels the supernatural, the grotesque and the inexplicable into his work as well. That pervasive sense of magical realism and dread sets his comics apart from most cartoonists. His frequently warm and inviting visual approach makes the eventual story twists all the more horrific.

His collection of daily strips, Don't Get Eaten By Anything, is a fascinating account of a young artist trying to get better in public by forcing himself to draw every day. Inspired by the patron saint of daily webcomics, James Kochalka, McFadzean began this strip as a typical 4-panel autobio strip but eventually abandoned that in favor of a more free-for exploration of his own dreams and nightmares. What McFadzean wound up creating was a one-man daily comics page where a number of recurring characters act as McFadzean's interchangeable avatars of dread. Moreover, his daily strip acted as an incubator for ideas that he would expand upon in his later short story.

One example is the Ghost Rabbit, a goofy character who was later used to darker effect in a mini of the same name. A strip about the existential quality of video games had its origins in a series of strips where one could practically feel the grime of a den and its greasy inhabitants. The sad, alienated and often angry characters found in McFadzean's regular work often started as inhabitants of a four-panel strip with a punchline. While the strips here stand on their own, the book offers the same sort of insight into McFadzean's creative process as a sketchbook might. In essence, the daily strip was his sketchbook.

McFadzean riffs a lot on pop culture, but not in the way one might think. When he refers to The Simpsons or Bugs Bunny, his drawings are monstrous and grotesque: childhood memories gone horribly astray. McFadzean has an uncanny sense of how to push the boundaries of good taste without going for the obvious gross-out gag, like in his "Invincible Baby" strips. These are exactly what the title suggests: an indestructible baby getting launched into space, shot, stabbed, absorbed by a black hole, etc and coming back no worse for the wear each time.

There are the tediously quotidian God Comics (whose tedium was entirely intentional), scribbled birds worrying about being snubbed, and monsters moping over their daily lives and their search for meaning. There's the old man with the thick, white moustache pondering his future. There's a man talking to an elephant, rarely getting the answers he wants. There are animals trying to escape their circumstances in strips that remind me a little of the sort of thing that Anders Nilsen does. There is also the occasionally happy interlude or image that results here, even though that obsessiveness factor eventually catches up with it. McFadzean even had a few multi-part stories in here that later got reworked.

Through it all, one can see certain arguments and approaches start to coalesce, as though problems he was working through on the page here got solved and translated into minis. For example, his comic Last Mountain 2 (Birdcage Bottom Books) contains elements that originally appeared in the daily strips, like the cartoony John Stanley/Irving Tripp art juxtaposed against disturbing events. In McFadzean's world, loners and outcasts aren't necessarily very nice people. They strike out at the world, alienating even those that approach them in a friendly manner. In that mini, in the story titled "Buzzy", a young kid starts at a new school, only to find that his off-putting and weird manner instantly draws all sorts of bullying and taunts. His response to such behavior is to go nuclear, moving to acts of extreme violence. Not everyone wants to be saved or is even capable of it. Some people are just doomed, in part by the way they react to the world. It's no accident that the figures are so cute and cartoony, because McFadzean set out to make the reader uncomfortable as old tropes and settings were explored from a different angle.

That sense of inevitable doom and dread is pervasive throughout the book, even as it's played for laughs in the gag strips. There are moments of bliss, but even beyond strips about sadness, fear, dread and devastation, the pervasive emotion felt throughout the book is simple disappointment. Whether it's a boy realizing that hitting someone doesn't feel as good as he thought it would to existential ennui even in the face of beauty, one can almost hear the sighs coming from this book. Still, the rabbit concentrates on not getting eaten, and another day goes by for the birds to achieve happiness or for the man with a walrus moustache to make human connections. McFadzean's worldview may be grim, but there's a survivalist streak there as well that puts aside nihilism in favor of braving the cold, bleak world.

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