Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Youth In Decline Week: Frontier 7-9

Frontier #7 (2015), by Jillian Tamaki. This issue won an Ignatz Award for best story in 2015. "Sex Coven" is perhaps the quintessential Youth In Decline publication in the way it addresses the themes of transformation, materialism, utopianism and horror. Tamaki has every tool needed for comics greatness, as her comics have expressive characters with a fluid design that overlaps between cartoony and naturalistic; her page design is innovative, but always with a greater purpose in mind; her understanding of gesture, anatomy and how bodies relate in space makes every panel intuitively easy to understand even without words; and her skill as an illustrator is top-shelf. While she's best known for the comics she's done with her cousin Mariko, I prefer Tamaki's comics that she writes herself, like SuperMutant Magic Academy and this sly satirical dig at youth culture.

The story's title refers to a file uploaded to a computer that contained a six-hour long droning sound. The comic is framed as someone doing research on the file, which was renamed "Sex Coven", and the effect it had on culture. When teens listened to it, it had psychotropic effects such that it spawned "CovenCrawls" where kids would go out in the woods and listen to the file. When a kid dies by accident walking into traffic, Tamaki expertly nails the ways in which these sorts of crazes turn into orgies of parental and authoritarian paranoia--especially since the file only seemed to have a powerful effect on those under 25 years old. The story transitions to a group of Reddit-style SexCoven code experts who drop out of society to carry out the "final directives of The Data": form a utopian group out in the desert. We learn a lot of details from an ex-member of the group who left out partly out of jealousy, but mostly because of her lingering desire to remain connected to the structures of the outside world. The paradox of the story and the group was that it claimed to seek enlightenment away from the artificiality of constructs like capitalism and religion while still maintaining a clearly rigid, hierarchical and most likely patriarchal set-up. It's a denial that they were still of the world while they all clearly were, dropping out while still being in range of being able to buy ramen from the nearby gas station. Using a series of small panels (much like screens on a computer) with a larger background illustration on each page allowed Tamaki to tell the story three ways: with the narrative text, with each individual panel, and with the underlying illustration. Quite often, they are in conflict with each other, or the presence of each in the same space changes the meaning of the other. It's a clever, compelling story.

Frontier #8 (2015), by Anna DeFlorian. DeFlorian, an Italian cartoonist, directly addresses the concept of transformation through the twin lenses of fitness and fashion. Everything about this comic obliquely mimics the aesthetic of fashion magazines: flat, stiff and colorful. The two nameless young women in this comic work out in a gym with progressive night classes like "Free Speech In Squat". That's followed by an incredibly awkward but funny sex scene that's very much about invasion of privacy. The back half of the comic is a veritable fashion show in a variety of colors, patterns and anguished facial expressions as the two women clearly are trying to work out a violation of trust after the one woman has a clearly dangerous sexual encounter. Here, the reliance on fashion and exercise is taking on a false identity, one that belies and obfuscates the original connection the two women had. It's less a distinct narrative than it is narrative bursts followed by provocative and oblique images.

Frontier #9 (2015), by Becca Tobin. Here's another comic in that body horror/transformation wheelhouse of Sands', this time with a far more whimsical visual approach. UK cartoonist Tobin's squiggly, colorful and at times vibratory line pairs up an irresistible cuteness with a touch of the grotesque. In a story that could easily fit into the logic of an episode of Adventure Time or Steven Universe, musician Butter Road is trying to create a living instrument out of clay as a way of getting her band Eurobe the impetus it needs to successfully stay together. Butter desperately wants the music so much that she's willing to overlook being famous, even as she fantasizes about somehow merging with a wall. When she uses her own blood to create the instrument, she succeeds beyond her wildest dreams. In a series of beautiful and bright watercolors, Tobin creates a gorgeous wave of sound in depicting the way the creature becomes part of the band, until its need for blood puts Butter in danger. The ending is unexpected, clever and disturbing, as Tobin doesn't drag the story out any more than needed. It's interesting to see a visual approach that's so radically different from anything seen in Frontier thus far (though not unusual in the world of alt-comics, to be sure) still encapsulate the same ideas and even the same sense of dread as many of the other issues.

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