Friday, June 24, 2016

More Aussie Comics: Squires, Gooch, Linton

Here are a few more comics the esteemed Matt Emery put into my hands at SPX 2014 from Australia:

Snasnakes, by James Squires. This is a series of one to two page gags that usually wind up with something horrible happening in the punchline The cover image, of a man floating in a raft floating on an ocean of snakes, captures precisely the sort of nightmarish imagery that Squires seems to gleefully enjoying depicting. In one gag, when a wife tells a husband he's driving "to fast", he mocks her for her spelling error (the fact that she said it aloud but that he picked up on it is part of the gag, since he "saw" her mistake) until he smashes into a tree, killing them both. Squires' simple line makes the idea of horror more important than actually drawing horrible things; indeed, even his drawings of snakes are simple and even cute. That's why a strip like "Blood Snake" is so effective; the snake looks cute as one of the pith-hat wearing, bearded English explorers tries to face the harmless-looking animal down until it spits red blood (with color appearing for the first and only time in the comic) in his face. Squires loves the absurd (the explorers start to make out with a deadly "Most Venom Snake" in one strip) and jokes about taxonomy ("Secret Box", featuring that title over a box, gets turned into "Thumbtack Box" at the end when someone spills the beans). He also just enjoys being randomly mean to his characters, with two separate injury-to-the-eye motif gags as a way of escalating an expected injury into something truly horrific. Squires is one of the funnier cartoonists I've encountered in quite some time, and I was left wanting more.
Lucki Aki in the New Stone Age, by Barry Linton. This comic was originally done in 2003 (and reprinted by Emery's Pikitia Press in 2014), and Linton's been drawing comics since the 1970s. With Robert Crumb as an obvious influence, Linton's account of a boy and his aunt in a sea voyage during the neolithic era is bursting with energy and joy. Linton's technical skill, with heavy hatching and cross-hatching and working in tiny details, doesn't conflict with his proficiency as a cartoonist, with lively character design, innovative page layouts and fluid panel-to-panel transitions. I enjoyed Linton's approach to approximating the patois and slang of different islanders using EC Segar style-"I yams", as well as the lettering that was altered just slightly to give off a "stone-age" appearance. Linton is an ace at drawing boats, and his jagged panel design during a thunderstorm subtly helped create a sense of being tossed to and fro for the reader. There's a pleasant, meandering quality to the story, where Linton frames each page with a small title to indicate that they're units that can be processed independently--not unlike a Sunday comic strip that picks up the story from week to week. That story structure gives the comic an episodic feel, even if Linton doesn't use that form in order to create suspense, but rather to emphasize the joy of discovery, exploration and sharing of knowledge. There are other fascinating details, like each island's culture being matrilineal, and in fact often setting up the "mother" of the village as a sort of goddess. I've never read anything quite like this: a fully-formed take on an underexplored part of history with colorful characters and well-researched details.

Gasoline Eye Drops and Hidden, by Chris Gooch. Gooch is a young cartoonist (twenty when these were published two years ago) with a tremendous amount of promise. It took me a while to figure out whose comics his remind me of, at least in terms of form, and it's Paul Grist. The character design is similar, as is their extensive use of negative space. However, Grist is a genre cartoonist (albeit a highly quirky one), and Gooch goes in rather different directions. That said, Hidden is certainly a genre comic of a kind (horror), one of the rare genres that Grist hasn't tried. It starts off as a police procedural, as a young man is being questioned for what apparently is a murder. Gooch uses a sickening yellow wash on top of mostly employing a 2 x 2 grid, giving the comic a claustrophobic, unsettling quality even before considering its contents. The young man tells his story in flashbacks, as he's a filmmaker who was making a sort of porn/horror mash-up in a remote location. There was tension on the set, and after a sex scene, things started to get weird as creatures descended on the set, and they were hungry. Gooch's character design on these one-eyed, toothy and shadowy humanoids is especially creepy. The story turns out to be a deconstruction of horror tropes, because after he manages to escape the creatures, he now starts to understand that his ordeal has only truly begun. Gooch is equally adept in building suspense and applying some jaw-dropping gore in equal measures, though the latter is only used sparingly and in an almost deadpan manner.

Gasoline Eye Drops is a horror comic of a different kind, as it follows a highly dysfunctional love triangle to its uneasy conclusion. What's interesting is that the story is told from the point of view of a young woman named Sarah's new boyfriend, and we are privy to his deepest, darkest thoughts as we see him talk to a therapist. We only see Sarah's point of view through him, and we never actually see the third member of the triangle, Sarah's ex who constantly tries to manipulate her through suicide threats. Indeed, she kept word of her relationship with her new boyfriend secret for fear of upsetting her old boyfriend for a long time. While Simon, the new boyfriend, keeps quiet about his concerns and later his extreme feelings of anger toward Isaac, the old boyfriend, Those feelings escalate throughout the story, but he's reluctant to let her know just how angry or order her to stop talking to him, even though that's what he desperately wants to do. His feelings of beating up and then later killing Isaac keep growing, spreading into his dreams. One gets the sense that admitting these feelings out loud to his therapist is the only thing that keeps him sane, in contrast to Isaac, who has resisted therapy and has no one to talk to. The book's climax, when Isaac finally hurts Sarah off-panel, features her calling Simon for help in picking her up. The weird ambiguity of the situation (who was the woman who was with her?) finally leads Simon to snarl that she's to never see him again, to which she snarls back "Of course I'm never seeing him again." There is certainly a sense in which Sarah has used Simon, just as she let Isaac use her, and one gets the sense that the happy ending we see is highly temporary. Gooch implies that neither Sarah nor Simon are stable enough individuals to make the relationship work, and it's clear that the cycle could very well repeat. The dream scenes where Simon attacks Isaac are visceral and disturbing, as we see Simon's id totally unleashed. The scene where Simon and Sarah snarl at each other features their faces twisting into ugly, multi-lined masks. The orange wash that Gooch uses helps create a feeling of unease in the reader; it's the color of low-level alarm. The most clever device of the comic is that the reader is put into the place of Simon's therapist or roommate: involved observers who have no influence on what will happen, but are horrified nonetheless. The emotions and situations here are over the top at times, which is not surprising for a young cartoonist, but Gooch's skill in making everything feel authentic shows that he's one to watch.

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