Friday, July 22, 2016

First Second: Drew Weing

From the beginning of his career about fifteen years ago after he graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Drew Weing stood out from other cartoonists in his age range thanks to his remarkable versatility and skill. He did a couple of years' worth of a diary comic to hone his chops, did some interesting early webcomics experiments (Pup), and had a densely-hatched book published by Fantagraphics (Set To Sea). He co-wrote a kids' book with his wife Eleanor Davis (Flop To The Top) and helped her with her own YA book, The Secret Science Alliance. Despite his facility with the web, Weing is a throwback in many other respects. Fifty years ago, he would have likely been a syndicated daily cartoonist. His art takes its cues more from classic strip cartooning than modern superhero or even alt-comics. He has superb chops as a draftsman but is a cartoonist first and foremost, focusing on character design, body language, and gesture above all else.

His first book for First Second, The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo, is a set-up for a series told in episodic fashion. A young boy named Charles moves to a big city that feels like a cross between New York and San Francisco called Echo City with his family. He learns that his family is moving into a nearly century-old building that his father is fixing up. Weing takes up about fifteen pages carefully establishing the character as skeptical of the whole enterprise and annoyed with his gently needling parents who constantly try to push him into doing new, weird things and encourage him to get rid of some of his stuff. Weing then gives the reader one last piece of information before really starting the story: Charles is a blogger who fancies himself a reporter on "the frontlines of the battle for kids' rights." The agency of children is a key theme throughout the book, especially as the stage for kids being forced to deal with a strange world on their own becomes a dramatic plot point.

When Charles sees a huge monster at his bedside as he tried to go to sleep and his father offered him a "magic wristwatch" for protection, that was a sign that Charles was on his own. From there, Weing expands the cast a bit by introducing Kevin, a fellow kid from the building who mixes eccentricities (he constantly tries to set weird world records) with plot-device usefulness. When Kevin gives him a card for a "monster mediator" named Margo Maloo, that's when the book really takes off. Margo's presence as a hyper-competent, knowledgeable but enigmatic expert is perfectly set off by Charles' role as a stand-in for the reader, and the ideal reader at that: someone who is intelligent but knows nothing about the subject at hand.

From there, the book is simply a series of problems that need to be solved with equal emphasis on the "monster" and "mediator" aspects of Margo's job. She's the ultimate kid with agency, armed with knowledge of how things really are, knowledge that's kept hidden from adults. What Weing does especially well is slowly develop the partnership between Margo and Charles. When introduced to the monstrous troll named Marcus who menaced Charles at his bedside, the conflict is eased when both Charles and Marcus realize they have a common interest in a collectible game-toy. The other chapters address an especially annoying ghost that's captured some unruly teens and then take the reader on a tour on the monster underground: a grocery store for monsters, the monster postal system, a favorite monster bar, where monsters like to hide, etc, all in the name of finding a missing baby monster. To be sure, there's much about the book that follows a familiar formula, but Weing's attention to detail, in-depth characterization and overall cleverness as a craftsman makes this book a genre stand-out. Hopefully, there will be future volumes that allow Weing to flesh out his characters and this world a little more.

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