Monday, August 1, 2016

First Second: Greg Cook's Friends Is Friends

There are times that it's been hard to figure out First Second's identity as a publisher. When they first emerged, they took a lot of chances as a publisher, including publishing some very interesting translations of work from around the world. They took risks in publishing folks like Gipi and Lat. Later on, they started gravitating toward becoming a mostly YA publisher, focusing on series and bright, easy-to-digest narratives. Of late, things seem to be shifting a bit again, as they've taken on daring comics like Jason Shiga's Demon (to be published in four volumes) and Greg Cook's Friends Is Friends. Most of Cook's best-known work was either self-published or published by the old Highwater books, as his style was firmly in the Brian Ralph/Tom Hart continuum. His books have almost always been about relationships gone sour, documenting bitter feelings and scenes depicting regret. His imagery has always been fanciful, fusing funny animals and fairy tale characters with stories about alienation.

Friends Is Friends is quintessentially Cook, as the characters are anthropomorphic animals drawn with a thick line on open-layout pages. There's a mix of emotions to be found as the action is somewhere between a kids' book and something far darker. This book is about a series of interlocking friendships involving people who are often very difficult to like. There's a stereotypical hobo-with-a-bindle that's an elephant who is harassed into friendship with a little pig boy. The elephant, Critter, also becomes friends with the pig's sister, who initially blames him for getting rid of her walking snowman friend. The pig boy has to deal with a ghost pig and a brother whom he thought was a ghost. Finally, Critter realizes that the mother of the pigs is an old flame back from his rail-riding days. 

Each of the characters is portrayed not just as deeply flawed, but incredibly difficult to live with as a friend. Critter has embraced hitting rock bottom and seems to have no interest in improving his station. The pig boy is alternately warm & garrulous and cold & cruel. The girl is needy and the mother a little distant. That said, this is a book about the deep yearning one can feel for connection. It's about how having it is a beacon of hope, light and warmth in the face of a cruel world. It's also about how losing it can plunge one into depression. It's about how our own selfishness can destroy friendships, and how self-destructive and myopic we can be in doing so. It's about contradictions, as the characters suffer a conflict of wanting to be absolute rulers of their own spheres and the need for meaningful connection. Crucially, there are no heroes or villains in the book. Instead, there are simply characters who make mistakes, who violate trusts and have trusts violated, who react in anger instead of compassion but who are also capable of practicing compassion and exuding warmth. In other words, they're human.

The drawing and book design are flawless. The thick, pulpy paper makes the book feel hand-made like a minicomic instead of mass-produced. Cook makes extensive use of negative space, with four panels per page using an open-panel layout. The resulting white space highlights his elegant brushwork that brings the focus to character interaction. How the characters relate to each other in space is key to the book's emotional narrative. With just a few simple details, Cook's art has an enormously evocative feel, summoning up the sort of feelings that go along with multi-layered memories, from wistful nostalgia to deep regret. Beneath Friends Is Friends's deceptive simplicity is an emotionally complex web of relationships balanced with bite, humor and affection.

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