Thursday, September 8, 2016

Secret Acres: Reid Psaltis, Brendan Leach

The Order of Things, by Reid Psaltis. The Secret Acres publishers, Leon Avelino and Barry Matthews, have as quirky an aesthetic as any publishers I know. Their tastes are unusual but wide-ranging, making it impossible to pin down an overall Secret Acres aesthetic the way one can with say, Drawn & Quarterly or NoBrow. Take the new book from Reid Psaltis, for example. It's a non-narrative set of drawings of animals and dinosaurs that at first is painstakingly accurate in terms of the drawings and then eventually devolves into wordplay and total silliness. I can't think of a single comparison in the SA family as an access point, and that's what makes the publisher so unpredictable. There's a drawing of a Bald Eagle talon that's as good a scientific illustration as you will ever see. The stippling and overall detail is remarkable. The text describing it is a joke at the expense of the Founding Fathers. Other illustrations are gorgeous, almost impressionist water-colors of animals like the Pronghorn, and there's no amusing commentary at all.

Psaltis mixing things up keeps the reader off-balance in that regard, as one never knows what's coming next. The commentary gets stranger and funnier as the book goes on, like the remarkable drawing of the Great Horned Owl where its bones are arranged to form the shape of the animal, with only its piercing eyes appearing as per normal. The only comment is "Nightmare fuel for all species of rodents." As Psaltis leaves behind modern animals and starts to draw dinosaurs, things start to get really silly. Dilophosaurus is depicted eating "spicy, brothy, sauropad soup" (i.e., pho). Dinosaurs are dressed as X-Files characters, Star Trek characters, Game of Thrones characters, etc., with the most tenuous of puns stretched out to create gags. What's remarkable is that his skill as a cartoonist drawing funny images is just as sharp as his skill drawing scientific illustrations, and that's what makes the jokes work (because the wordplay is groaner-worthy). This is an odd duck of a book, ideal for someone less interested in comics and more interested in funny illustrations.

Pterodactyl Hunters In The Gilded City, by Brendan Leach. Leach first sent this, his masters thesis at the School of Visual Arts, out as a broadsheet on cheap paper, as it was meant to resemble a typical newspaper in the early 20th century. It was soon picked up by Top Shelf, went out of print, and is now being published by Secret Acres. This ambitious first work retains its status as an art object by way of cheap, mass-produced methods in the way the book was printed at a large size and the way it reproduced its original cover as the first page of the book. That fake newspaper cover is all part of its reimagining of New York City if it had been terrorized by pterodactyls.  This book is all about the end of an era and how young people coming of age during that time don’t want it to end–no matter how horrible it actually is.

The book follows two brothers, Eamon and Declan Sullivan, who both work on the pterodactyl patrol.  No explanation as to why these dinosaurs are still alive and how they came to menace the city was given, nor was one really necessary.  The only important bit of information that we were given was that the dinosaurs had been hunted almost to extinction, due in no small part to the heroic efforts of the arrogant and off-putting Eamon.  Declan, his younger brother, toiled in his shadow as a watchman, hoping that he’d somehow get a shot at glory before the monsters were all dead.
Leach turned what could have been a cheap gimmick into a genuinely affecting story.  He drew his visual inspiration from sources few young artists seem inspired by these days: David Mazzucchelli (his thesis advisor), Ben Katchor and Eddie Campbell.  From Mazzucchelli, he seemed inspired by his Rubber Blanket-era stories, especially in terms of how he used pauses and stillness to tell the story.  Leach’s scribbly line is not unlike Campbell’s, especially when he used a skeletal line to depict quick motion in a single panel.  Katchor obviously inspired Leach’s development of the alternate history of New York from a bygone era.  In addition to using the same kind of evocative gray-scaling that Katchor employs, there’s also the same level of attention to detail.
While there is a remarkable amount of detail, what makes this comic such a success is Leach’s restraint as an artist.  He’s subtle in evoking the changes that would grip a city afflicted with this particular kind of terror, like merchants hurriedly closing up shop before sundown (hunting time for the pterodactyls) and particular ethnic groups clustering to the industry that sprang up to kill the monsters.  Leach lets the reader read between the lines of what’s motivating Declan, for the most part; he has a character reveal a plot detail late in the comic that explicitly spells out his motivations, which I thought was unnecessary.
The ending of the book is spectacular, as Declan is on the verge of killing the last pterodactyl, an act that would simultaneously fulfill his life’s goal of becoming a hunter and completely nullify that goal by making his dream obsolete.  The “Gilded City” subtitle is a telling one, as the book is set a few years after the world-weary “Gilded Age” in US history, an era of tedious decadence and little heroism.  "Gilded" also gets at the "golden age" angle of the story; it's an era of horrors for the populace at large, but a golden age for heroes and heroism. Killing the pterodactyl, Declan believed, would end that age of heroism, something he had always wanted to be a part of.  Leach is careful not to glamorize this in a couple of different ways.  First, the pterodactyls are killers and especially enjoy preying on children (no doubt because they’re easy targets).  At the same time, the dinosaurs are living beings with mates and nests; killing them is not a vanquishing of evil, but rather the culmination of a kill-or-be-killed process. The reader was brought in at the end of an era, building tension between the genuine benefits that this end augured and the desperate, selfish desire of a young man who didn’t want it to end but knew it was wrong to wish so. 

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