Monday, September 26, 2016

Uncivilized Minis: C.Jetsmark, L.Richard, A.George, D.Zender, R.Topka, M.McGrane, J.Shiveley

In addition to publishing a number of interesting collections, new graphic novels and foreign translations, Tom Kaczynski's Uncivilized Books also publishes new minicomics, mostly from young cartoonists. It's actually a brilliant move for a publisher who attends a lot of festivals and does a lot of business online, as it's a relatively inexpensive way to introduce one's overall aesthetic to an audience. That said, there's really no unifying aesthetic, theme or genre in this batch of minis from the past couple of years, other than "interesting, well-done work that Kaczynski thought was worth publishing."

My Dead Mother, by Clara Jetsmark. Opening up with a little magical realism, Jetsmark uses a clear line to tell this story of two young women, a dead mother's head attached to one of them, and a loa who has the hots for the other woman. Jetsmark's dedication to that clear line style, the use of lots of negative space and using a variation on a six-panel grid on nearly every page created a strong story rhythm that made the most of its transitions. In terms of the storytelling tone, Jetsmark uses irreverence instead of a more traditional fairy tale voice, reminiscent of a Gilbert Hernandez story more than anything else. Jetsmark goes through the mechanics of a story with familiar tropes and subverts all of them with humor. The studious young woman, Monga, only wants to pass an exam, even as she is simply used to her mother's bandaged head being fused to her. The boy-crazy young woman, Kitty, wants to help her friend. The magical being, a loa named Ghede, is a marvel of character design: huge, oversized head that's too big for his tiny body. So much so that he can't even stand up, which distresses him because he immediately becomes obsessed with Kitty. The ridiculousness of this character, who later pumps iron in an effort to impress Kitty, is particularly funny because Jetsmark plays all of this with a straight face. Indeed, Ghede's absurd attempt at seduction somehow works, thanks to his newly bulked-up arms. Ghede's magic doesn't succeed in freeing Monga from her mom, but it does put her mother into the form of a tiger. The cool and distant quality of Jetsmark's line and the structure of the grid is juxtaposed against the increasingly-absurd nature of the story, resulting in a delightfully silly ending.

Distant City, by Lilly Richard. This is a diary comic/travelogue of Richard's time in Berlin, only its unconventional nature winds up being a kind of commentary on the genre itself. Most travelogues tend to be heavily mediated with regard to the author's narrative point of view. Instead of letting the place speak for itself as much as possible, or else letting the dialogue guide the reader, many graphic memoirists have a tendency to overexplain to their readers, rather than trusting their reader to make certain inferences. In this comic, Richard doesn't have to say, "I am introverted and am nervous about going to Berlin." On the first page alone, in three consecutive panels, she is told about the sort of experience she is "supposed to" have. She reveals that the wildest early adventure she had was having a habit of falling asleep on the subway and getting home later than she wanted.

This is not to say that Richard was a distant storyteller; indeed, it's her dry sense of humor that leaves the deepest impression on the reader, like the bizarre story of being asked to buy some chickens from a creepy local seller, and the highly uncomfortable squirm humor of fending off the advances of a fellow student. Her safety as a young woman in the city is never really openly discussed, but the things she has to do in order to stay safe are always there in subtext. Social discomfort strikes repeatedly, like not remembering how to say "bag" in German and then feeling forced to buy an expensive tote, or leaving a departmental party early because she felt so out of place and then feeling depressed when the host wrote her a nice email after she disappeared. Richard's concluding piece, on the difficulty of trying to grasp the character of a city in a short amount of time having lived there, is thoughtful and smart, much like the rest of the comic. Her cartooning is solid, with body language and general expressiveness being her biggest strengths. She was also quite adept at showing the depth and breadth of the city itself.

Carpocalypse, by Andrew George. This is a classic, early-adulthood slice of life comic. It follows a character named Nick, an affable if somewhat aimless guy who has decided to take a year off after high school in order to figure out what he really wants to do. Employing a stripped-down naturalism in terms of character design, George isn't one to pass judgment on any of his characters, including Nick's parents who are obviously not happy about what their son is doing. When the diner Nick has worked at for years is closed down thanks to gentrification, he's forced to make a decision about his life. The result is somewhat surprising and evoked a bit of the end of Dan Clowes' Ghost World for me, if that story had followed another of its many potential possible paths. Nick pulls up stakes and moves away from his town (a big decision), but does so in order to move closer to his two best friends. This was Nick essentially deciding to punt on his future in order to make harder decisions later on, something that George portrays matter-of-factly, neither glorifying or condemning his actions in the eyes of others. That said, George makes the decision easier to understand thanks to the details he uses to show how much warmth and support the trio of friends expresses toward each other. Giving up that level of intimacy, especially for someone just beginning to explore the world, is difficult to ask. I'd be fascinated to read a follow-up where his support network starts branching out into new areas at college but Nick faces the challenge of finding his own niche.                                  

Escape Route, by Daniel Zender. This mood piece is like a supercut of psychological horror tropes, zeroing in on chilling close-ups. Shadow and negative space play a big role in this comic, which takes a few cues from the sort of thing that Emily Carroll does in her comics. It's not the big, scary monster that's the payoff, nor is it blood & guts. Instead, it's the hint of danger, the fear of the unknown being mixed in with the familiar, and worst of all, the fear of reality being warped around oneself that Zender explores here, free of all relation to or constraint by plot. There's an understanding that plot is just a delivery system for mood in these sorts of stories, Characterization only needs to be defined in terms of the familiar and the Other, and Zender nails that in pages where a pile of skulls suddenly piles up around a deathly still character, or someone becomes absorbed by their environment. The two best pages are opposites in terms of approach, as one is concrete and the other abstract, but both represent an unknowable, inescapable terror. The first image is a shot of a hand that's bound by rope at the wrist. In four panels, we see the hand try to struggle against it, to no end. The shot clearly suggests someone bound and hanging from a ceiling, unable to escape. The second image is four panels' worth of thin, branching lines. Are they branches? Are they runes? Are they rivers? What does the different configuration of lines mean in each panel? This is an example of how context provides so much information, because in a different book, those panels would have simply appeared to be a series of lines. In this book, they take on a more sinister appearance, much like the original Blair Witch Project scared its audiences with a series of sticks arranged on the ground. Zender understands that suggestion is more evocative than explicit imagery, and that last page is the ultimate example of that. What's ironic about the book is that the title suggests a way out of danger, but the reality is that there's no escape route; this in itself is another clever way of trapping the reader and warping expectations.

Speakeasy, by Rachel Topka. This is an oddball fantasy comic in that it has fantasy tropes like a centaur, an anthropomorphic pig, etc. However, it's really more a grotesque tale that wouldn't have felt out of place in an old issue of Bijou Funnies, filled with sex, violence, jealousy and the extremes people go to for all of these things. The plot involves two rival speakeasy owners in a forest, one (a female centaur) who is extremely successful and the other (the pig) who is bitterly jealous because she isn't. The latter concludes that it's the centaur's diminutive lover that's the key to her success and so she kidnaps him, setting off an escalating series of violent events that include the pig using a pack of wolves to hunt the centaur, the centaur's men blowing up a bridge, and the rivals shooting at each other with machine guns. There's also plenty of sex, lust and even a crush held by the man with regard to the pig. The main attraction here, beyond all the silliness, is Topka's drawing style. Instead of drawing idealized fantasy figures, she draws brutes, weirdos, and just plain grotesque figures. It's interesting that they're the main characters of the story and that the more conventionally attractive figures are minor characters. Topka's background textures go a long way in establishing place and giving a sense of weight to this world, with zip-a-tone and a judicious use of grey-scaling providing a dramatic contrast to the thin line weight she used to draw all of her characters but the pig.

Ice Heist, by Madeline McGrane. This clever comic combines classic tropes of both supernatural and crime fiction in one amusing package, and adds the hellishness of the Minnesota winter as one of its key story elements. The unnamed protagonist (possibly based on McGrane herself) is confronted by the undead presence of three vicious and presumed dead murderers and bank robbers who request her help. What follows is a meticulously-detailed account of how they go about recovering some cash they left behind, an explanation of what they want with it now that they're dead, and finally the inevitable double-cross. The protagonist uses her one advantage (her superior speed) and outsmarts them in a clever way, leading to a satisfying ending. While the story beats are all fun and clever, it's McGrane's use of black as the dominant story element that makes her comic so distinctive, as well as he use of white for negative space. Once the action begins, it's almost all black filling up the panel, with only the characters filling out the rest. The protagonist's face is wide-eyed, thick-browed, and pony-tailed, matching the creepy energy of the criminals with enthusiasm. Following her eyes from panel to panel is the key to understanding the story's mood and emotional shifts, a clever device that provides a through line for key plot points.

Silver Wire, by Jordan Shiveley. Shiveley has really hit on something in drawing comics about mice. This comic is as nihilistic as it gets, addressing first the urge for self-annihilation in the form of the female mouse constantly staring at the baited mousetrap. Later, when she crosses the threshold and she's saved by her partner, she stares at his death in rapt fascination, revealing a deep level of sociopathic behavior that reflects her absolute disinterest in living. What's really tragic in this comic is not so much the horrible death of the male mouse, but rather his ultimately futile attempts to bring her back to the world of the living through companionship, conversation, sharing meals, getting out in nature, etc. In dealing with someone that fixated on the void, however, there really was no bringing them back, not entirely, in part because they viewed themselves and others as things rather than people, and as such watching their demise was the only activity that made sense. Shiveley delivering this brutal message using simple figures in some ways makes it all the more devastating, because the reader isn't distracted by imagery; instead, the iconic nature of Shiveley's drawings instead pushes the reader further into these scenarios, as they are forced to identify with both characters. Shiveley's pitch-black sense of humor further modulates the story in both the slightly absurd nature of the set-up as well as the darkly hilarious index at the end. Notating such concepts and events as "Blood", "Callous disregard", "Detached curiosity", "Willful disbelief" and "The yawning abyss", Shiveley comments on the story he just created while poking fun at the entire exercise. The design, execution and even decorative elements of this comic are all carefully and thoughtfully considered, which is a testament to Shiveley's own sense of the gestalt of his projects.

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