Tuesday, November 29, 2016

mini-Kus! Of The Week #6: Mikkel Sommer, Theo Ellsworth, Lai Tat Tat Wing

The weekly mini-Kus! column will take a hiatus during December, since that will be devoted entirely to the Center for Cartoon Studies, and will pick up again in January.

mini-Kus! #34: Limonchik, by Mikkel Sommer. This is a reimagining of the story of Laika, the first dog in space on Sputnik-2. Of course, Laika met a grim fate in space, dying in her capsule from overheating mere hours into her flight. Her journey was a propaganda victory for the Soviets, even if the true nature of her fate wasn't revealed until years later. In this mini, Sommer imagines something different: Laika's craft crashing to earth years later, only the dog was not only alive, but was floating around after gaining vast powers. Using a soft, muted palette and a very cute character design, Sommer turns on a dime as the dog's eyes begin to glow and it systematically destroys the entire planet. It's a revenge story, to be sure, but one almost gets the sense that Laika was more of an exterminator, preventing the plague of humanity from ever spreading. There was little anger in the dog, as she even forgave the man who put her in the spacecraft in the comic's only line of dialogue. She simply went about her business in that single-minded way that dogs possess.

mini-Kus! #35: Birthday, by Theo Ellsworth. Many of Ellworth's comics are about rituals, siege perilous moments, rites of passage and other activities designed to give wisdom through extreme experiences. This mini is no different, as we are told the very nervous protagonist is about to undergo something called the Inner-Space Birth Ritual. Anyone familiar with Ellsworth's work knows that he almost obsessively never leaves any negative space on his pages. Everything is filled up with intense color, detailed patterns, dense cross-hatching, etc. It's Ellsworth's way of completely submerging the reader into his world, forcing them to address the images they see on their own terms rather than simply waiting to be led around by a conventional narrative. That said, Ellsworth's comics are not incoherent; rather, they have their own internal sense of logic driven by human understanding of rituals and quests, and that is certainly the case for this short story. The hero signs some kind of waiver and consents to sit in an ornately decorated chair in order to have a special helmet placed atop his head. Another Ellsworth specialty is the juxtaposition of the inner world and the outer world, and in this comic, we see the man sitting in the chair with images flashing across the helmet. In his mind, he's going down a terrifying slide to an unknown destination until very slowly, he begins to regress back to his birth state: warm, safe, comfortable and nurtured. Even a cake is presented to commemorate the event. All of Ellsworth's comics mix that sense of the harrowing and frightening with the possibility of enlightenment and peace at the end of an ordeal, and he does it with an almost rococo sense of design. It's as though the design and decorative aspects of the comic are indistinguishable from the structure and even the narrative he creates.

mini-Kus! #36: Pages to Pages, by Lai Tat Tat Wing. Speaking of looking to the structure and meta qualities of comics as lines on paper, Lai's comic is like if Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics had somehow been crossed with the same artist's Destroy! In a city where every building's windows are panels and the otherwise faceless and indistinct main characters (one pink, one blue) have either lines or panels on their faces, an argument emerges between analog vs digital. The blue person buys a tablet that enables them to do all sorts of interesting digital drawing, but the pink person is openly disdainful, as they're all about the printed page. The blue character turns into a monstrous supervillain with oversized hands that have the ability to swipe and alter reality, including killing innocents by moving around panels, opening up huge holes in the street, etc. The pink character merges with their comic book and becomes muscled, using the comic as a cape to confront their former friend. Eventually, the two return to normal even as crowds gather and capture them with their phones. It's a very funny take on being the observer/recorder, being the observed and the ways in which different levels of technology create different relationships with the world. When an artist is drawing the fight, they gather a crowd as they watch them draw on a pad of paper--until the attention of the crowd drives them to run away! Lai's understanding of American superhero tropes is spot-on, even as he subverts and pushes the form in interesting ways. That's especially true of the end, which doesn't have the big finale that solves the problem, but rather the story's denouement is where the capacity for creation, observation and distribution all come together as theory and practice unite.

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