Monday, November 21, 2016

Minis: Catching Up With Rob Jackson

I've been reviewing Rob Jackson's work for a decade now, and the British cartoonist's comics are just as strange and funny now as they were then. Pinning down exactly what he does is impossible, because he flips between genres effortlessly, even including quotidian slice-of-life comics. While he's happy to tell those genre stories in a straightforward way, the crude quality of his line and his sardonic wit always make whatever kind of story he's telling ridiculous on the face of it.

Take the four issues of his Flying Sausage Academy miniseries, for example. It's Jackson's mutated take on high school dramas mixed with supernatural/mutant high school genre material. The genius of the series, which begins as a punk rebel named Daryl is sent to his new school, is that it makes no attempt whatsoever to explain away the weirdness inherent in the series. His schoolyard nemesis is a kid nicknamed King Penguin, who has a bird's head. The headmaster wears wizard's robes as a way of impressing the students. One of Daryl's best friends is a skull-faced boy named "Lord of Despair, Devourer of Worlds, Jr." There are numerous student gangs like the Tough Girls, the Math Genii, the Alien Abductees, the Fashion Victims, etc--and they tend to have regular rumbles. When Dayrl is forced to be an informant for the headmaster, that's when things really take off as all sorts of weirdness emerges. Jackson's plots are remarkably tight for all of their silliness, and this is no exception as the reader slowly learns about the secrets of the school, the reasons why there are gangs, and why both giant spiders and music class play such prominent roles. Through it all, the usual high school drama is front and center, only it's far more seedy and less romantic than Harry Potter-style proceedings. Jackson's method here is to whip the reader through the story by cramming ten or eleven panels on each page. Jackson's line is deceptively simple: every panel is well-balanced, the character designs are memorably odd, and there are even moments of well-placed cross-hatching to add variety to the aesthetics of the story.

Ragnar The Cheesemonger is a classic Jackson story, in that he seems to have a special interest in stories set in the Middle Ages and a talent for emphasizing the mundane, unpleasant aspects of those times. This one's set in a small Viking village and involves the titular cheesemonger (a very funny variation on using a bad-ass name with a powerful-sounding title, like say "Conan the Barbarian") being threatened by a lunatic warrior. The entire plot revolves around Ragnar wishing he could get away from the warrior's challenge, yet won't accept the alternative--falsely apologizing for his cheese getting him sick. While the plot twists and turns in all sorts of unexpected ways, the heart of the piece is in the quotidian routines of Ragnar and the other villagers. The evil warrior is also a very funny character and brings an anarchic presence that drives the humor of the piece, as everyone else is a reasonably sensible person who's willing to talk through their problems. That style of humor is exactly the opposite of Flying Sausage Academy, where Jackson the one sensible character was the protagonist. It was up to him to navigate that chaos and ride it out. On the other hand, Ragnar had the whole of consensus polite society backing him up and he almost didn't make it past the chaos agent that affected everyone in the village.

Jackson's also been involved as an editor of various anthologies, including the third and fourth (and final) issues of Rhizome. They lean toward genre comics a bit but aren't necessarily restricted in any particular way. Issue three features a typical William Cardini story where a scribbly boulder becomes a troll and attacks what turns out to be a wizard. Cardini's comics always emphasize that these are marks on a page and play on those qualities in as visceral a manner as possible. Kyle Baddeley-Read uses his deliberately stiff figure drawing style to create a horrible scenario where everyone is happy all the time, no matter what. His other story uses grotesquely cute character design to create a horrible world where only a drug can restore that cutesy fantasy world. Both stories juxtapose that friendly line and open layouts to create remarkably grim, nihilistic worlds. Jackson's story is a departure, making it an illustrated walking guide in an icy, wintertime England. It's reminiscent of the sort of thing Oliver East does so well in exploring an environment and describing it in beautiful, poetic detail. Nick Soucek's does his own end-of-the-world piece, as what appeared at first to be a training exercise later turned out to be the real thing. It's a bit predictable in its execution and isn't especially memorable visually, either.

The final issue, #4, opens with Desmond Reed channeling Gilbert Hernandez with an awesomely gross story about a "disgusting man" named Ronald who's kidnapped by aliens. He winds up getting his owners pregnant, and the offspring are deposited on a suitably ugly world. It's Reed's level of detail that makes the strip so repulsively funny. Jackson's comic takes the rough plot of Star Wars (shepherd goes on a space adventure to save a princess with rebels) and then reverses every assumption the reader makes about who's good and who's evil. It's hilarious, even as the "good" guys turn out to be pretty brutal themselves once they've come into power. Once again, Jackson's wacky character design is the star here, as he makes most of the cast grotesque and deliberately avoids aesthetically appealing character and prop designs. Soucek's "Response" is extremely clever, as he stripped down his line even more than he did in #3 to tell a story of a guy growing up who is aware that someone is watching him at all times, and his disclosure to her that this is the case is a surprise that triggers a series of strange events. Baddeley-Read offers up more of his cute/grotesque nihilism, David Shenton's highly detailed superhero parody runs out of steam quickly, while Adam Smith's densely crude story about a robot war is funny at times but does not flow well. That said, it points out Jackson's willingness to give younger artists a showcase, something that this anthology did throughout its run.

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