Friday, December 16, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #16: Amelia Onorato

It was driving me bonkers for a bit, but I finally figured out whose work Amelia Onorato reminds me of: Caitlin Skaalrud. I doubt that they were aware of each other's presence until perhaps recently, but it's clear that they processed a similar set of influences with regard to character design as well as an impeccable ability to draw complex but engaging backgrounds. Throw in a mutual interest in subverting sexist fantasy tropes, and you have two artists who, in different ways, have tapped into an ever-growing zeitgeist that's absorbed fairy tales, manga and fantasy stories and is responding to them in very personal but also political ways.

The third issue of Onorato's breakthrough series, Burn The Bridges Of Arta, speaks to a number of issues: male privilege, the exploitation of children, and the ways in which class stratification hardens into cultural institutions of injustice. Young Apollonia Ford began the series wondering what had happened to her sister when she got married. Eventually, a lower-class artisan who worked for her father, a highly esteemed architect, the awful secret of their beautiful city: as a matter of ritual sacrifice, the cornerstones of all new buildings contain one of the family members of the architect who built it. In a society meant to mimic Victorian England (with a touch of Charles Dickens with regard to some of the colorful side characters), women are meant to either serve, be wives, or simply to look pretty--and nothing else. The intelligent and willful Apollonia is well aware of her eventual fate and knows that she can't avoid it, which is why her father taking her for a "drive" to see the other buildings he designed is so genuinely disturbing. His cheerful and almost nostalgic affect shows more genuine affection shown toward his buildings than the children he sacrificed. He's also well aware that this will be his fate at some point in the future, and this helps perpetuate the cycle.

The second main plot running through the story has involved laborer Orie Foster and his clever, vivacious wife Mercy. Artisanal laborers know only too well what's involved in the construction of new buildings, and Foster couldn't bear to let "Polly" not know. As grim as the main storyline is, Onorato allows for increasing rays of hope and humor in the way that Orie and Mercy relate to one another, especially after Orie tells Mercy. This issue sees a long, mostly comedic sequence that also lays a bit of narrative pipe where Mercy goes back to her old job to obtain certain papers. It looks like Onorato has particular fun drawing Mercy, who's loud, big and bold. In a book filled with delicate buildings and delicately-designed upper-class characters, it's Mercy's lack of such delicacy that makes her so distinctive. The end of this chapter looks like it's winding the story down a bit, and I'll be curious to see if Onorato salvages a happy ending for the main character and what form that might take, given the narrative rules she's established for herself.

Sorgin is a one-shot that's an immaculately-constructed and heartbreaking story about genocide. Onorato exercises remarkable restraint with regard to the specifics of the ethnic cleansing that occur in the story, focusing instead on the story's central plot point of their supposedly being a witch near the mountains who could make children disappear. The story revolved around a teenage girl named Rochelle who finds said "witch", who happens to be a man, and she brings him three children to "disappear", i.e, to lead them over a mountain pass to safe territory. Everything about this story is subtle, as Onorato uses misdirection (are there witches involved?) while adding small touches like ethnicity-identifying armbands that Rochelle and the younger children must wear. From there, each subsequent journey brings about more dangerous repercussions, as she's shot on one mission and he has to deal with soldiers. Ultimately, this is a story about refuge and paying back kindnesses out of a sense of duty and compassion, centered around that central idea of magic. As the man and later Rochelle understand, what they do is a form of magic, one centered around the idea of empathy. Onorato's visual approach is different here than in Arta, as she adds a lot of greyscale to add weight to a lot of panels that are filled with blank space. It's different from her other project's crisp black and white and painstaking attention to background detail, but it also goes to show how that detail served a narrative presence: an omnipresent reminder to the reader that the city was all around them, it could not be escaped, and it was built through horrific means. In Sorgin, the open country and freer composition underscored the possibility of freedom. The latter comic probably would have been more effective in color, but she more than gets her ideas across as her character design and use of body language filled the reader in on a lot of what was unsaid.

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