Monday, December 26, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #26: Casey Bohn, Aaron Cockle

Aaron Cockle's comics are growing increasingly sophisticated even as they are are visually becoming more and more abstracted. Cockle walks a tricky line with what one might call "thick" narrative storytelling. It's not dense in the sense that one could navigate it if one chose to fully immerse oneself in Cockle's visual language. Nor is it deliberately obscurantist, because Cockle is clearly getting at something in his most recent comics that are mostly about corporate/bureaucratic structures. Instead, Cockle is warping language in a very specific way: a language that lacks empathy, intuition and nuance. It looks like English, and yet feels like a different language despite using the same words. The result, especially in Annotated #19, is that the reader must parse the issue as much as they read it, hooking back into emotionally powerful or explosive concepts or reveals that filter up through the fissures of this new way of not just speaking, but processing the world.

Annotated #18, subtitled "Boring Mirror World", leads off with a Nabokov quote that perfectly sums up the book's structure: "Granted that space and time were one, escape and return became interchangeable." In a 44-page story, Cockle tells a story about a series of nameless characters whose entire lives seem to revolve around the office building they work in and its parking lot. Conformity, rigidity and structure are inherent in the piece and the place as Cockle relentlessly works an eight-panel grid and works small in each panel. The figures, simplified and crude as they are, have more of a signifying, placeholder use than as characters the reader wants to explore and get to know. On the odd pages, there was a single page of comics. On the even pages were eight-panels full of text. There's a nostalgia in the text, as though some apocalyptic event had occurred that disrupted and transformed the bureaucracy but didn't actually end it.

Emotions are heightened (in "Mid-Presentaton Tech-Fix [each page gets its own title], a woman embraces an idiot who tried to fix a projector standing on a chair with rolling wheels), corporate jargon takes the place of actual communication, ominous crows and bird-men appear to poach employees, and floating heads act as department heads. One employee returns from a mysterious absence and is amazed to be alive. In the end, order starts to break down as a band of office workers leaves the complex to go on a fantasy quest, only to understand that they will be back at the office the next day. The thickness in this comic is hinted at in its title: it's a mirror world, where in best Lewis Carroll tradition, things aren't just reversed in the mirror, they're just...wrong. And like Carroll's mirror world, the further and harder you run toward a goal, the more certain it is you will simply arrive back at your point of departure. In terms of conception and execution, this may be my favorite of all of Cockle's comics.

Annotated #19 is a series of short stories that inhabit a different kind of thick storytelling, this time where as I noted above, language itself starts to lose its meaning. What's most different in this issue is the variety of visual approaches Cockle uses. "The This Oubliette", for example, is a floor plan on what looks like wrinkled paper or cloth, with arrows pointing to the highly vague "facts" of the matter regarding this dungeon of "now". "17th Republic" has the kind of green back tone not unlike old LED lights on photocopiers, and it's about observing a woman putting together some kind of zine in a copy shop whose appearance alternated every day. Again, meaning and identity were scrambled here as the text became a stream of consciousness babble. "Mandarin Mobile App Development Mindfulness" replaced the heads of an office's employees with text balloons filled with jargon, leading to existential crises even as they babbled company office-speak. "War Re-Enactment" features military-industrial jargon at its thickest, as language becomes stripped of its meaning when used to describe the world in the aftereffect of an apocalyptic war.

"Conscription" puts its text in cursive, superimposed above photographs of sculptures from antiquity. An unnamed agent is collecting nonsensical information in the wake of the apocalypse, continuing on this theme of what happens to language when it is divorced from humanity; that is, when language ceases to be spoken by people and is only spoken by corporations. It ceases to have meaning or agency. Ironically, as the final story, "Infranet", hints at, language's only hope in these scenarios is when it is picked up by artificial intelligence that is separate from its corporate underpinnings. There's a reference to HAL-9000 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) in this story, who in many ways is the most human character in that film. HAL searched for meaning but went mad trying to balance the goals of being human with the goals of the military-industrial complex. Cockle seems to have a meta-interest in eschatology; not so much in the end of the world itself, but rather the mindset of those who would bring about the end of the world and the implications of what happens when the end isn't what we might expect.

Space Rope; Mars and Venus is a welcome return to comics from Casey Bohn. This is a collection of three stories about the creepy titular alien, whose ability to coil and change shape and size makes it a terrifying monster. Bohn's approach is interesting in that she uses Space Rope as a sort of catalyst that sheds light on other characters. In the first story, it's not even entirely clear that Space Rope is malignant in nature; it seems to be more curious about its environment than anything least at first. When two men in black types come along and discuss the danger of having Space Rope run around loose on earth, we're meant to take their word for it when they douse the creature with its only weakness: baking soda. Only its final utterance, "My hate will never die..." gave the reader any clue that this was a dangerous creature. What's interesting about this initial story from 2011 is that it came before Bohn transitioned to become a trans woman, and she noted at the end of the mini how Space Rope was very much a metaphor for her fears about the possibility of realizing her true identity--not the least of which was open hostility on the part of the authorities.

The other two, more recent stories are more in the tradition of EC Comics. "Space Rope Is Served" is about a hunter who can no longer eat meat, so he decides to go to the Space Rope's home planet to capture one to eat, since they are a form of vegetable. There's a twist ending where a character unexpectedly helps the Space Rope turn the tables on the hunter, who grovels for his life if he promises to get them more victims. In "Scent Of A Space Rope", a perfume maker gets some brain fluid from a Space Rope as a secret ingredient, only to realize that she's inhaled the memories of the Space Rope, up to and including being sliced open! What's interesting is that for all the Lovecraft-esque pulsing and squirming of the creature, they don't wind up killing anyone in any of the stories. Even the battle in the second story is entirely in self-defense after being boiled alive for a while. The fear in these stories is fear of the unknown, fear of being replaced, fear of having one's sense of reality altered. Bohn is deliberately cagey with regard to the actual threat of Space Rope for that very reason. Bohn has always made heavy blacks a big part of her art in order to add atmosphere and a feeling of dread to the proceedings, with a touch of melodrama. Everything from the logo to fonts was obviously very carefully considered with regard to how they affected the comic's atmosphere. It's a short comic that packs a lot into its pages.

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