Sunday, December 4, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #4: Reilly Hadden

Reilly Hadden continues to center his comics around his Astral Birth Canal universe, a bizarre and frequently absurd fantasy world that continues to expand from issue to issue. The loose threads that Hadden has been casting since the first issue in what seemed to be an improvisational fashion are slowly being drawn together, even as his storytelling and drawing continue to tighten up from issue to issue. Hadden has created a world where he can do anything, from conjuring up an epic, visceral and slightly silly battle to veering off to a far corner to see how one character is feeling at that moment. It gives these comics an elastic quality, knowing that while it's set in a fantasy world, Hadden might be telling a slice-of-life story just as easily as he might be depicting psychedelic weirdness. And of course, none of these possibilities are mutually exclusive.

The fifth issue introduces the "bear bus" in a sequence that contains a stick figure girl as well as a highly detailed and slightly grotesque drawing a of a bear bus driver. Hadden loves cognitive dissonance in his narratives and is able to produce that effect with both his drawings as well as the narrative tone. The fairy tale tone of the story and some of its characters is offset by the ever-increasing sense of weirdness and dread as the story proceeds, especially when the dialogue from seemingly-benign characters grows ever more bizarre. This story's destination, Land Grove, is exactly where the reader has been since issue one, and chapter two of the book reintroduces a human girl and the bird-girl friend she made. When last seen, the bird girl had had her beak ripped off her face by a frightening figure, and so the other girl replaced it using a sno-cone and some string. Hadden here uses the thinnest of lines and a great deal of white negative space to create an airy, strange atmosphere in a minimalist setting. The reader also gets a brief taste of a fight between Edward, son of Bork, against the Mega-Rat and the Rat-Snake-Man who turns into the Snake-Rat-Man. It's both a total lark on the part of the artist and a carefully constructed craft experiment. The final story involves a couple leaving their world thanks to climbing onto huge but harmless creatures who shed their bodies and go out into space. The story is unconnected (for the moment) to anything else in the series, yet the kind of logic used in its progression is the sort that's been the rule for the whole series, and it has the additional feature of being emotionally compelling as we follow the couple's ultimate fate.

Issue six features a long, funny battle with Edward and his opponents, making use of its backgrounds like a breezier Mat Brinkman comic. Again, the dominant visual on a Hadden page is not just what he draws, but what he doesn't draw: wide amounts of space. Just like in the segment where we catch up on bird girl and the adventurer, Hadden builds up "the Mighty Bird five", a powerful group of heroes sent to hunt after that, only to have them killed in a single stroke by the real creature that's hunting them. Hadden uses a kind of shaggy dog joke with a horrific punchline, once again keeping the reader off-balance. In the same way, the reader is surprised that just when it looks like Edward is going to get killed, one of his enemies does something surprising and flips the narrative around introduces an entirely new element. This issue also features side stories from John Carvajal and Hannah Kaplan. Both stories juxtapose the familiar against the strange, as Carvajal's is about a father and son explorer team finding a sleeping creature, discovering a gateway in its navel, and then disappearing as the creature barely notices their existence. The latter features a picnic where a sentient pizza's pieces are having a debate about moral philosophy before being eaten, but Kaplan makes it clear that the pizza is having an effect on those who ate it, both in terms of their words and their appearance. Both have a visual approach utterly different from Hadden's, as Carvajal favors a lot of spotting blacks to give his figures some more weight, while Kaplan fleshes out her more realistically drawn figures with a greyscale that slowly builds atmosphere. James Sturm adds a strip featuring the stick-figure girl from the first chapter that's drawn more in Hadden's style than Sturm's.

In The Grass is a short Hadden mini set in the same world. In it, we see a humanoid figure desperately trying to hunt down its dinner and failing. There's a narrative in the form of a letter that seems like it's written in the hand of the protagonist that's all about missing a friend and partly envying their freedom but also warning that what they're doing is a mistake that's too late to rectify. At the end, after a comic worth's of travails, it's revealed that the letter is about this figure, and he reads it again when he arrives home, knowing that he's made a tremendous mistake. It's cleverly-paced slice-of-life fiction disguised as a fantasy story and shows just how versatile Hadden is as a storyteller, even when working within the same milieu the entire time.

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