Thursday, December 8, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #8: Beth Hetland, Josh Lees

Half Asleep Volumes 5 and 6, by Kyle O'Connell and Beth Hetland. O'Connell and Hetland reach the climax of their story about a researcher and her prodigy of a daughter that she uses as a test subject in exploring the limits of human consciousness in the form of dreams. Throughout the series, the tension between the girl (named Ivy) and her mother has played out in the form of a series of maneuvers by each to gain knowledge. Her mother holds secrets and details about the experiment that she is deliberately withholding (as revealed in issue #5) for the sake of the experiment's scientific integrity. Ivy withholds details of her dreams that her mother desperately wants. Volume 5 lays down more narrative pipe, as Ivy continues her training, her mother discusses with "Uncle" (the talking monkey retrieved from a dream) that the risks inherent in the experiment are worth going through and that telling Ivy about them would not jeopardize the experiment, but also prevent him from returning from whence he came.

When Ivy starts the experiment, something inevitably goes wrong. From her mother's perspective, the chronometer measuring Ivy's experience of subjective time inside the chamber starts rapidly cycling, until it's reached forty years before she's able to shut it down. The end of the issue shifts over to Ivy's perspective in her dream world, as the visuals switch from the black and white of reality to the swirling pastels of the dream world. The last image we see in this volume is that of an enormous, fanged serpent. Volume 6 is the big payoff issue that everything has led up to: Ivy's adventures in her dreamworld. Hetland made a few subtle changes in her line and use of color in this volume in order to allow for a more coherent reading experience. Prior to this, the dream sequences were denser and purposefully more difficult for the reader to parse. That said, there were certainly dream images that recurred throughout the series and that had a major presence in this issue. Whereas the color created a blurring effect in earlier issues, that effect is much lighter here. While Hetland totally abandoned the use of the grid in this volume, she was careful to create transitions that were still relatively easy to follow, both in terms of image-to-image and page-to-page. That flow was important in being able to understand the story as it unfolded and heighten the tension of the confrontation between Ivy and the serpent.

Hetland's dreamscape is fascinating, as it's composed of both images and words-as-images. She's in constant combat with the serpent but is aided at times by the man in the rabbit mask who helps her in her dreams. She travels to the land of Us, where she meets variations of herself and her parents. She manages to dodge the serpent again and attends to her actual mission in the dream, but an accident scuttles it at the last minute. After seemingly killing the serpent once and for all in a brutally visceral action scene, it rises again, menacing her like it did at the end of volume five. What's fascinating about this issue is the way that Hetland and O'Connell incorporate so much information from earlier issues of the series into the dream narrative, yet so much of this issue is still daring, beautiful and unsettling. The use of dream logic is impeccably presented after being hinted at for so many issues, but there are still a couple of chapters to go to resolve the story--including the cliff-hanger at the end. In terms of the writing, the clandestine nature of virtually every character comes back to haunt them in terrifying ways; after a series' worth of hints and slow pacing, having an issue devoted almost solely to jam-packed visuals made it that much more powerful.

Hetland and O'Connell's creative partnership is explored by the duo in the cleverly-designed mini Team Work Makes The Dream Work. As an artist, Hetland has always been fascinated by the possibility of creating objects that demand reader interaction as much as she does doing actual comics. This mini is a perfect example of that, as she uses pizza as a metaphor. The mini looks like a slice of pizza that then unfolds and can be read in a number of different ways. The parts in green ink are from O'Connell's point of view, the parts in red ink represent Hetland, and the parts in purple represent both of them together. The way that the comic is constructed allows the reader to flip around the pages to expand them like an entire pizza, and then a flip allows you to see the next level. It's a perfect match of form and content, as the collaboration goes far beyond simply "writer" (O'Connell) and "artist" (Hetland). They also make it clear that they are creative partners, not romantic partners and amusingly refer to Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock as a comparison. The multiple meetings, the shared tasks like proofreading, and tightening up each other's work at every level paint this as a true collaboration, one born out of mutual interests and sustained through mutual respect and productivity. I like comics about process, and this was an amusing and entertaining way to depict the complexity and rewards of collaboration.

Triple Trio #1, by Josh Lees. Lees tends to write about teen adventurers, and he has a real sense for the rhythms of those sorts of stories. Triple Trio follows the formula of something like a Cartoon Network show (complete with a commercial break!) in telling the story of three young time travelers who are tasked with observing and sometimes fixing past events. They are led by Tracey Triple, a fantastically designed character with her green eyeglass frames, ponytail, and big frame. Tracey even comments on how she was called "Tracey Triple" as a derogatory term because she was bigger than most of her classmates but now wears it as a badge of honor. The first story involves a dance marathon in the 1930s that they are supposed to observe, but inadvertently summoning a dinosaur doesn't seem to affect things too much. The second adventure sees the group accidentally sent back to the Salem witch trials and inevitably accused of witchcraft and sent to rot in jail before execution. The punchline is that witches are real and break everyone out, and the story ends on a cliffhanger. It's clear that Lees' mastery over his line is still a work in progress, but his storytelling skills and ability to depict bodies interacting with each other in space are both solid. There's influence from both Archie comics as well as manga to be found in his character designs, but the other main characters apart from Tracey feel a little underdesigned in comparison.

In his more recent ashcan Liberty High School Detective League comic, it's clear that he worked diligently on these issues, as the five characters in the first panel look more distinct from each other in that one panel than most of the characters did in the entirety of Triple Trio. The concept behind this series is a mystery-solving club at the local high school, which is a fantastic idea that combines any number of influences (Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Scooby Doo, Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and remixes them in an entirely fresh way. Indeed, the mechanics of how mysteries are solved was a big part of this short story, as we get a taste of the main character (Bernadette), the school and internal conflicts. Lees is writing this as a long-form project, and I think it could have a similar appeal to Drew Weing's Margo Maloo series.

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