Friday, December 9, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #9: J.P. Coovert

JP Coovert's most prominent trait as a storyteller is a relentlessly upbeat tone. Even when he's discussing personal travails in his long-running diary comic, Simple Routines, he manages to find ways to not just emphasize the positive, but rather to demonstrate how he copes with those problems and how he seeks support. In the most recent volume of Simple Routines (#5), Coovert deals with not only the medical implications of what turns out to be prostatitis, he also admits how difficult it is for him to confront the embarrassing nature of his problems, even to his beloved wife Jacie. There's a sense where simply getting that down on paper worked through a lot of those issues for him, even if there wasn't a neat solution. Indeed, most of Coovert's autobio comics, even though they follow the four-panel rhythm of gag strips, don't tend to have a neat resolution or a punchline. Many of them don't even pretend to be funny, or comprise complete thoughts.

What he does express is how much he enjoys being around his dogs, and his simple, clean style is absolutely ideal for drawing animals. He talks about culture that inspires him. There's an almost childlike glee that he evinces when a friend comes into town to visit him, or when he travels to see a childhood friend. Coovert, who turned thirty during the course of doing these comics, actually cops to not quite feeling like an adult. In his case, that translates to not wanting to lose the feeling of childlike wonder and enthusiasm he so often displays, because he demonstrates maturity in a number of different ways. That includes his career working as a graphic designer for Target as well as his decision to quit to pursue freelance work, but it also includes the seriousness with which he takes his marriage and the effort he puts in to communicate. There are plenty of moments of that childlike glee, like when the life-long Star Wars fan gets to visit a huge collection for work, staying up late to play video games with friends, and rekindling friendships at comics shows. The intimacy he creates with the reader is not forced or fake, but rather a function of his skill as a storyteller and his guileless honesty.

The first installment of Coovert's YA fantasy story, Arc Dogs, is similarly upbeat, smooth and fun. It combines tropes from Harry Potter (the kids all go to a school for magic) with the sort of propulsive teen adventure stories featured in movies like The Goonies. That one of the kids is a dog and another is a bird is simply part of the premise, as a group of four kids stumbles upon a treasure map that reveals its path one step at a time. Coovert's line is smooth and simple (he hardly ever varies line weight), but he prevents his images from floating off the page with a judicious use of shading on every page. It's telling that he hardly ever uses a lot of black to fill in his backgrounds, because that would alter the overall atmosphere of his stories. Instead, Coovert adds weight to his compositions with that greyscaling, and he creates enough negative space to make every panel pop. Coovert doesn't a grid, but instead prefers to vary the composition of each page, in part as a way to keep the reader as off-balance as his characters. The action sequences are direct and Coovert lets the images do the talking, as those panels are silent. This is a well-executed opening chapter for the story, lacking only in firm differentiation between each of the characters. Certainly, their appearances all differ, but there's not much else to indicate personality or temperament issues as of yet. Considering that this episode wasn't especially character-centric, it's not surprising to see that lack of development, as Coovert was trying to establish his world and its rules. There's a lot of potential for a YA adventure here that could be aimed at a slightly younger crowd than most, both in terms of subject matter and storytelling style.

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