Thursday, February 23, 2017

Josh Neufeld & Sari Wilson's Flashed

One thing that a number of Xeric Generation cartoonists (those between about forty and fifty-five years old or so) have in common is an interest in comics formalism, often expressed through the OaBaPo method. This is a series of comics-drawing games that use certain constrictions, like drawing all characters in silhouette, or including the image in every third panel, etc. to challenge cartoonists to use creative solutions for these problems. In many respects, formalism simply implies an awareness of the actual form of comics and how it can be manipulated to produce certain kinds of effects. A lot of comics-as-poetry leans heavily on formalist techniques, for example. In the case of Josh Neufeld, he's done things like comics drawn with his non-dominant hand as well as travelogues told from the point of view of strangers he encountered. Working with his partner Sari Wilson, who is a writer, they put together a collection of "flash" fiction and comics called Flashed. One of the constraints here is a comics story of no more than four pages and a short story of no more than a thousand words. The biggest constraint, and what makes the collection interesting at times, is that three stories or comics would bundle together to form a sort of triplet with a common theme.

Neufeld & Wilson would choose a previously-published comic or short story as a seed. It would be handed over to the next cartoonist or writer (always at least one of each in each triplet), who would respond to the first piece in whatever way they saw fit. Then that second piece would be handed over to a third artist/writer, who would react only to the second piece; they were not allowed to see the first. There are fifteen such triplets in the book and thus forty-five artists, which had to have made for an intense amount of work for the editors, especially since they solicited and printed reactions from each artist about the process after every assignment in a triplet had been completed. That made the entire project unusually meta for an anthology, although I found the author responses to be some of the most interesting parts of the project. As I have written about nearly every anthology I've ever reviewed, this book was highly uneven. I probably would have cut it from fifteen triplets down to ten, because some of them were either difficult slogs to read (which is surprising for flash fiction), lacking substance or outright juvenile.

The "Cheating" triplet started off with some swaggeringly tedious Junot Diaz machismo in short story form, was followed by an absurd Nick Bertozzi strip about a guy who started to think that the tags on his girlfriend's underwear were sending a message, and then finished by Zoe Zolbrod's purple prose. It's one of the rare times I've felt angry after reading something due to the feeling of having my time wasted. Some of the other triplets, like "Shell Shocked" all took somewhat obvious approaches to their subjects; in this case, it was the subject of a soldier returning home to a lover. Some did little to add to a great seed, like in the "Frozen" section where a John Porcellino piece is rendered into something predictable and lacking the poetry of the original piece by Alan Gilbert. In "Venus & Mars", a sentimental piece about emotional pain by Dean Haspiel is turned into an S&M piece by Gina Frangelo and then a parody of S&M and academia by Jason Little. "Winter Walk" went into territory that was too esoteric and abstract at times and didn't hold together.

Sometimes, however, the combinations worked and some interesting connections were made. Kellie Wells drew straight from certain aspects of Lynda Barry's deeply, emotionally rich story "Lost Worlds", and Box Brown went into a completely different direction that nonetheless captured the quality of light that's difficult to quantify in its beauty. "Dystopias" showed that even when an author did not understand an element of the original story (like Anthony Tognazzini misunderstood Jessica Abel's original), they can turn it into something interesting. In this case, it took a story about a tragic highway accident into a bizarre conspiracy piece, and the cartoonist DW managed to double-down on this. A more direct example of teamwork was "Amerika", where Jen Camper started off with a goofy parody of a future fascist America (yikes!) that V.V. Ganeshananthan turned into a full-out dystopian tale with an open end that Tom Kaczynski picked up and completed in his trademark absurd but deadpan manner.

In other stories, the connections made just weren't that interesting or the deviation from original texts wasn't striking enough. That was true of triplets like "Awakenings", "Brothers", and "Leviathan". When the creators started with a weird or whimsical premise and were willing to keep it going, the stories were more interesting. "Bronte", for example, starts with stage directions for a scene about the death of Emily Bronte, continues with a comic by Ken Nash that transposes the setting to an office, and finishes with a story by Rob Walker that transposes it once again and shifts the point of view to a guy in a club. The through-line of barking dogs being transformed into a ringing phone and then finally the person making the call was especially clever, even if one is completely unaware of the history of the literary Bronte sisters. "Mutable Architecture" starts with a premise grounded in the mundane (living in a tiny city apartment) with the horrifying (a mysterious hole in the bathroom that takes on an increasingly disturbing quality) thanks to Gabrielle Bell. Jedidiah Berry's takes that premise and warps it in a positive way, as a landlady showing an apartment to a new tenant becomes younger and younger as the tenant finds more and more secret chambers. Carol Lay's scratchy and tenuous line flip the story around again, as the resident of a sinister house across the street from the apartment goes about his day. "Incommunicado" flips from a disaster-situation to a surreal party to an anatomy of a date and personal ad, with Michael Hinken's deranged final segment strongly capping off the weirdness. Finally, "Curses" finds Anna North and then Andrea Tsurumi doing different takes on disaster and superstition that are both emotionally resonant, and Ben Greeman finishes up with something far more frightening.

All told, this was an interesting experiment that was mostly worthwhile as a read, with a number of slow spots. One thing I noticed is the near-equal split in the number of male and female creators, which probably had something to do with the diversity in subject matter and storytelling styles. I'm not sure a second volume would make much sense, unless it was completely revamped with a new set of rules. Even more preferable would be a volume where every group had a completely different set of rules. The problem with these sorts of exercises is that they usually wind up being more interesting to those who participated in them as opposed to those who might want to read them, which is why a heavy editorial hand is so important. Still, I've never seen an anthology quite like this one, especially in the way it encouraged artists from two different disciplines to collaborate.

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