Monday, April 10, 2017

Exploring The World of Cartozia Tales

I've read a lot of young adult fiction in going through books for the Eisner awards, and a fair number of them have been fantasy/action-adventure oriented. None have the level of ambition, playfulness, formal daring and fun of the Isaac Cates-edited Cartozia Tales series, which is an issue away from finishing up its initial run of ten. Cates and his artistic partner Mike Wenthe (a long-time friend from before his comics days, in the interest of disclosure) basically made Cartozia Tales a far more aggressive experiment than their work on their old series, Satisfactory Tales. Their interests in comics have always revolved around collaboration, formal experimentation, an almost whimsical sense of play (including plays on words and visual puns), and creating problems to solve. They seemed to really find a groove when they worked on an ambitious fantasy comic together, which perhaps provided the impetus for this series. The central thrust of the series is this: in a set of adjoining land masses dubbed Cartozia (the first of many, many place name puns in the series), the reader would follow all sorts of serialized adventures. Cates divided the map into a nine-panel grid. In each issue, one of the seven permanent creative teams would be assigned a sector and create a story. Each issue would feature two guest artists. In the next issue, the creators would move over one sector, so now they had the option of picking up from the previous artist (in a sort of narrative exquisite corpse game), creating a new character, or some combination thereof.

This approach has led to a crazy level of complexity, especially since some characters were created by one artist but not actually used by them; instead, they were given to another creator to use. And unlike the random approach of a true exquisite corpse, there was careful attention paid to continuity (both narrative and character), especially as each issue drew the overarching narratives of the series tighter and tighter, like a sort of fantasy Raymond Chandler novel. That's how it was supposed to go in theory; in practice, things got a little choppy at times. While the covers for each issue and the overall design have been excellent, it's been obvious (especially in some of the middle issues) that some cartoonists were rushing their entries. There have been a couple of fundraisers for the series, as Cates is paying everyone. Not every guest star has been a perfect match, nor has every narrative maintained a sense of fluidity. Frankly, unless the series is read at once, it can be difficult to remember exactly what was going on with nine different storylines. That said, it's remarkable to see how coherent the book is given the incredibly complicated logistics involved.

It was always obvious that when Cates & Wenthe worked together, they went all-out for the series. With a relatively smooth line and the ability to trade off with each other, that duo turned in some of the denser stories in the anthology, though that density often circled around how many puns and funny visual references they could throw in. Still, their works felt like going back to home base when reading this comic. The two most dependable cartoonists on the roster were Lucy Bellwood and Lupi McGinty. Bellwood works using a slightly thicker line and a looser overall style than McGinty's ligne claire approach, but they both possess a smoothly welcoming style that worked for every character in the series. The series' secret weapon has been Tom Motley, whose scratchy and inky style felt dissonant at first, but whose relentless commitment to formal experimentation (along with a few changes here and there to make his line clearer) makes him a great place in the book to get one's eyes challenged. He also shares the Wenthe/Cates proclivity for whimsy and wordplay, a nice contrast to the more straightforward styles of the other artists. His greatest achievement in the series was his homage to Gustave Verbeek's The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, a classic comic strip that could be read one way, then turned upside down to continue the story using the same images. Motley's ability to precisely and flawlessly emulate that style within the context of the story itself was astonishing.

The early MVP of the series was Shawn Cheng, whose ultra-thin line and clean storytelling was simply beautiful to behold, but obviously work-intensive. He simplified his style later on, which was still perfectly functional but not quite the same in terms of impact. The other regulars (Jen Vaughn and Sarah Becan (often with Beckie Gautreua)) certainly had their moments. Vaughn created my favorite character/narrative in the series, the "Vagabond" narrative, and was clearly working hard in the early going. She had to skip an issue and some of her later work looks rushed, perhaps because she has a lot of other commitments on her plate. Of the two guest stars per issue, some were remarkably great, like Dylan Horrocks (oh, if he had been in every issue) and sublime work from Luke Pearson, whose young girl scientist Gret was a perfectly-designed character. Jon Lewis was a natural and another great artist to start out the series with, while Carol Lay was an interesting choice for a one-page story. Jon Chad and Chris Wright were fantastic gets in the same issue whose styles contrasted in a visually exciting way (Chad's detailed clear line vs Wright's scratchy and darkly eccentric style). The team of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ming Doyle was interesting because it resolved a key plot point and did it in a naturalistic style--which was highly unusual for the series. Tom Hart's dreamy, poetic comic also addressed a key narrative concern and Nick Abadzis' strip was formally charming in a series full of formally intriguing comics.

The good news about what will emerge as 400+ pages of interconnected anthology storytelling involving over thirty different artists is that actually really started to tie up loose ends, put characters together and gain some real momentum as it went further. I look forward to the final issue and how it finishes drawing together the various storylines, both grim and silly, enigmatic and simple, and pleasantly ambling and urgent. While the series had its ragged moments, I'm staggered at how much traffic Cates had to direct while still contributing to virtually every issue himself. And while the series had its misfires (the James Kochalka piece felt like it came from another series entirely and changed what had been a promising narrative thread into something that became sillier and sillier), I admired Cates' try-anything style of editing that still had a degree of narrative rigor. I should add that the all-ages character of the book was a key to its success, especially as Cates threw every kind of extra he could think of at younger readers: paper dolls, word searches, mazes, drawing exercises and more. It was clear that Cates was making the kind of comic he would have wanted to read as a child, or perhaps creating one for his own family. That level of sincerity, effort and creativity is a remarkable tonic to the level of cynical, money-making tropes that I see in so much YA fiction.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

High-Low and the Top 75 Comics Blogs

A nice person named Anuj Agarwal wrote in and said that High-Low had been named one of the top 75 comics blogs on the web. This was a very nice and unexpected honor, as the site clocked in at #67. I don't know what metrics led to this determination by the Feedspot people, but it's nice nonetheless, especially since I have that .gif of the honor on the site now in medal form. Thanks to my readers.

:01: Jason Shiga's Demon, Volumes 1 & 2

I say it with every review I do of a Jason Shiga comic, because it bears repeating: Shiga's background is in pure mathematics, and so his comics often read as a series of locked-room puzzles, coding problems or other sorts of math-related conflicts, all punctuated by a jet-black sense of humor. Most of his other comics have had at least one twist involving a shocking act of violence, or multiple acts of violence over the span of the book, but Demon is sort of Shiga's version of Stephen King's It: a book that has every violent and disgusting action setpiece Shiga could conceive, each more over-the-top than the next, but each working in a rigidly-applied set of principles based on the book's initial premise. It's like It in the sense that King considered that to be a novel that had every scary thing he could think of in there.

The premise is this: the long-suffering Jimmy Yee (a protagonist of the same name appears in many other Shiga books, and it's not too much of a stretch to paint him as a simple Shiga stand-in) tries to kill himself by hanging himself in a hotel room for unknown reasons. Next thing he knows, he wakes up in what seems to be the same hotel room, alive (to his great consternation). In the beginning, Shiga really takes his time in establishing the presence in as brutal a fashion as possible. We see Jimmy try to shoot himself, bleed out in a tub and jump in front of a truck, but he keeps coming back. Volume one, which features the first five chapters of the story, features Jimmy trying to work out what happen and introduces Hunter, the man who will become his nemesis. What Jimmy realized is that he was a "demon": when the body he was in died, he simply possessed the nearest person, until they were killed, and so on. That sets Jimmy down a gruesome, amoral path where he experiments with the limits of his abilities by ruthlessly killing random people.

At the end of volume one, he is pursued by government operative Hunter in order to offer Jimmy a job as an agent, which Jimmy has no interest in. Hunter insists that Jimmy's going to work for him whether he likes it or not, leading to the first of many incredibly strange cat-and-mouse games between the two. This one involves a bleeding-out Jimmy being put in a jail cell next to a death-row inmate. Hunter thinks he has Jimmy pinned, since he took away anything that the inmate could kill himself with...except a square of toilet paper. This is the most hilarious and disgusting segment in the book, as Jimmy tries to reason his way out of the situation until he finally determines that he could turn the the toilet paper into a shiv if he dipped it in enough semen enough times. The situation inspires the immortal line, "Looks like he slit his throat with a cum knife, sir."

The second volume features chapters six through twelve, and adds a needed complication to the plot (otherwise Jimmy would have just disappeared at the end of volume one). That complication was the existence of his daughter, who not only is alive (Jimmy thought she was dead), she's a demon like her dad. That leads to a book-long series of conflicts between Jimmy and Hunter. When it looks like Hunter finally has the upper hand, Jimmy uses calculus and a photographic memory to turn the tables, seemingly once and for all. The second volume ends almost a hundred years after the story began, but this would in fact just reset the chess board between Jimmy and Hunter.

This is one of the rare instances where I've decided to skimp on story details, because in true blockbuster fashion, it's the details in how Jimmy and Hunter engage in their battle of wits that makes the story so much fun. This is a book about strategy and lateral thinking as much as it is about anything else. It's about trying to limit your opponent's moves as much as possible and forcing them into a single move, and then deviating from the expected with a devastating or surprising move that catches your opponent off guard. It's about turning your opponent's strengths into weaknesses. It's about finding out what your opponent holds dear and exploiting it. It's about ethics, and in particular, the circumstances under which murder is acceptable from a utilitarian point of view. Hunter wants to use Jimmy to wipe out all of America's enemies and create utopia. Jimmy isn't interested in being anyone's slave and kills out of what he views is necessity. The reality is that both of them are nihilists of the worst kind, unable to appreciate the value of a single life because of their willingness to discard it for their needs. They are the same person who are simply in opposition to each other, with Jimmy's weakness being his daughter and Hunter's weakness a simple-minded utopianism.

Shiga has refined his line in a manner similar to John Porcellino and Matt Feazell in that it's deceptively simple and beautiful. There's an effortlessness on each page where his drawings are lively but in total service to the story; his lumpy character design that often features odd facial characteristics is almost 8-bit video game blank at times, but his understanding of things like gesture and body language give the characters a sense of presence. In terms of storytelling, Shiga has few peers. His panel design is all part of his method in slowly unfolding an action set piece, switching from a tight grid to a page full of jumbled panels as things seem to spin out of control, and then back to order. Shiga flips the page around for aerial views--not to make the scene more spectacular, but as an illustration to fully understand the stakes involved. There's an almost mechanistic quality in reading these books, in the sense that once you start, it's much harder to stop reading than it is to continue. That's a testament to Shiga's total control over the page, including the use of rose and pink spot color and the extensive but unobtrusive use of grey scale. The design of the books is on the boring side, especially compared to the original minicomics. I also though splitting it into four volumes was questionable, but it actually proved to read relatively well in that format. Hopefully, there will be some kind of deluxe format available in the future.