Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass, Part 1

Let's catch up with one of my favorite cartoonist-historians, Caitlin Cass. She's a remarkably prolific cartoonist, as she's managed to stick with her Postal Constituent mail-order minicomic service for years, now going into an eighth volume. Her ongoing series, Great Moments In Western Civilization, is a monument to her formal creativity, unceasing curiosity, wry sense of humor and intellectual rigor as a historian. Let's take a quick look at each of these minis to see where her interests wandered:

The Seven Liberal Arts. (Volume 4, #6). This small mini is an expansion of a highly compressed diagram on its first page, as the practitioners of the titular liberal arts all essentially get gags in, either at their own expense or that of others. The Geometry department re-abstracts their ideas in an effort to trick the Astronomy team a level above them to "convince themselves that they see us in the stars". Philosophy is at the top, of course, and it winds up being an elaborate ski lift for the other liberal arts, which is as good a metaphor as I've ever heard for it. The imagery, which is reminiscent of something approaching Dante's vision of hell, is clever in how Cass uses cutaways and incomplete data to give the reader just a glimpse of what's happening.

Great American Inventions (Volume 5, #3) is a poster folded down to mini size. Folded back out, this white-on-black series of drawings features Cass' sardonic comments on items like The TV Dinner, the Machine Gun, and the Cotton Gin ("A New Reason to Enslave People!"). This poster falls into Cass' larger project of critiquing notions like progress, especially when paired with capitalism. In other words, innovation and capitalism on their own have no moral compass and shouldn't be celebrated simply for being new, efficient and money-making.

The Index, #6 (Volume 5, #4) is the latest issue of Cass' subseries about meaning and purpose, where a man and a woman argue about the best way to go about it. Susan collects blank note cards that reflect the potential of a single person. Richard fills the cards with his thoughts and starts indexing them. The series has introduced magical realist elements, like the couple summoning the library of Alexandria, indexer Paul Otlet, and the philosopher Diogenes. This issue introduces Virginia Woolf into the equation, as Susan attacks Richard's argument by saying that one's works cannot be reduced to a single sentence. Instead, it's the small details of a life lived that give a person worth. What I love about this issue is that the way Cass is willing to subvert arguments with the very rhetorical devices that have been introduced. In this case, it's Woolf herself that questions looking to her as an inspiration on how to live, given that she wound up killing herself. Like with every other issue, nothing is resolved with regard to the philosophical argument, even as Cass' line grows ever more confident and even elaborate at times.

Benjamin Rathbun Builds Buffalo is a folded broadsheet talking about the con man whose ability to scam others got a number of important buildings created in Buffalo, NY, including the very jail that he was sentenced to. What's funny about this story is that it's a familiar and relevant one even today: a visionary in search of start-up capital. In his case, he simply forged the names of other people in order to get loans. Cass works big on the page here, and it suits her work, especially with regard to the way she spots blacks. The main problem with her smaller comics is that her line is not yet fine or flexible enough to fully breathe given those space constraints. Cass obviously has some affection for the con man's vision, as she later depicts his effort to build what is essentially modern-day Niagara Falls.

Bestiary Of Ordinary Americans (Volume 5, #6) is almost a response from Susan (from The Index), although it's an unrelated project. A bestiary is a compendium of mythical creatures, often with a moralizing tone. In Cass' hands, it's a quotidian detail about a number of different people, yet it's a detail that reveals something important in some way. Whether it's Sarah's hatred for ballet, Glenna inexplicably buying boxes of cereal despite hating cereal, or Amy's internet addiction, every anecdote is revealing as it shows the reader the true nature of each person, many of whom wish they could be different people or make different decisions--yet they feel compelled to do otherwise. These are some of Cass' warmest drawings, but it's a shame she couldn't print the whole issue in color, because it looks like she may have been working with colored pencil here.

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