Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass: Part 2

Continuing my look at Caitlin Cass' minis:

Rock Thoughts Volume One (Volume 6, #1). This is a funny comic about a rock that somehow attains consciousness but is otherwise just a rock. It's Cass' take on the mind-body split and identity. It also gave her a chance to use a thin line and a nine-panel grid in order to do gag strips. The rock goes through all sorts of stages of emotional well-being, starting off with "positive visualization" (which ends with a seagull shitting on him), feeling self-conscious and needy, feeling defiant and then eventually zeroing in on consciousness itself. It wonders if "the other rocks are playing a 1.7 billion year prank on me" by not having consciousness and then concluding "This consciousness thing is bullshit." Cass is exploring the idea that consciousness without agency plus incredibly expansive time is essentially torture, no matter how one tries to think one's way out of it. Even the end, when the rock has been put in a hamster cage and the rock finds comfort in the hamster and her constant motion in a wheel is thwarted when the hamster drops dead, puncturing yet another soliloquy with random cruelty. Obviously drawing a rock isn't that difficult, but it's the fine, little details that Cass adds to the comic that help add a degree of naturalism. The scenes she's creating, if devoid of the rock's word balloons, would look just like scenes of stillness in panel after panel. Adding a nicely-drawn child's hand or a fastidiously-detailed hamster wheel brings the reader into the rock's world and perspective. Cass is also making fun of rhetoric and speech-making in this comic, as a fancy speech or theory without an audience is essentially meaningless.

Portals (Volume 6, #2). This is a none-too-subtle parable about a woman who stared into readily available portals all day long. Portals "into teacup auctions...obscure historical events,...alternative lives...", etc. When she got upset one day, she flew "to the place where portals become objects", called "the cacophany (sic) of things". She was charmed by the singular nature of each object she saw until she saw a weird guy go by, and she flew back, frightened. Of course, this is a story about the internet, television and our modern obsession with screens in general. Cass is arguing that despite the wonder this technology inspires, the amazing things it can show us, it also cuts us off from human contact. While the present-ness of having a thing in one's possession is part of that experience that's lost, it's really negotiating a world full of others and having to face ethical questions that makes us more than mere rocks on a shoreline. Cass notes that uncontrolled, an addiction to screens can permanently impair our ability to negotiate the world in a meaningful way that has the capacity to bring joy that simply watching something cannot. Her use of an open-page format gives it the feeling of a child's fairy tale book, a sense of reality being fluid.

Poking The Bubble (Volume 6, #3). This is a rare autobio comic by Cass, wherein she talks about her project to date, her current activities as a teacher, and some doubts about the nature of her project. Cass went to St. John's College in Baltimore, whose curriculum was the Great Books of the Western World. In other words, she spent a long time studying the works of dead (mostly white) males. She notes that her project has been humorously pointing out the failures of the ideas of these figures, for anyone steeped in philosophy knows that its history is one system replacing another ad infinitum, until theories arise that look to wipe out philosophy at its very root. That said, there's a telling panel in this open-page layout where Cass yells at the Great Books: "Ha ha, you're gonna fail even though you tried!" and the books respond "Ha ha, you can't say anything without referencing us first." It's a compelling argument that dawns on Cass, as she's set up her project in opposition to thoughts generated within a patriarchal bubble. It's only through teaching at an all-girls' school that exploring ideas doesn't have to be in opposition to anything. Instead of poking that titular bubble of the patriarchy, she realizes that she can have hope that her students find new and innovative ways of looking at the world. It's a beautiful moment of self-actualization.

Effie Stevens (Volume 6, #6). The expanded version of this story is a beautiful, full-color comic. It's about an entirely forgotten woman in a small town who left no mark on the world save one: a huge, expansive quilt wherein she drew every single person she could remember going about their day, as well as their name. This is a beautiful, poetic comic that really comes to life with color. It's also smartly arranged in small vignettes that capture aspects of the quilt and her life as though one were considering facets of a gem. The quilt gave her purpose in a life that was otherwise meaningless and unconnected, though Cass notes that while it helped, it was not a substitute for real human contact. The quilt outlived her, however, as it was found, displayed as a local object of wonder, and eventually cut up and sold to become part of other family's traditions. It's a fascinating meditation on memory and how quickly the influence of any life has within generations of its disappearance. The color on each patch of the quilt pops off the page, giving life to the beautiful object that Stevens was creating. Cass raised another question here: the difference between art and craft, and if there is a meaningful difference.

Little Mister (Volume 7, #1). This is a story about how one's creation can be perverted and exploited, especially when men have an opportunity to do so with regard to women. It's about a cartoonist/writer who creates a despicable character called "Little Mister" who "always comes out on top" and "takes from the less deserving." Starting as a satire on women's roles in society, it got turned into a literal celebration of men's rightful place as being dominant and even a fetish item for good luck and fortune. When it got further twisted into white nationalist propaganda (ala Pete and Matt Furie), the artist essentially swore off men and moved away, but the ideas followed her. This is a nasty, trenchant and oh-so-realistic story that's told with Cass' old-timey flair, as she's especially adept at drawing late 19th century and early 20th century buildings and fashions.

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