Thursday, August 24, 2017

Catching Up With Caitlin Cass, Part 3

Closing out my look at Caitlin Cass's Postal Constituent comics...

R.R. Whitehead (Volume 7, #2). Following a month spent at the Byrdcliffe Guild in Woodstock, NY, Cass wrote this very cheeky account of its co-founder, R.R. Whitehead. A dreamer from a young age, he had enormous family wealth that allowed him to act on his dreams. Cass portrayed him as both pliable and impressionable in terms of ideas but also rigid and dictatorial with regard to how he put his ideals of a utopian artists's colony into practice. On the one hand, women had freedoms that were totally unheard of in the colony, including openly accepted lesbian relationships. On the other hand, he drove off members of the colony by refusing to compromise on how things were run on a day-to-day basis. He was also obsessed with rejecting anything resembling modern manufacturing or making money, which stopped printmaking and similar arts at Byrdcliffe. Whitehead was certainly not immune from criticism, as the artists (including his wife!) used to draw him as a figure with an enormously long neck (his head in the clouds) in everything they did, which is a very funny running joke. Cass always shares some sympathy for dreamer-types like Whitehead, admiring their iconoclastic character as much as their failed ambitions.

Cassie Chadwick: Queen Of Cleveland (Volume 7, #3). Cass loves dreamers but also loves schemers and grifters who have style. This funny comic about a woman who went through multiple husbands, multiple identities and a couple of stints in prison in the early 20th century also speaks to something else: women trying to find ways to escape their inevitable fate as either near-slave laborers or else entirely dependent on their husbands. Chadwick cleverly took advantage of people's willingness to trade in on the reputations of the rich, as the rumor she herself started that she was the illegitimate daughter of tycoon Andrew Carnegie allowed her to walk into banks and just receive piles of money. She spent the money as fast as she got it, both for her own personal delight and also to keep up appearances as someone who is ridiculously rich. The single-tone light pink Cass used her was a perfect way of introducing a lot of negative space into the piece, allowing her to focus on character.

Mill Girls (Volume 7, #4). This is a full-color fantasy piece where Cass once again focuses in on the oppressed more than the ideas of an oppressor. It's a short comic that imagines the hard-working and exploited mill worker women going on strike against the men exploiting them, cutting open the men's cotton-cocoons and finding money sewn inside. It's a remarkable image, as justice is achieved until it isn't, and the monstrous industrialists grow huge and literally crush them. It's a story that played out often during the 19th and 20th centuries, as labor sought to assert their rights against an owner's relentless exploitation. It's just a story that's now out of fashion and no longer celebrated. That's thanks in parts to later corruption and incompetence on the part of many unions, but it's also due to corporations trying to scale back those gains over time. Cass painted this comic, and that quality lent it some of its magical realist qualities as things went in a strange direction very quickly, but it made sense in the formal continuity of the story.

Ivy Lee: Founder of Public Relations (Volume 7, #5). This is another short comic from Cass that's a short biography of a man with a questionable legacy: the founder of public relations. He was there who helped changed John D. Rockefeller from a man whose actions killed miners and their families into a folksy, "man of the people" type in the public eye. The concept of image being more important than substance is obviously frighteningly relevant today, and the person who controls their own image controls information and often public opinion. The cardstock and folding accordion formal qualities of the comic give it a little value added for this story of moral relativism.

Rock Thoughts, Volume Two (Volume 7, #6). Cass takes a different approach in this volume of the thinking rock. It's full color, one panel per page, with the story taking up the whole issue. It's a meditation on existence itself. The rock wonders ahead to when all life on earth will end and it will just be rocks again. Taking this kind of long view, where the rock considers time from a geological point of view and looks at life as a kind of short, fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying blip is another way of looking at consciousness, humanity and the urge to be remembered as ultimately futile and pointless thing that we do. It's pointless, yet the rock (and Cass) can't help but have a fondness for existence and consciousness, and the rock doth protest too much.

Burning Rivers (Volume 8, #1). Most everyone has heard about Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching on fire in the late 60s as a symbol of both the dawn of the environmental movement and the decline of Cleveland. In this comic, Cass colorfully and dutifully records the many other times that not only Cleveland's main river caught on fire, but also those of Chicago, Buffalo, and Detroit. They were all industrial cities who dumped waste, oil and alcohol into the nearby river without thinking twice, so it wasn't surprising that they caught on fire multiple times. The comic is as much about the movement as it is the fires, as people figured out how to clean the rivers and even bring back fish. Cass suggests that technology is neither good nor evil on its own, but rather that what's important is understanding it in a purely ethical sense: how does using this technology affect others, with "others" including the entire ecosystem?

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