Friday, December 1, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #1: Sophie Goldstein, Colleen Frakes, Amelia Onorato

Anniversary/Food Chain, by Sophie Goldstein. This is a pair of horror stories from Goldstein, who really knows how to spin true drama out of genre fiction. "Anniversary" is particularly grim, as it begins with a bit of misdirection but it soon becomes quite apparent that a monstrous, spidery woman is slowly stalking a man who is courting another woman. When he walks her home and the spider woman crawls down the wall, her body bent at an impossible angle, Goldstein's use of negative space is especially startling. The contrast between the gray creature in the upper left hand corner of the page, the alabaster white skin of the woman sitting happily in the tub, and the jet-dark void in between them inspired true dread. However, the most disturbing thing Goldstein does is invert the trope of true love winning out, as she manages to trap him in her embrace (warping his appearance as he is strung up from the ceiling) forever. In just eight pages, she conjures up disturbing images and then continually manages to up the ante until the end.

"Food Chain" is even shorter, and it indulges her interest in presenting the hypocrisy of the thin veneer of civilization. The reader is presented with a scene of two quasi-humanoid creatures (part human, part sort of a spidery horse) having sex. Indeed, the female here bears a resemblance to the main character of "Anniversary", only slightly less bent. The story is a series of reveals: we first see that they are standing atop a pile of scrap; then we see her get shot for food by a group of "primitives" who are comically cartoonish; then we see that they are living in the shadow of a clearly technologically advanced city; and then we see a modern human taking notes. The pull-back is to him narrating his encounters to applause before a fancy audience, before he and his partner are served the same male beast from before, with his erect penis no longer serving its original purpose of pleasure and procreation, but rather as a sort of authentic delicacy for the upper class to devour. She manages to pack a lot into just six pages, with almost no dialogue. Goldstein makes a point of having the rich explorer/journalist and his partner look as much like the creatures as possible, demonstrating how little actually separates each of these groups except the establishment and use of force to maintain status. The starkness of the black & white contrasts here resemble her book House Of Women more than the first story does, which goes in for a lot of grays and shadows. 

The Eternal Rocks, by Amelia Onorato. Incredibly, Onorato drew this ambitious comic while recovering from wrist surgery. She spoils the premise of the comic on the back cover: "What if the movie 50 First Dates took place in the Edwardian Era between a proper English Lady and a shape-shifting, gender-fluid Sea-Monster?" What if indeed, as this comic is an excuse to draw the rolling English countryside that a sickly woman named Maude haunts. When we meet her, she's at last grown tired of being housebound with tuberculosis as she sees a rider on a horse signal to her. The rider is a monstrous centaur, its skin flayed off to reveal nothing but muscles, tendons and cartilage. This is a sly allusion to her own wrist injury, I would imagine, as the structure of the muscular system was something that was no doubt on Onorato's mind.

The comic is also Onorato's demented take on a "meet cute" romance, done as a genre mash-up. Maude is a character straight out of a Bronte novel who essentially cannot stop shrieking until she and the centaur stop riding and she discovers her long-decayed corpse. The creature, born of the ocean, has encountered Maude's ghost hundreds of times, but she can't remember any of them. With a great deal of tenderness and a bit of humor, Onorato explores the ramifications of this situation, as fear turns to sadness, which then turns to a sweet sense of affection and fulfillment. Onorato has explored interspecies romance before in her Rockall comic, which was about a man and a Selkie. Onorato's take on fantasy is always with a modern eye, especially with regard to issues of gender and gender roles, yet she never sells the original inspiration short. In this comic, one can see just how much command she has over each and every page, with an ingenious design for the creature and a series of funny, emotional expressions for the wispy Maude. Every detail works toward the story's premise, including things like lettering (upper and lower case for Maude, all caps for the creature) and the lush backgrounds in the establishing shots. One gets the sense that once Onorato had the story's premise in mind, she then attacked the story with a great deal of confidence. Every page is brimming with great drawing, fluid storytelling and an essential combination of send-up and sincerity.

Iron Scars Vol 4, by Colleen Frakes. One of the members of CCS's pioneering first class, Frakes has been extremely productive in the decade since she's graduated. Her current series may be her best work, combining autobiographical details with fantasy. Frakes' fantasy work has often been much darker and had considerably less dialogue; working with kids as the main characters has allowed her to interject much more whimsy and laughs into the story without taking away from its ultimate stakes. The central character is a girl named Tyee, the daughter and granddaughter of witches who avidly rejects her magical destiny. She lives on an island that mirrors Frakes' own experiences growing up on a prison island off the coast of Washington. With kids starting to disappear on the island, Tyee decides to try to catch another magical wishing fish, which she had thrown back in the previous issue because of her distaste for magical destinies. When she finally meets the Sea Witch, her great-grandmother (a design marvel, as she's made of seaweed and fish), she learns that the fish were meant for her as gifts and would be dangerous for anyone else. Horrified, she runs to try to catch her friend that she gave the fish to.

The next chapter finds her friend in peril, as well as her sister, as they've been captured by another witch underground. When one of the girls disappears in a puff of smoke while playing with friends, it's a moment that's both horrifying and yet strangely funny. The humor is aided by Frakes' usual dense brushwork and cartoony character design; Tyee in particular is short and all curls. Her mom is frazzled and frumpy, with unkempt hair. These chapters are essentially the establishment of the series' conflict after time spent establishing character and laying some narrative pipe in earlier chapters. It really does feel that Frakes' shorter works have paved the way for this narrative, as there are elements of her previous works as well as new directions to be found in this series. The use of humor is the most important way she's stretched herself, because she's rarely used humor unless it's autobio where she's the butt of the joke. She transferred that experience to various stand-in characters on the island, and the result is something that feels emotionally authentic. That authenticity is what allows the fantastical elements of the story to feel natural but also resonate as terrifying to characters that feel real.

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