Saturday, December 2, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #2: Laura Terry

Laura Terry is the perfect example of a CCS grad who used their experience not just to learn how to cartoon, but also to draw much more boldly and confidently. Terry’s senior year work was solid and well-told, but the leaps she’s made over the years in terms of technique and production have been astounding. Terry’s done it in a very CCS fashion as well, working with short stories in minicomics form, each one more beautiful and intricate than the last. That work culminated in her first book with a publisher, Graveyard Shakes (Scholastic). Terry’s method has always included cute character designs and bright colors teamed up with unsettling stories and images. She exploits that formula to the hilt in her book, but she ties it to more personal and relatable matters as well. A common thread in the Scholastic Graphix line is a deliberate attempt at providing stories that are not just fun but also teach lessons in a manner that is less didactic and more on the side of creating experiences that children can relate to—especially girls.

The story follows sisters Victoria and Katia as they begin their stint at a private school. They are both weirdos in their own way, but the older Victoria is desperate to fit in. The younger Katia, her hair a mess of wild, tangled curls, is openly hostile to the idea of conforming and doesn’t care when others make fun of her. Terry, who notes that she spent time at an all-girls boarding school in her author’s bio, absolutely nails the intensity of not just going to school as an outsider, but also being forced to live with these girls 24/7. It’s a level of constant anxiety were Victoria tries to find any way possible to fit in, including joining the soccer team, which finds her getting pummeled by the ball. Her quest to fit in is undermined by the relentlessly eccentric behavior of her younger sister. That culminates in Victoria secretly signing up Katia for orchestra, which only made sense since she was a musical prodigy. While her classmates are wowed by her talent, they are taken aback by her dramatic playing style and overall messiness, saying that she’ll adjust. That’s the breaking point for Victoria, who’s tired of people judging her, including her sister, and she runs away.

There is another family drama occurring, only this time it’s underground. A scientist named Nikola, as it’s revealed in a flashback, kidnapped a student from the school thirteen years earlier and used his soul to bring life to his patched-up son Modie, a near-victim of an accident that took his mother. Modie doesn’t want to be this sort of Frankenstein’s Boy, but he can’t get his father to see it his way, even with the help of his friend Little Ghost. He’s also an outsider in his environment, as the ghouls and ghosts who live underground can’t stand his good manners and overall niceness. Terry goes over the top to create an amusing but also unsettling group of creatures who do the bidding of Nikola. They’re like something out of a nightmarish Max Fleischer cartoon, as one can sense their mischievousness warp into anger and sadistic behavior.

Nikola needs another victim, and when Katia wanders away, he sends his ghosts after her. Meanwhile, Victoria is searching for her sister in the graveyard when she encounters Little Ghost, who accidentally frightens her and then she falls into an open grave. That triggers an action filled climax full of escapes, ghost fights (ghosts can’t hurt humans but they can hurt other ghosts), and an amusing but also terrifying sequence straight out of Fleischer where the ghosts encourage Katia to wreck a church. The ghosts play on Katia’s resentment toward her sister and her bossiness as a way of luring her to her death, but through teamwork and sacrifice, the girls manage to reunite and triumph. Both of them learn a lesson, as Victoria stops trying to control her sister and stops caring about trying to fit in, and Katia opens herself up to the possibility of having friends. It’s a story both heart-warming and macabre, a combination that avoids a treacly ending and in fact makes the lessons learned through struggle feel authentic.

Terry’s line is clear and strong. Katia in particular is a marvel of character design, with bulging eyes and scribbly lines for hair. Terry has mastered subtle modulations of emotion in her facial expressions and proved herself a capable action cartoonist, and the latter made the last 75 or so pages flow extremely quickly. That said, Terry’s real talent lies in her extravagant use of colors as she used both hand-painted and digital watercolors. The images pop off the page as a result, but Terry never overdoes it on any particular page. Modern coloring techniques can leave a page feeling overly slick and render its images inert, but Terry’s use of white space helps each page and the narrative as a whole breathe nicely, giving the eye some resting points after being popped with vivid imagery. The purples and greens in particular, in the underground scenes, instantly create mood and atmosphere before a single ghost does anything. It’s a skillful, heartfelt first book that’s ideal for a YA audience.

Of course, Terry’s roots are far darker than YA, as the second issue of her minicomics series Adorable Empire reminds us. Told in flashback form by the poor woman unlucky enough to be stuck with a small gaggle of cute creatures, Terry demonstrates how these fuzzy bunny-like, squirrel-like, bat-like and just plain walking bits of fur with eyes may seem adorable, but they are in fact the authors of untold chaos and mayhem. The narrator reveals that the creatures lived in the streets of New York City before they found her, and there’s a long scene where NYC’s vicious cockroaches overpower the critters with a swarm and almost manage to pull them into the gutter. Then there’s a scene where the Adorables sneak into a store and cause all sorts of destruction before falling asleep. The character design is achingly cute, even with the teeth showing in their mouths. What’s most dreadful about the story is Terry’s hinting that whatever horrible stuff we might have seen up to that point, it was about to get much worse. 

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