Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #20: Allison Bannister, Whiteley Foster

Allison Bannister’s previous big work was the subversive fairy tale Wit’s End. She’s one of many cartoonists from CCS who enjoy using fantasy tropes and deconstructing their sexist and classist aspects without losing the sense of wonder that surrounds them. Her most recent work has found her going in some different directions, as she explored a variety of genres and even methods.

Xiphactinus is a minimalist pencil-and-ink comic with a gray wash. It’s about the titular fish, or rather the titular fish as fossil. This twenty foot long creature with sharp teeth ate a six foot fish whole and then quickly died. What’s amazing is that the fossil find preserved both the Xiphactinus and the smaller fish within; it’s a fossil that’s a narrative, right before your eyes. Bannister notes that this is why when it’s on display, it’s so popular and compelling. It’s like receiving a message from another time.

CinderMecha is another fairy tale rewrite, this time a result of one of those classic CCS group projects. Working with Tom O’Brien and Ben Evans, Bannister wrote the script and did the inks for this amusing tale. The titular character mopes because she wants to enter the royal mecha tournament but doesn’t have one of her own to pilot. A Fairy Mecha Pilot Godfather shows up, gives her a solar-powered pumpkin mecha that runs out of power at midnight, and off she goes. The ending is especially clever, as CinderMecha wins the tournament but has to abandon the glass and pumpkin mecha. When the king calls for the true owner to come forth, she is able to activate it and rather than become a princess, she becomes the king’s loyal pilot. I love this story because unlike Cinderella dazzling with her beauty, CinderMecha wins because of her skill. That concept was very much Bannister’s, though Evans really brought her ideas to life with his designs and O'Briens’ colors were delightful.

Ghost Room is a twenty page mini that delves into a regretful slice-of-life story. In a story that starts with brown tones for a reason, a woman in a car named Leigh stops off at her old college on the way to somewhere else. She’s immediately confronted by a spectral version of her friend Julie as she was in her undergrad days, and is drawn into the past, which colors everything blue. Or should I say covers it, as Leigh ignores her ringing cell phone, the brown of the phone vibrating under the light blue illusory skin of the past. Reliving old conversations, Leigh slips in and out of brown and blue, sometimes being in both colors at once when she says “I miss you”. What follows is a tearful confession of love that she never dared to confess, with her fantasy past version of Julie expressing it right back at her. The conflict for Leigh is whether to stay in that fantasy world or else come back and face her responsibilities as a friend. This is a sensitive, humane story that really makes the audience feel for Leigh as she deals with impossible and unfair emotions, and Bannister’s innovative use of color is what makes it work so well. The last line of the story is a killer, as something that popped up in Leigh’s fantasy emerges in real life as well. Bannister’s line is functional as she focuses on body language and gesture above all else, but she’s wise to keep it simple and let the color do the heavy labor.

Some artists come into CCS with crude drawing skills at best. However, cartooning and drawing are two related but separate disciplines, and I’ve noticed that CCS is happy to admit artists who may not be able to draw in a naturalistic style, but who do know how to tell a story and have a lot to say. In the case of Whiteley Foster, you have an artist who came to CCS armed to the teeth with an array of drawing, coloring and storytelling skills. It was also clear that she needed training to become a great cartoonist.

I’ll briefly run through a few short stories on her website before focusing on a couple of longer ones. It’s obvious that Foster’s greatly influenced by animation, including Disney films, anime and other things that aren’t immediate touchstones for me. Frankly, she could probably get a job storyboarding fairly easily. She’s clearly more at ease drawing digitally, but her pen and ink comics are just fine and she shows a strong command over her line as well as all of the usual techniques like hatching and cross-hatching. Yet, when I read her comics, I can’t help but feel like I’m reading a storyboard at times. Take the very well-written story “The Unknown Insane Girl”, which is about the first undercover journalism story. A young woman named Nellie Bly deliberately gets herself sent to the insane asylum for women to check out rumors of poor conditions and winds up with a sensational story. Her page composition, character expressiveness, etc. are all quite effective. However, the transitions between panels feel like the transitions between frames and there are almost no single panels containing interactions between characters. Even the ones she uses feel like still images rather than depicting action. It gives the story a static, rather than dynamic, feel.

The same is true of her adaptation of the folk tale “The Cow’s Head”. While there is walking in the forest, she zaps from face to face, without having bodies in the same panel interacting in space. Reading her children’s book, Milo’s Blue Umbrella, this tendency really stands out, because there’s not much difference in this well-drawn and pleasingly colored illustrated effort and her comics. When there are multiple characters in a single panel, they are often rendered quite small, like in the two pages she did in adapting “The Murders Of The Rue Morgue”. This is not to say that’s incapable of doing this; indeed, the classic CCS application (where you have to include a robot, a snowman and a princess, among other elements), saw her use an unusual page layout but did feature a few shots of the protagonist and antagonist in the same panel. She’s not averse to using something resembling a grid, like in her early work Cessus, a funny and violent story involving artifacts and people wanting them. Indeed, these are the most traditional looking of all her comics in terms of layout, yet she once again avoids having characters sharing the same panel and interacting except when she shrinks them greatly.

The exception to this rule is Manifested Destiny, about an ancient king bringing the Zodiac signs Pisces and Aries to life and then threatening to destroy them after they give him a bad reading. It’s no accident that the comic the Foster drew that had the most person-to-person interaction was also her most dynamic, exciting early comic. Her sharp wit and playfulness lost nothing in this construction of the page, and she still was able to use multiple panels to keep characters apart most of the time—just not in climactic moments.

Looking at her more recent work, Hank shows Foster working on both creating longer narratives and refining her skill as an illustrator even further. In this sweet tale of a girl running away with the circus in the early 20th century, her facility as a draftsman made each page come to life with snapshots of beautiful image after beautiful image that were just rubbery and cartoony enough to “bend” in the reader’s gaze instead of dying on the page as antiseptic but perfect recreations. There’s no question that Foster walks on the right side of that divide as a cartoonist. Once again, however, every panel is still too static. There are no interactions between characters in each panel; they are separated by panels, as though their gaze and ability to interact in space is being caged. There are tantalizing moments where we see hints of this, like when she bumps into someone or a kid is yelling next to her, but then it’s not followed up with a solid panel-to-panel transition.

This leads us to her second year thesis project, the in-process Vervain University. It notes that her advisor is Donna Almendrala, who excels at two things: comedy and conventional storytelling. All her characters do is interact with each other in panel after panel. It’s what makes her comics work and is essential to making them funny. In this comic about a vampire who’s managed to not graduate from college after a hundred years, Foster’s overall presentation is a little sloppier than usual. It’s certainly looser than the exquisitely crafted Hank, for example. However, she puts in more character-to-character interaction in the first two pages than in the entire rest of her output combined. This seems like Almendrala’s suggestions at work here, as Foster decided to get out of her comfort zone and take some risks as a cartoonist.

The writing, as always, is sharp. Foster delivers the story’s high concept, starts it off with a hilarious bang as some frat boys threaten to “sun” the vampire protagonist Alfie, and then expertly introduces the supporting cast. Foster uses a simple narrative device where Alfie talks to the camera, as it were, turning that into something that’s both funny as he monologues and useful to quickly and efficiently revealing pertinent information. There’s a simple panel where Alfie is saying goodbye to his housemate Scharlotte (a vampire permanently stuck in a little girl’s body), and their affection is made obvious by the way she’s standing in relation to him and his gesture back at her. Things go awry for Alfie at the school in a carefully planned gag by Foster.

What I like best about this story is that it’s not a lazy vampire parody designed to get cheap laughs. Instead, it’s clear that Foster has thought through her characters and their motivations and builds her humor from that foundation. While the result thus far may not look as refined as some of her other work, this is a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. This project is precisely why Foster is in graduate school: to give her as large a range of opportunities and skills as possible as a cartoonist. There’s no doubt that she will emerge as a better artist overall after this experience and be in a position to succeed at a high level. 

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