Friday, December 29, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #29: Cooper Whittlesey

Cooper Whittlesey is a cartoonist deep, deep into the mark-making wing of CCS grads, yet he shows a remarkable amount of range even within that categorization. His collaboration with Ryan Garbes, Sustain Level, is one of many he's done in his short career, and he's shown equal facility as both writer and illustrator. I'm not sure what the division of labor was with this comic, as it's not credited and the comic is largely a mix of drawings and heavily constructed collage. The themes that run through the comic are freedom (economic and otherwise), the negative influence of tradition and hierarchies, innocence and what ultimately corrupts it. There are times that the zine flirts with traditional narrative, but it's only in fits and starts. This is a comic about discord as a form of resistance and confusion as a strategy for freedom.

Whittlesey's own Omens Of Normal Living is next-level material for him. It's by far his most coherent and ambitious comic in every sense: narratively, artistically, and aesthetically. It is at once genuinely moving, absurd, frightening, enraging, hilarious and thought-provoking. Divided into four chapters that are mostly unconnected, each chapter involves a life-changing moment of truth. The first chapter is about a teenage couple where a girl demands to a boy that they go on a Ferris Wheel, of which he is terrified. Turns out he's right, as the combination of the wheel and a mysterious fog turns it into an increasingly hot death trap. Fortunately for both of them, he opens up a little door on his body and announces he can get away to a little room, and off they go. The heat does not relent in their absence, and while this was a strategy for their freedom, it didn't affect anyone else. Whittlesey uses an odd grid here: 2 x 4, which leans toward multiple centering shifts for the eye in a series of 2 x 2 patterns. It's a strategy for both orienting the reader and keeping them on their feet as they look at the page. The visuals range from very light and scratchy to smudgy and suffused with gray.

The second story is about a dog convict in a world where anthropomorphic dogs can marry women, as a metaphor for "the right kind" and "wrong kind" of people mixing drawing disapproval and worse. It's told in retrospect as the dog reminisces about how happy he was with his girlfriend: how they were going to get married and have kids as he toed the straight and narrow with a dehumanizing job. It took just a single day when he snapped at his job (taking away the tree on the roof, which is a fantastic metaphor) to put him behind bars, and to see the dehumanizing effect this has on others.

The comic builds momentum from chapter to chapter. The third is about a plane whose engine explodes, and the captain, understanding that everyone aboard is doomed, hilariously sends the flight attendants around to kiss any children who have never been kissed. Every other passenger then makes use of the time to exploit or experience things they've never been allowed: one prim and proper young girl decides to soil herself, one passenger invites another to take a bit out of them, an adult demands to a couple sitting together that they be his mommy and daddy, etc. Two highly successful assassins realize they are sitting next to each other. The result is a dazzling, hilarious and unsettling display of humanity as the most base of animals, indulging the id without regard to anything else, yet doing so in a way that almost seemed pure, innocent and exploratory. The only asshole on the plane was the guy who wouldn't share his cigarettes.

The final chapter is about the incipient death of a critic/artist who's been given a death sentence of a cancer diagnosis. An expert in “hardcore post-sense American Extreme art”, but at this point in his career, the Ebert to his Siskel tells him that they are “decaying void-geezers resting hard on our fiery laurels.” While the other three chapters were also about death, in this case, the turning point is a total reconsideration of the critic’s life project and approach. It’s not just that having cancer was an extreme that could not be topped, but also that such concepts didn’t have much meaning any more when the void really came calling. The rest of the story was a sensitive and humane and tender exploration of the end of life: talking to ex-wives, meeting up with old friends, going back to old painting techniques and simply understanding that he no special knowledge or insight with regard to his end. Whittlesey tends to use erase techniques in his work (both with text and art), and so the slow fade away of his body was both visually and emotionally affecting. There is sincerity in this comic that belies the crazy visuals and extremity of some of the scenarios, as Whittlesey has clearly thought about these topics at length and treated them with both the absurdity and empathy that they deserve. 

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