Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #31: Awesome Possum #3

Awesome Possum Volume 3 is the continuing, kickstarted brainchild of editor Angela Boyle. It’s a big (400+ pages), varied and loving tribute to the flora and fauna of the world. How one feels about it as a reading experience will depend greatly on one’s interest in the subject, especially since there are a number of stories that aren’t even really comics at all, but simply illustrated text. Several of the entries are simply rundowns on the varieties of particular kinds of species and attendant drawings of them. Considering that there’s a separate, sixty-page section at the end of the book that’s nothing but illustrations, there’s a lot that felt redundant in this anthology. Awesome Possum succeeded when its contributors made the extra leap to truly doing an actual narrative surrounding a plant or animal, and failed when it was simply science class supplementary material.

Not every narrative was equally interesting or equally well-told. While William Scavone’s story about the Varroa mite killing off bees had a solid platform (a beekeeper and his daughter trying to detect mites), it turned out to be scaffolding for a lot of detailed jargon. Spratty’s strip about rattlesnakes was more visually interesting, in part because of the subject, but mostly because Spratty is a better storyteller who used panel-to-panel transitions to create genuine reader interest. Perhaps the best story in the whole book was Moss Bastille’s story about ergot and its long and colorful history. In a style mimicking stained-glass window effects, Bastille nonetheless went from strange folk story to hard science in the investigation of the poisonous fungus ergot. It caused death, strange behavior, hallucinations and was eventually used to derive LSD. Bastille kept the visuals simple and bold, using a lot of negative space to let information-packed pages breathe a little. This is a great example of telling a story without sparing detail, but not dumbing it down for a reader, either.

Some of the artists in the book explained the science as though it were for kids, and others for someone who was genuinely interested in the smallest details of various observations. Bastille was one of the few who found that sweet spot in-between. Megan Archer’s story about ants farming aphids was aimed at kids in terms of the flourishes an overall simplicity of the line, but it’s still detailed enough to be accurate. In a black & white book that demanded clarity, she was one of the ones who did it best, especially since there were so many stories using lettering that was too small or stylized or gray-scaling that was too muddy.

There was another consideration to think of: was their story interesting or boring, especially to a general reader and not someone who doesn’t already find nature’s tiniest aspects to be fascinating? Well, Ross Wood Studlar, who has been drawing nature for quite a long time, took no chances with his story. First, it was framed as a conversation between himself and a group of friends and relatives, which made it easy to feed the reader information naturally. Second, it seemed based on a true story, which made the mechanics of how to explain things even easier. Third, it was about how amphibians have the ability to return from the dead. That’s an eye-catcher that demanded an explanation, and Studlar then went over the science of how certain mosses and amphibians can be frozen solid for incredibly long periods of time and then revive themselves when the conditions are right again. That even includes the tiny tardigrades that live on moss—little creatures that can shut off their metabolic functions and survive virtually any conditions. Studlar has never been great at drawing people, but he can draw natural life like a champ and knows how to tell a story, even getting a laugh at the end.

Kevin Kite and Michelle McCauley did their own take on the Tardigrade, which has survived all five of earth’s great extinctions. The line was much simpler and cuter, but Boyle made a good call as an editor to follow up Studlar’s story with this one, because they are endlessly interesting. That story made use of a simple, thick line that was perfect for the story’s sense of humor. Tom O’Brien story about bats is interesting because he made the best use of the opposite: a fragile line and an extensive use of gray-scaling that nonetheless looked beautiful. That’s likely because he made sure the images stayed in constant movement while the accompanying text oozed along. Kelly Fernandez followed that up with a more cartoony pen-and-ink story that used gray-scaling to a lesser extent. Again, a smart palate cleansing choice by Boyle, especially since Fernandez’s actual subject (about the difference between crows and ravens) isn’t exactly gripping, which she makes up for by making it funny.

My antipathy toward chart and illustration heavy entries is clearly noted in this review. There were some exceptions, and Alyssa Lee Suzumura is one of them. The delicacy and precision of her line is so fine that I could look at it for hours. Her page formatting in this story about animals rafting as a way of making their way across the world was also clear and clever, with striking images telling the story in such a way that they didn’t depend on the text. There are also interjections of humor and absolutely stellar lettering. Patricia Maldonado’s take on cryptozoology is very text heavy and there’s little here that resembles comics, except that she chose an inherently interesting topic and her drawings are beautiful and clear.

As I read the anthology, I couldn’t help thinking what I usually do when I read one: this would have been so much better if you cut out a third of it. That rule applied here, but it’s so long that there were still have been so many great stories in it that balanced its overall approach, like an autobio encounter with a mountain beaver by Natalie Dupille, a cute but accurate account of the alarming phenomenon of aphid birth from Caitlin Hofmeister & Lauren Norby, and a super-cute series of illustrations and pages with big text by Bridget Comeau. Boyle’s own story about the dodo and extinction perfectly balanced her interest in detail with solid panel-to-panel transitions and a star character that is truly fun to look at in the flightless dodo. When you ask someone to be in your anthology and they have a specialty, let them run with it. In the case of G.P. Bonesteel, he specializes in horror, so his story about the invasive plant species houndstongue and all the damage has precisely the right tone.

Sometimes, sheer storytelling and drawing skill turned something dull (cottonwood trees of Canada) into something fascinating, as in the case of Laura Marie Madden. In the case of Jerel Dye and the Grasshopper Mouse, the physical characteristics of the creature became a part of this life-and-death story’s plot as it fought a scorpion. Aurora Melchior and Iris Yan both do their own take on the occasionally alarming mating rituals and habits of various creatures, both with a comedic outcome. Finally, Kriota Willberg’s amusing and highly detailed drawings of the “denizens of Manhattan” is a great showcase for this anatomical artist.

There were times that I wished for a heavier editorial hand in how some of the information was arranged. As noted earlier, this was a result of too many inessential pieces being published, but what can you do when it’s a kickstarted effort? There’s no question that she upped her game greatly as an editor and artist with this edition, as her interstitial possum drawings were an additional form of palate cleanser for the reader of this often entertaining and occasionally exhausting book.

No comments:

Post a Comment