Monday, December 4, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #4: Luke Howard, Steve Thueson, Dan Nott

After Luke Howard finished the emotionally devastating, formally challenging comic Our Mother, it made sense that for his next comic, he wanted to do something as a palate cleanser of sorts, something that wasn’t as draining. The comic turned out to be The Big Mystery Case (subtitled “A Crime Comedy”), which threw every trope and cliché’ imaginable from hard-boiled detective stories and creepy serial killer cases and reimagined them as a kind of easy-reader primer for kids. The result is hilarious, as Howard’s deliberately spare line leaves only basic storytelling scaffolding plus whatever visual jokes he wanted to throw in. There is inane repetition that starts at the beginning, as the detective gets a call that says “We need you for the big mystery case” and he says out loud, afterward, “They need me for the big mystery case”. After he finds a clue, he says to the cops, “Take this back to the lab and do lab things to it.” You get the idea. 

There are mentions of a dark past and a trail that leads to the awesome Bad Boy bar, where a guy with a Mohawk is wearing a skull-bedecked top that says “Crime Shirt”. At one point, the detective says “We can do this easy way or the hard way” and the bar dudes hilariously say “Oh, then I say we go with the easy way”, simultaneously calling out action clichés and subverting them. There’s a Mystery Cave, flashbacks, a memory of a memory of a partner eaten by a shark in the caves, a memory of another partner being killed in a unique manner by an eagle and the discovery of a second detective, with whom a reluctant partnership is formed.

The back half features an encounter with a jailed serial killer (ala Hannibal Lecter) for information and a final confrontation in a basement (“Our descent is a metaphor”) that leads to an anticlimax. Nothing else would have suited this narrative, really. Howard doesn’t draw distinct faces in this story and also uses deliberately awkward poses, with the main detective tending to hunch his shoulders forward. He’s identifiable mostly by his moustache, just as the other detective he meets is made distinct by her hair (and otherwise identical detective outfit). This comic is 132 pages of silly, complete with an inspirational, shoegazing ending with a surprise character. There’s even a fan letter written by the killer to his inspiration stuff in an “envelope” glued to the inside back cover. 

In the package for the comic, Howard threw in a second comic, The Little Mystery Case. It’s a send-up of his own send-up, as the detective finds a lost puppy, tries to squeeze out of his underground connections and accuses the Big Fat Boss of the crime. The end is inevitable and heartwarming, even if he did insult the Big Fat Boss (his name is Steve and he’s sensitive about his weight). Howard basically inserts a puppy into crime clichés and it slowly dawns on him that this doesn’t make much sense. Howard goes big on every page, as it’s a page per panel. He invites the reader to go as quickly as possible in reading the story, and the images don’t really encourage the eye to linger; Howard is careful to make his jokes quickly apparent. Howard is a funny cartoonist, and I’d welcome seeing variations on this formula in the future.

In Quest Mania, what Steve Thuesen does here can only be described as “crusty punk D&D adventures”. In the newest, full-color comic book (titled “The Swamp”), the unnamed adventuring duo have been hired to retrieve a crown from a tomb. They’re having all sorts of trouble: the male half of the duo’s ears are painfully ringing due to a show he saw a few days prior; the swamp isn’t even on their map, they are attacked by a monster, and they have their stuff stolen by a goblinoid creature. The guy is especially miffed when his mixtape he made for a girl gets stolen. When the creature leads them to the tomb, she speculates that he perhaps has a fetish, which sparks an argument. The genius of this comic is the way Thueson transfers the template of two crusty punks and the things they argue about and bond over to a magical fantasy-adventure world. Indeed, the transfer is surprisingly seamless. It helps that he’s equally adept at drawing monsters as he is punks; there’s no character or style clash on any of the pages. The pierced, schlubbily dressed punks just happen to be carrying huge swords and know how to use them.

In The Fastest Mile I Ever Ran, Thueson draws himself as a kind of punk duck in this story from high school. He establishes early on his generalized anger toward pretty much everyone around, but especially his homophobic and generally awful schoolmates. That rage wound up fueling him when it was time to run the mile in physical education, as he wound up doing a six minute mile--way ahead of his classmates. Of course, he also made the mistake of drinking an orange soda earlier in the day and nothing else, so his body--pushed to its limits-reacted accordingly by vomiting. The worst part of the story was him having to lay on the floor as other kids came in and then being forced by the janitor to clean it up. He's saved from the bell after working on this disgusting job for a while, but as the end of the story reveals, he learned nothing from it. Once again, Thueson's ability to draw disaffected punks in any setting, with attitude fully on display, is his greatest skill as a cartoonist.

Belling the Cat and Spy Blimp, by Dan Nott. Belling The Cat is a collection of three short stories, and it's a classic CCS move for a student to collect their student work in such a mini. Nott is graduating this year, and these comics show a cartoonist trying a number of different things. The first story, "9.11.01" uses the Ed Emberley simple-shape model (everything is either a circle, square, triangle, rectangle or oval) to relate his experience of 9/11 as a sixth grader. Using a 2 x 4 grid, it's odd now but made sense then that the teachers were trying to keep the event under wraps, but all it took was one student who had a doctor's appointment in the morning to rely this information. It's a comic that's interesting for its portrayal of cognitive dissonance on the part of the panicking adults, which bent the brains of the kids who were used to their authority figures being sure of everything that was going on. The Emberley style adds to that sense of a kid drawing the story and being unable to capture the complexity of an emotionally fraught situation.

The best story was Nott's adaptation of "Belling The Cat", based on an old folk tale. What I liked most about it was Nott's delicate, cartoony line in service of depicting a genteel mouse society menaced by the random violence of cats. It's a great story because it's about the way an idea can go a long way without anyone closely examining the viability of its premise. In other words: "Who bells the cat?" "Election Day" is about the 2016 election and suggests that there was a poor contingent of non-racist white people who voted for Trump because life was hard, his rhetoric had appeal, his racist friends liked him, and he didn't like being called a racist by someone outside a polling station. Nott tries to build up this character as reasonable and likable (with the light red wash being a subtle signal of what kind of voting area he was in). I'm not sure if Nott was setting this guy up as a good guy who got goaded by an asshole into voting for Trump, or simply a weak-willed person who got pushed into voting by Trump by the more passionate around him, despite his better judgment. Either way, considering the number of white people (and men in particular) who voted for Trump nationwide, I didn't find the strip's conclusions (such as they were) to be all that enlightening. The way Nott slipped between naturalistic drawing (the main character in particular) and the cartoonishness of the more extreme characters was clever.

Nott's work was much tighter overall on the whimsical, weird Spy Blimp. The first chapter is all about "Fat Albert", an aerostat (a stationary blimp) docked near Key West in Florida. Its purpose was unclear, although it was eventually revealed to be a spy blimp that also transmitted US TV to Cuba. It also had a tendency to have its anchor rope snap under high winds from time to time, and Nott depicts two fishermen tying it to their boat so as not to let it get away. Fat Albert had other ideas, taking the men and their boat into the sky. Incredibly, it was shot down by the Air Force, putting the poor fishermen into the ocean. It's a wonderfully absurd series of images in this nine-panel grid. The second story is an awesomely cynical one about a defense contractor trying to unload the JLENS (Fat Albert, essentially) as an anti-cruise missile deterrent. Its testing disastrous (causing power outages thanks to it getting away), the snake-oil salesman contractor pitched it to the senator for surveillance purposes.

 The third story reveals the panopticon-like qualities of the aerostat. Even if its cameras were broken, it was enough to make the people think that they worked to change their behavior. Designed to sniff out potential bombers, it wasn't hard to make the leap to categorizing any kind of odd behavior as threatening and in need of immediate termination. The differences in perception based on the degree of surveillance, violence and colonialism they're subjected to are depicted as bleakly humorous, as the cheers from the Afghans when they shot down their aerostat compared with the quirkly South Floridian bohmemians was telling. This is a smart, well-paced comic that concentrates on visual payoffs but also provides some key decorative qualities as well for balance.

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