Monday, February 19, 2018

Fantagraphics: Joseph Remnant's Cartoon Clouds

Joseph Remnant’s Cartoon Clouds is the first book he’s written and illustrated, with Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland being a harbinger of his enormous talent as an artist. He’s very much influenced by underground comics and Robert Crumb’s naturalism in particular, along with his peer Noah Van Sciver. Unlike either of them, Remnant (both here and in his excellent comic, Blindspot [two issues self-published, third issue published by Kilgore]) eschews the more cartoony aspects of that kind of work and instead prefers an expressive naturalism that favors gesture, body language and the ways bodies interact with each other in space. Thanks to that skill, Remnant is able to exert a precise degree of control over his characters, but not so much that they appear inert on the page. Indeed, there’s nothing slick about his character work. He also likes adding drawing effects that are very clearly lines on paper, like cross-hatching and shadow effects. There are any number of simply beautiful-looking panels that reflect his intense amount of labor, but they’re not there for him to show off. They are to help him establish atmosphere.

That atmosphere is one of tedium and ennui, as the story follows four friends who have just graduated from a Cincinnati art school, each trying to pursue a career and figure out their lives in different ways. The result is a story that feels all-too-familiar: young, white twentysomethings moping around, trying to find meaning. Despite Remnant’s skill as an artist and storyteller, he falls into too many clichéd traps in the book, mistaking an unlikeable protagonist for being a compelling one. And the main character Seth, is both boring and annoying. He’s a relentless mope who hated art school almost as much as he hated his life after it. Cartoonists’ issues with art school are well-documented at this point, so if you’re going to critique it, you’d either better have a new point of view or at least be funny (like Aaron Lange’s comics about his experiences).

Every character seems narrowly defined and lacking in ambiguity, with the exception of Allison, a fellow student that Seth’s always had a crush on but never did anything about it. She wants a successful career as a gallery artist as much as anyone, but she eventually realizes that the shortcuts she took to get there weren’t worth her integrity. The other characters feel less like living people than cast for an indie film, leaning in hard on their most prominent qualities. Colby, the older, pretentious gallery owner with whom Allison hooks up, is less a character than a aggregation of art-world clichés: disingenuous, hypocritical, jealous of real talent and success, two-faced, secretly sexist, etc. Jeff is Seth’s best friend and he’s the art school grad who immediately stops doing art and starts nursing a prescription drug and later a heroin addiction. Kat is Jeff’s girlfriend who hooks into the art world by coming up with show ideas that have little or nothing to do with the art itself; she starts cheating on Jeff without bothering to actually break up with him. Cameos by an asshole trust fund kid and an aggressively atheist guy at a party add to that sense of caricature over character that plagues the book.

Seth is the protagonist, and it’s his tedious journey that informs the tone of most of the book. He loses his job as an artist’s assistant. He is disgusted when he realizes that art galleries and museums mostly offer unpaid internships to young people who either have a trust fund or else are willing to live in abject poverty in order to maybe make some connections. He takes a job in fast food, stops painting and hooks up with a pot-smoking teenager as his new girlfriend of sorts. It’s not til the end that things begin to pick up, as a lecture from a returning friend and a chance meeting with his idol, the local legend John Pollard. Pollard was supposed to be at an opening of his art but instead was at a working man’s watering hole to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers play. Pollard gives him the advice that was obvious to everyone: Seth should pursue something with his comics and drawings instead of his paintings. Pollard is much the stereotypical gruff, older artist, but simply by adding a layer or two to his personality, Remnant immediately made him one of the more complex characters in the book.

The book has its requisite happy endings for the “right” characters (Seth and Allison), as they go off to seek their destinies in new cities. Jeff is very much the “there by the grace of god go I” character, putting himself in a position that he knows will wind up in his death as an addict, sooner rather than later, in order to help his friend. Kat has sold out and is quite happy to do so. It’s an overly neat wrap-up for a book that at 160 pages feels bloated. In many respects, Cartoon Clouds feels like a book that Remnant needed to get out his system, that he sensed that he would only have one shot to write as a young person. It certainly put his craft to the test and found him passing that area with flying colors. Hopefully his next book won’t be about art and artists, as I think he needs a fresh, new area to explore. He certainly has the capacity to do it.

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