Monday, July 30, 2018

Silver Sprocket: Benji Nate's Catboy

Originally appearing on the Vice website, Benji Nate's Catboy strips are the perfect example of an artist using the visual style and tropes of a comic aimed at children, only its audience is adults. The book's premise is a young woman named Olive who wishes she could hang out with her cat Henry as though he were a real person. The next thing she knows, he's walking upright like a person and is speaking English. The humor of the strip is often derived from Nate slipping in and out of the unshakable truth of the strip (Henry is a cat and still acts like one) to one where Henry's transformation is so easily accepted by everyone else that it becomes a slice-of-life strip. Nate also discusses gender, identity and sexuality in the strip in ways that are sometimes painfully shy but also straightforward. For example, Olive dresses Henry in her own clothing and tells him that she only has "lady clothing", and his blunt response is "I don't know what that means." It's a swift, sharp rebuke to gender modeling disguised as a cute exchange.

Unsurprisingly, the guileless and confident Henry is a big hit with everyone Olive knows--even people who never gave her the time of day, like her high school nemesis Dixie. At the same time, he's still a cat, who refuses to use a toilet, likes to eat mice and wants to have sex with other cats. Nate doesn't avoid Henry's animal aspects, but she finds ways to make them funny, rather than off-putting. He won't take showers, instead cleaning himself by licking himself like a cat does--only because he's so big, he coughs up a huge hairball. At the same time, Henry also has an endearing naivete about things like birthdays, slumber parties and pets. He falls in love with a snail as his pet after rejecting more typical ones, and he wants everyday to be his birthday. Much of the charm is in the way Nate uses simple shapes to build her characters. Olive's oval head, trophy ears, parted hairstyle and pigtails is as memorable a character design I've ever seen, especially with the way she draws eyes. It's a half-circle with the right side filled in with blacks. It's a formal device that makes it easy for Nate to express big emotions with a minimum of heavy lifting. Henry's eyes are black circles inside a slit of a white circle, which practically glow against black fur. Nate also often slaps dialogue on top of a character's head as a way of emphasizing the speech, one of many quirks that builds up the visual world of the story.

One of the running gags in the book is that Henry is better at virtually everything than Olive, who is presented as a sort of feral adult. Henry has no problem meeting women, whereas Olive is very much undecided about her own sexuality. She thinks she doesn't like boys until she meets a nice guy who seems to be flirting with her, only to offer her a job at a lunch she thought was a date. Olive has trouble finding work, but Henry somehow winds up making tons of cash as a dog sitter, which is its own series of funny vignettes. Olive doesn't have any friends, but Henry turns everyone he meets into a friend who is fascinated by his whimsical choices. Olive is an artist, but Henry goes to a life drawing class and is easily better than her on his first attempt. There's a sense in which Henry represents her best self, one with confidence and (most importantly) a lack of self-consciousness. Slowly but surely, they help each other start to self-actualize, as she gets him to understand how social customs work and he helps her take more risks. Throughout the book, there's an unshakable bond between the two, even if they happen to argue every now and then. This is just the kind of sincere, quirky book that's become a standard for Silver Sprocket. It still eschews conspicuous consumption and the culture surrounding it, but it also avoids the kind of privileged nihilism and aggression that's marked punk at other points in time.  It's a new kind of punk attitude, one emphasizing sincerity, kindness and openness.

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