Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #19: Dan Nott and Curtis Thomson

Today's entry features work from an artist who not only was in his first year at CCS, he had almost no experience as a cartoonist. It also features the exquisitely detailed thesis project of a graduating senior.

Curtis D. Thomson is the father of Quinn Thomson, a fellow first-year student at CCS last year. Cartooning is a path that Quinn wanted to take, and Curtis accompanied him to classes at the Joe Kubert School. Curtis was a watch repairman by trade, but it became increasingly obvious that he not only had the talent to be a cartoonist, he also had the desire. So both Thomsons are at CCS, and their styles are dramatically different. Looking over sample work and his Industry Day Comics mini, it's obvious that in terms of drawing and cartooning, he can work in any style. He's that rare natural who just has an uncanny level of skill.

His version of the Aesop's Fables project centered around "The Birds, The Beasts and the Bat", drawn in an ink-stained, Steve Bissette style of art suitable for horror. Everything from his lettering to his scratchy and often spare line was used effectively to create a dark atmosphere. "Metamorsel" appears to be a comic based on Wally Wood's classic "22 Panels That Always Work". There are multiple instances of a variety of different shots, including silhouette, foreground-background switches, light and dark contrast and more. The story is about a father misplacing a cookbook that he thought his wife no longer wanted, and the trouble that causes. "Meditation Comic" uses three different visual approaches, stacked in 2 vertical panels apiece: a sketchy style that utilizes white space, a more labored style that emphasizes light/dark contrasts; and two panels that heavily rely on spotting blacks. The result is something along the lines of a poetry comic, though a bit more scattered because it's clearly stream-of-consciousness. That said, Thomson was able to pull the strip together thanks to its visual elements. Thomson may well be better suited to draw other people's stories, but I'm curious to see what he comes up with in his second year.

Dan Nott is a highly ambitious cartoonist specializing in journalism. He's already signed a book deal with First Second to do a book called Hidden Systems, which is about the mostly unseen and little-discussed infrastructure that allows the world to function: water, power, internet, etc. His thesis project is titled Lines of Light, and while it is certainly thoroughly-researched, its chief virtues are its clarity and simplicity. Nott provided me with the entire thesis package, including a number of related minis and sketchbook material. The book seeks to answer a single question: what is the internet, exactly? Nott answers the question with a great deal of detail but streamlines and simplifies the answers in a way that's easy to comprehend. Furthermore, he contextualizes the history and structure of the internet in a way that reveals how it's not really the great equalizer across the world, but instead is controlled by and serves the interests of those nations and corporate entities that hold power.

Nott begins talking about the issue by discussing the various metaphors for the internet: cloud, highway, tubes, etc. What all of them have in common is the idea that the internet is completely decentralized, while the truth is quite the opposite. He connects the internet to the telegraph, invented over 150 years ago, because the reality is that both of them rely on cables buried under the ground or laid at the bottom of the ocean. The map he shows of how similar the US interstate system is to internet cable lines is fascinating and shows how those areas are privileged. Nott notes that 97% of internet activity comes through these buried lines to carefully concealed exchange points--buildings with huge computers that connect data networks. The vast majority of these points are in the US and Europe--putting the lie to decentralization.

From cable to exchange points to data centers, these internet nexus points are not widely discussed or understood by the general public, and this is intentional. Nott lays out his argument neatly and cogently, as he draws back the curtain on anonymous-seeming buildings that are crucial parts of the internet. Nott slips between a 12-panel and a 9-panel grid, with the panels often slipping away at the bottoms of pages when the information coalesces into a single image. There are also times when he wanted to push just how large a facility was, so the image would expand over two pages, while he would keep the captions within the panels of the grid. His line is simple and clear, as he used a lightly cartoonish approach to make each image approachable for the reader. That also keeps each image slightly loose, allowing the reader to make quick panel-to-panel and page-to-page transitions without being thrown off. While there is an element of advocacy in this work, Nott keeps it dialed back, preferring to let the data do the talking and allowing the reader to make their own judgments.

Looking at the supplementary material, it all ties into the main work in some ways because the autobio comics are about him thinking about the issues raised by his book. Basement is a dream comic about looking for the roots of the internet and finding rare, toxic materials that tie into war and then a video game. It's a mishmash that makes sense, and Nott's visual approach (lightly sketchy, with the occasional effect like zip-a-tone to add some weight to the page) has a lightness to it that makes it effective. Internet Search is a funny comic done in landscape form, wherein Nott does a search on the internet and follows every cable until he gets to an exchange point. It's a clever visual representation of the way that the internet actually works.  Nothing Works is another landscape comic about infrastructure; it depicts a world where there's no working electricity, water, internet or anything else that requires a massive, mostly hidden support structure in order to keep it functioning.

Smartphone is another clever mini that weaves in a variety of different tech-related press conferences (like the insufferable Steve Jobs at the first unveiling of the iPhone) and the actual cost of human misery that it takes to mine the materials needed to make these items and assemble them. Nott juxtaposes those events with people like Tim Cook moralizing about Apple's supposed commitment to "human dignity". Finally, Sketches & Schematics is exactly what it sounds like--a behind-the-scenes look at Nott's creative process, along with his takes on tarot cards, dream bridges, and autobiographical stories about researching his book. It's a wonderful, varied package that offers a lot of personal anecdotes and feelings as well a wide array of visual approaches. Nott is the rare combination of ambitious, curious and unassuming, making him an ideal journalist. He is always looking for deeper truths and making connections, and above all else, following the money. It's no surprise that he worked with Andy Warner as his advisor, since Warner has a similar sense of curiosity and social justice, as well as an understated approach. I expect Nott's new book to be even more ambitious in scope but equally approachable.

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