Friday, December 21, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #21: Jen Vaughn and Moss Bastille

Goosebumps: Download and Die!, by Jen Vaughn and Michelle Wong. Vaughn is one of a handful of CCS grads working with licensed properties in addition to working on her many other projects. This indefatigable artist always seems to be writing or drawing a comic in addition to running podcasts and other multimedia project. The work she shared with me is a three-issue miniseries collection of an original story she wrote using R.L. Stine's horror-for-kids Goosebumps property. While the villains of the story are all Goosebumps veterans, everything else in this story was her concept. I did miss seeing her do the art for this story, but Wong's more mainstream-friendly work obviously made a lot more sense in this case. Many of the most successful comics for kids are now explicitly aimed at girls, featuring girls as characters and produced by women. It's a fascinating paradigm shift compared to twenty, ten or even five years ago. The fact that it took this long reveals more about publishers and editors who made poor assumptions than it does the women who are producing these successful series.

Vaughn was clearly made for projects like this, as she quickly sells the reader on the friendship of two girls (Mitra and Kyra, both people of color, incidentally) and also sells the reader on Mitra being threatened by a new girl, nicknamed "Flips". It takes exactly five pages to establish the personalities of the three leads, the interpersonal conflict that Mitra feels, and the catalyst for the plot: Mitra's phone being broken. When she mysteriously gets sent a new phone loaded with cutting-edge apps and cool filters, she sets the plot into motion. What makes the story work is that even though the reader knows that the phone is evil, Vaughn still keeps enough details mysterious and keeps the horror elements rooted in the central conflict of the story. Vaughn throws a lot of weird supernatural details at the reader in an effort to keep them off-balance, and it works.

There are evil puppets, menacing skeletons, lizard people trying to infiltrate humanity in order to create more lizard people, and a weird melting kid. The phone makes people sick, allows Mitra to hear the thoughts of others and it makes her paranoid by talking to her. The pacing of the story is a bit wobbly at times, especially with regard to action scenes and the story's climax. While the Goosebumps series is aimed at kids and thus rarely doubles down on its horror elements in a graphic manner, the climax lacks tension amidst its goofiness. The tension that Vaughn builds doesn't quite pay off, and some of that is on Wong. She's great at character interaction, but her panel-to-panel transitions during action scenes aren't especially smooth. That said, Vaughn and Wong stick the landing with the end, which picks up a particular loose end and takes it in a disturbing direction. All told, Vaughn spins a tale that mostly works because of the believability of its cast as well as the existential threat of an all-seeing cell phone.

Speaking of horror, Moss Bastille's comics offer up stylish world building with a look somewhere between Richard Sala and John "JB" Brodowski. The Burning Room, an oversized comic that is stated to be the first chapter of a longer work titled The Obscure Road. It makes a perfectly fine stand-alone comic, dripping with atmosphere and mystery. Bastille sets the mood with a young man approaching a wrecked house but immediately lets the reader know that things are at least slightly weird because of his bizarre, dog-like pet. The man, whose name we later learn is Perigale, narrates the history of the house and one room in particular. Following a specific set of instructions, the heartbroken can enter the room, pin up a photo of the one who broke their heart, sleep in the room, and then forget their beloved forever after.

Having established the rules, Perigale enters the room and proceeds to break all of them. He contacts the trapped spirit in the room and proceeds to make a bargain with it. This comic is very much about rules, trust and protocol, as the spirit's story is a sad one. This comic is all about negative space and gradations of black, white and gray. One can see the intense amount of labor on each page in order to create these effects, but Bastille is careful to give his figures a clear, almost casual and cartoonish look like Sala. The spirit creature is genuinely unsettling, thanks to that mix of contrasts; its form is elongated and unnatural, adding to its unnerving quality. Bastille hit on something engaging with this concept.

Glass Eye #1 is a mini whose visual approach is completely different. It's a panel per page, relying heavily on line and hatching. It's somewhere between horror and poetry, with the big block letters on each page narrating a story about being so haunted by one's past that it causes one to try to forget it and escape it. The inevitable end is to be both victim and victimizer--never forgetting and never escaping. It's nowhere near as visually arresting as the other comic, but its intent is a short burst of bold, disturbing images and ideas as opposed to a more coherent narrative.

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