Sunday, December 30, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #30: Reilly Hadden

Reilly Hadden is one of the most prolific and talented CCS grads, and in his case, his sheer work ethic and willingness to follow his ideas to some strange places have made him a better cartoonist. His regular anthology series Astral Birth Canal is up to twelve issues, and he has several different side projects he's working on as well. His comics are smart, funny, fearless, strange, horrifying, bleak and humane. He's moved way past his influences at this point to create his own strange aesthetic, intermingling fantasy violence and moment-to-moment personal details.

Krikkit On The Creek is the second of his minis to feature this gentle cat character. It's a small mini that has no real plot: it simply follows Krikkit as he explores his environment in a mindful, happy manner. Every moment he spends walking around the creek and its accompanying waterfall, fields, stone bridge and cave is a happy one. He's delighted to eat from a blueberry bush and observe lobsters, ostriches and a new. Hadden offers spot color using colored pencil for Krikkit, making him a light orange that contrasts nicely with the simple black and white renderings. Like anyone doing a comic for young children, Hadden makes the comic a series of lists of things: things seen, things eaten, things interacted with. It's a delightful little object.

His series Kath starts with a standard Hadden technique: beginning a story in media res and then slowly filling in the backstory as the action propels the narrative forward. The comic starts with the titular character eating a sandwich by a fire, before she's interrupted by an imp. Their interactions lead to a monster sent by the gods coming to destroy her, a conflict that plays out with him defeating him just long enough to get away. Kath is a marvel of character design: her stringy hair, scarred face and battle-hardened body only become more interesting to look at when she dons her huge, horned helmet. In the third issue, we learn her quest, see her take a tough moral stand and make a daring, clever escape. There's an admirable straightforwardness to this comic that Reilly sometimes eschews in his work, and he accomplishes the neat trick of laying down narrative pipe while keeping the action going at the same time. Every reveal leads to the next big action, as the story comes into greater focus even as Hadden keeps increasing the stakes. The quest of looking for her child and bonding with her son's memory by eating the sandwich they invented together adds a level of humane sweetness to the proceedings.

Finch Island #4 is the continuation of yet another series, involving an anthropomorphic bird paddling to an island founded by an ancestor. We also see him from another point in time, his story commented on by a pair of frogs who happen to be traders. This comic is a model of restraint and tensions literally roiling beneath the surface, as Hadden masterfully reveals in the water as Finch is leisurely bringing his boat ashore. There are monsters, underwater societies and other bits of oddness rendered in a light hand, giving the impression that the reader can only barely make out what's there. Considering the rest of the issue is Finch exploring the island with a dog that he rescued, and one comes away with a weird tension that something's about to happen, but it's not clear what that might be. There's an almost poetic feeling to some of the sequences in the book, particularly the still ones where Finch is just stargazing.

Finally, there's the interlocking Astral Birth Canal #10-12. This series is still Hadden's best work, and it's his own mad science laboratory for exploring long-form, improvisational storytelling. Hadden loves pushing new ideas and images on his readers and letting them figure things out on their own. He's wrapping up this title in favor of a new one to be called Astral Forest, and it's a split that makes sense in the same way his nearest comparison in comics, Chuck Forsman, did when he ended his Snake Oil series. Both of these series explored fantasy tropes in unusual contexts with weird, often absurd humor in the face of horror. For all his flourishes, Hadden never strays too far from creating a traditional narrative here, only mediated by his own sensibilities and desire to keep things from getting too calcified and safe.
The bulk of the narrative here concerns Edward, son of Bork, who is a space god often sent on missions to eliminate certain horrible people and monsters. Bork is dead and Edward's just been killed, but they are watching lives playing out in an effort for Edward to learn more about his mother Valentina. She's a pro wrestler whose career takes off when she falls in love with Bork. With key songs in the background amplifying the action, Hadden takes the reader out of the story to remind them that other people are watching this, including Edward's horrified reaction to seeing his parents have sex. #11 has Bork's reveal that he's a god after he helps her win the wrestling championship, and she offers to come with him. Hadden interjects tons of humor in Bork's awkwardness, the way the wrestlers are drawn, and the horribly embarrassing moments involving sex that alarm his son. #12 has an escaped prisoner that Bork captured on his ship wreaking havoc, ending up with a shocking cliffhanger ending that reveals not all is as it seems. He then added tremendous depth to this storyline, with the sweet and bizarre relationship between Bjork and Valentina on display and told with complete sincerity and a surprisingly heavy erotic charge.

The back-up stories as strong, as Hadden continues to find a host of interesting artists to work with for back-up features. Cooper Whittlesey's dense story is told through a nine-panel-grid, each page upping the ante of danger for its main character. Steve Bissette draws a forest monster, while Anna McGlynn's choose-your-own-adventure comic for her main character is clever, as it comes up with a cosmogony for a primitive society using yes/no questions. It's enjoyable to explore major events disrupting such societies in this way, as these disruptions often lead to significant long-term changes. Audry Basch's peek at a couple of dog superheroes, Hadden & Susan Dibble's delightful fairy tale about lovers, and Iona Fox's over-the-top story showing Val and Bork having sex are less impactful but still add a lot of depth to this world-building process. We're learning about how and way many of the characters do what they do and why.

I suspect Hadden's new series will be another leap forward for him, allowing him to tell some new stories while still dabbling in this world he's created. It's a world where anything can happen, the powerful are merciless, and hope is still present albeit way in the background. His cartooning is confident, his understanding of narrative is sharp, and his approach continuously explores the idea of gender and gender roles in fascinating ways.

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