Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #4: Kevin Reilly & Sean Knickerbocker

Mothball 88, by Kevin Reilly. This delightfully weird comic is a triumph of design, a fascinating trip through the mechanics of games and sports with its own internal language and logic, and a political statement about the way spectacle is used as a societal anesthetic. Every detail of this Ignatz-nominated comic adds to its aesthetic, from the orange-and-blue spot colors, to the quality of the paper,and the stippling effects that add a gritty quality to the storytelling. The story itself is not just a game, it's a game televised worldwide on the planet Bombyxia. Reilly gets the unctuous patter of the announcers just right for the 88th Mothball Championship as he slowly unfolds how the game is played.

At first, the absurd action of the comic is whimsically delightful as the three competitors each enact their own strategies. The game involves pre-teens using various methods to hatch special moths in order to score points. The mechanics of the sport are fascinating, and Reilly spins a genuinely gripping story where the outcome of the game produces suspense. That makes the conclusion so fascinating, as the initially vaguely creepy details (a silent crowd comprised of what looks like clones described as being "glued into the action") start to become horrifying. Two of the competitors are disintegrated by a bathtub full of a corrosive that happens to be part of the field. The teenage winner wishes only to kill Mothus, the alien ruler of the planet. It quickly becomes clear that the humans on the planet play this game to amuse their rulers, who frame the whole thing as entertainment for all. There is hope implied at the end but no real resolution, ending the comic as it began--right in the middle of a larger story. This is very much in the tradition of using violent sports as a political/cultural social satire, like Death Race 2000 or Rollerball, and it succeeds because Reilly's precise art and storytelling nails every tiny detail to provide a level of authenticity that feels lived in.

Rust Belt #4, by Sean Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker smartly writes stories about frustrated people in dead-end situations in Midwestern small towns. Most have been about younger people looking to leave town and improve their situations. This issue, "Internet Persona", is an incisive look into the life of a small-town, alt-right type Trump supporter and his burgeoning internet fame. The thing that really stands out about this issue is the way that Knickerbocker resists turning the vlogger, Jason, into a caricature without making him a sympathetic character. He's just a regular guy with a nice wife who hosts her family on Thanksgiving. He even takes the hint when his wife suggests everyone leave their politics behind at the dinner table.

Knickerbocker has a wonderfully ratty line, and his design for Jason--a pickle nose, patchy stubble, and squinty eyes--is absolutely spot-on. The story is fascinating because what it's really about the way that internet provocateurs take advantage of gullible dupes to further their own agendas (read: money and fame). Jason records right-wing rants on facebook (using typical language like "snowflakes" and "facts don't care about your feelings"), and one of his videos gets picked up by a right-wing media troll nicknamed "Burnt Toast". It goes viral as a result, and the undercurrent of the comic changes from his personal frustration and desire to speak on it to his delight that he's become famous.

Burnt Toast contacts him, flatters him and gives him advice. When he comes to Jason's town, he invites him out for dinner. He invites him to "contribute" to his website, providing content without being paid, other than a vague offer of "we'll see." There's a fascinating sequence where Burnt Toast has Jason watch a "reenactment" of a "stolen valor" video, one where a veteran confronts someone wearing a fake uniform looking for handouts. It's the kind of manufactured crisis that alt-right sites love to propagate and got to the heart of the shit-stirring, disingenous provocative nature of this kind of media in a naturalistic way. When his wife points out the general creepiness of Burnt Toast, it's less an affront to Jason's beliefs than it is his vanity, and it's pointedly the first time in the book that they have a significant argument. A provocateur's job is to make people angry ("own the libs!"), not to make cogent arguments--it's all about heat, not light. Knickerbocker demonstrates just how easily a frustrated person can get swept up into this kind of rhetoric, no matter how extreme it might become.

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