Monday, March 16, 2020

CCS Bonus Week: Jarad Greene's Scullion

This week, I'm going to do some reviews of recent work from students and alumni of the Center for Cartoon Studies. I generally tend to do this in December, but with some recent work coming in, I thought I'd post it now rather than wait nearly a year.

First up is Jared Greene's debut YA graphic novel, Scullion. From his earliest comics at CCS, it was clear that Greene had all the necessary tools to become a highly successful YA cartoonist. The clarity of his line, the whimsical quality of his ideas, and his distinctive character design marked him as someone who knew what he was doing. He turned his senior year thesis into this first book for Oni Press, and he had the fortune of having Hazel Newlevant as one of his editors.

The plot of Scullion picks up on standard fairy-tale tropes and subverts them in fun ways. The story revolves around two scullions--dishwashers--in the royal kitchen as it prepares for the wedding of the warrior Riqa and her intended, the captain of the royal guards Chapp. The scullions, Darlis and Mae, are trying to find their purpose in life and are inspired by the noble deeds and best-selling advice book from Riqa. In a very amusing send-up of celebrity culture, her fame draws obsessive fan interest and trashy media coverage.

Greene skillfully maneuvers his characters to cause all kinds of confusion. In many ways, this is a story of mistaken identity causing comedy, which goes all the way back to Shakespeare (and earlier!). What makes this book stand out, apart from Greene's art, is the sly way he subverts gender and gender expectations. Riqa is a huge icon for both men and women, and everyone has read her book. Darlis, a teen boy, bears a resemblance to her, and these mistaken identities aren't a big deal besides causing trouble within the context of the plot. No one says a thing about a male resembling a female, nor should they--but it feels like a bold move in a YA book. There are various characters of color in prominent roles, as well as women--and it's simply the foundation of the book.

The book also satirizes exploitative capitalism, as greedy troll bandits concoct all sorts of money-making schemes. When they kidnap Darlis, who through a ridiculous series of coincidences winds up dressed like Riqa, they think they have someone they can hold for ransom. Throughout the book, Darlis, Mae, Riqa, and the missing Chapp all have their own clever and brave moments. Greene smoothly navigates them from one bit of peril to another, even if it's all light-hearted.

Greene uses pages with standard grids, but also splash pages, open-page layouts, overlapping panels, and other layout tricks that reflect the unpredictability of the plot. The end incorporates the characters finding the bravery and resolve to seek out their best selves as well as some clever ecological statements, noting that ambition without moral action is corrupt. There are hints of future conflicts for the characters, and while another book would be welcome, it was a genuine pleasure to read a YA book that wasn't obviously designed to be part one of a twelve-volume epic. Indeed, the relatively low stakes in this book were refreshing, focusing on the character-generated comedy and the mechanics of how they get from one situation to the next. Greene's own quirks as a cartoonist (he often portrays his characters leaning forward while in motion) mark Scullion very much as its own entity, rather than more of the same. 

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