Friday, December 25, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #25: Kristen Shull

Kristen Shull is one of the hardest-working of the CCS cartoonists, having published in the last two years a short fantasy comic, a biographical comic, a 32-page erotic fantasy comic, two years' worth of daily diary strips (and counting), and co-editing two fantasy anthologies. As I noted in my evaluation of her work from last year, she has done the work of getting better in public.

This year, I'm going to take a look at the collected Ego Gala, which has all of her daily diary strips from 2019. I've reviewed most of these before, but I will be reviewing them again in conjunction with Hell Bait, her erotic fantasy comic, as well as "Thirsty," her story from Fantology Volume 1. (I'll be reviewing the rest of that CCS-heavy anthology in a separate post.) Rather than critique each comic separately, I'll be doing a more generalized critique of her work in part, as she notes in her diary strips, she wanted to achieve the same effect in both her autobio and fantasy work: "Find the familiar." That means finding a way to reach and connect to her audience while telling her story, no matter the genre. 

1. All the way open. Once again, to use the Alex Hoffman parlance with regard to autobiography, Shull's memoir is as open as it gets. That's not just because Shull writes about subjects like her sex life, partying, mental health, loneliness, her insecurities as an artist, and much more, but also because she provides a strong emotional context for all of this. She does have a brief intro providing a bit of informational context for certain events in her life, but those were honestly not really needed to understand the emotional contexts of the events or her relationships. Shull balanced this openness against her responsibility to tell a story. While there's a bit of the "then I ate breakfast, then I ate dinner" quotidian dullness found in many diary strips, Shull either limits that as much as possible in telling a story, makes it part of a gag somehow, or at least does a funny or interesting image to go with it. Consciously or not, Shull never lets go of the story.  

2. Fearless. As I've noted elsewhere, it is a mistake to label autobio cartoonist's work as "honest," because how on earth would the reader know? Shull noted in a diary strip that one note she had received during a critique is that she was fearless in terms of what she draws, and that's a far better description. Shull isn't afraid to write about her fears, her vulnerabilities, her absurdities, her desires, and her adventures. While there were times where she felt a little embarrassed about drawing highly personal and intimate activities, it didn't stop her from continuing to write about them. As Gabrielle Bell once wrote, "It is humiliating to expose myself like this, but it is worse to try to hide it." Shull doesn't try to hide it. At the same time, "fearless" is not "reckless." She has an understanding of her responsibility with regard to how she depicts others, especially with regard to how they might make her feel. That comes out during a period where she felt particularly fragile, and she wrote about how she told her housemates that she wanted them to be nicer to her.

3. Bacchus and Minerva. Throughout her diary comics, Shull is referred to as the "Bacchus of CCS." She's not just fun at parties, but she actively encourages merriment in all sorts of ways. There's a visceral quality to her stories lacking in much autobio, and she's not afraid to share it: drinking, doing drugs, having sex, playing rugby, running, exercise, eating fancy meals, "hashing" (sometimes referred to as "the drinking club with a running problem"), etc. If it involves physical sensation, then Bacchus craves it and wants to share it. What Shull doesn't explicitly say is that if she's Bacchus, then she's also Minerva. Wise, introspective, thinking about the future--thinking too much, frequently. It's an interesting dichotomy, but an important one, because Shull may be a Bacchus for parties, but it's Minerva who gets the work done. 

4. The laboratory. Doing a diary strip like this is an act of will. It not only forces productivity, but it reminds cartoonists that the perfect is the enemy of the good--and the finished. It reminds them not to be too cute or precious with their work. It forces them to find good storytelling shortcuts and stops them from over-rendering. At the same time, drawing like this makes one a better draftsman. It's also highly low-stakes, so it allows artists to experiment with page design, storytelling techniques, narrative ideas, etc. The most interesting aspect of Shull's autobiographical work is that willingness to experiment.

5. Fantasy is reality. That said, Shull's autobio work is a solid example of the diary form, but that very format is in itself limiting and limited. While I can see Shull continuing her diary indefinitely for many reasons, it's clear that her true talents lie in fantasy storytelling. Hell Bait, for example, pulls off the remarkable trick of being an x-rated comic with explicit sex scenes that are entirely in service to the larger story. The premise, wherein a local witch who has a FWB arrangement with a demon and has to trick him into killing another demon by way of coitus interruptus, is absolutely ingenious. Shull not only has the instincts and ability to tell a good fantasy yarn, she's able to tell an absolutely hilarious and hot story that doesn't mock either fantasy or erotica. 

"Thirsty," her story in Fantology, is the best entry in the book. In the span of 12 pages, Shull establishes and cleverly resolves an interesting problem, draws horrifying lake monsters, and creates a working bond between a wizard and an elf. Shull crafted a satisfying one-shot story while leaving room for a larger saga if she chooses to go that route. All of her storytelling is excellent. 

6. The next step. Shull openly discussed not being able to imagine doing a longer work in her diary, but the reality is that she progressed in a manner that makes the most sense for a young cartoonist. Start small, finish short work, and keep putting out new comics. With enough pages under your belt, the idea of a longer work no longer seems as unattainable. Indeed, that concept for a fantasy epic started percolating in her head toward the end of 2019. Shull's future clearly is in the realm of fantasy; she's a sharp and witty writer and a great visual problem-solver. The one thing she needs to add to her toolbox is color. Her line is not quite forceful enough to drive an entire comic of this kind on its own, and while her understanding of gesture and body language are highly-developed, there's a certain blandness to the way she designs faces--especially compared to the exciting way she draws monsters. Learning to work with color would help with this while taking a load off other aspects of drawing. I think the ideal scenario is somewhere between Hell Bait and "Thirsty": a smart, engaging, high fantasy epic for adults. There's no question that Shull has the ability and the ambition to do so. 

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