Friday, December 31, 2021

31 Days Of CCS, #36: Rust Belt Review Vol 1

Rust Belt Review is an anthology edited and published by CCS grad Sean Knickerbocker, an artist whose work I greatly admire. The first volume opens with a story by his collaborator Andrew Greenstone. kicked it off with a bizarre mix of a cult exit interview and Squid Game with "Prof. Livingston's Labyrinthine Trivia Trials." It kicks off with an FBI raid and an ensuing shootout of a bizarre underground complex. It then segues into a Wikipedia entry on the cult, founded by the titular Professor with the best of ideals. Like most cults, it devolved into a violent, perverted group of extremists that worshipped its leader. Unlike most cults, they started kidnapping people to put them through a series of grueling physical and mental tests involving trivia and physical feats. The story centers around its sole survivor, leaving it on a cliffhanger as it seems the cult has caught up with her after their setback. Greenstone's linework is grotesque and distorted, with a heavy use of effects like zip-a-tone and spotting blocks. They both give the story an especially gritty quality, like watching a fuzzy black-and-white surveillance video. 

Caleb Orecchio's "Kids Playing Outside" reminds me a lot of Steven Weissman's work. The scratchy art and the wiseass kids who are getting up to shenanigans, including a couple of different alpha characters who inevitably come into contact. The drawing is the main attraction here, as the story meanders in ways that aren't especially interesting. Some of the characters feel underwritten, like they're background characters in an animated series. The final, horrifying sequence is jarring, though there's a sense throughout of reality being bent in different directions. 

M.S. Harkness' "The Uncut Gem" takes off from her comics about her sexual encounters with assorted losers to make a comedic detour into a fantasy sequence. When a guy tells her he's uncircumcised and asks if she can "handle" him, she imagines them robbing a bank together and getting trapped on the roof. They're forced to blow up the uncircumcised tip of his penis like a balloon to float away, but a one-eyed police marksman named "Ellen Rage" shoots him down. That pops the fantasy but not before she asks him about banks. Harkness never shies away from hilariously cartoony and explicit images, and she certainly goes all out to get this joke across. 

"The Wind Cries Maria" is an experimental comic by Juan Jose Fernandez, a CCS grad who spends a lot of time in comics education. This comic was done in a 12-panel grid with what looks like ASCII art, interpolated with the lyrics of a song. It's a rumination on life, death, and existence, with each panel acting as its own complex space, frequently with multiple actions occurring. 

Knickerbocker's "Best Of Three" continues his streak of superb writing about scumbags and losers in small-town America. He just has a knack for the kind of guys who go out in the forest and drink beer on discarded furniture. The central character is David Kelly, a mean lowlife who is about to be kicked out of his old friend's house after he decides to move back to town, after years of "almost" getting a landscaping business off the ground. He's a leech and a mooch who happens to inherit a great deal of money after his father died. His father more-or-less abandoned him after he got rich playing the card game Magic: The Gathering. The lawyer who informed him of this seems to have some hidden agenda, as he follows him to the forest in the story's cliffhanger. Knickerbocker's character design speaks volumes for his characters: the stubble, the ratty haircuts, the unkempt beards, and other touches get across a real sense of how morally repulsive his characters are. At the same time, he makes the reader feel a tinge of sympathy for them as well, as so many of them seem to have been doomed from the start. 

Audra Stang's "Tunnel Vision" is part of her Star Valley stories, featuring teen-age girls Bernie and Adelaide. Bernie is trying to find out more about the sea-themed amusement park in town that fell into disuse from a boy whose great-grandfather built them. Stang's portrayal of teen-age dialogue is painfully raw and often hilarious. Jokes about autoerotic asphyxiation, inappropriate sandbox behavior, and teenage boys scheming to get laid all make sense in the context of this larger story. The way Stang writes about kids reminds me of the Hernandez Brothers. There's Gilbert's willingness to get gross in the way that kids get gross, and Jaime's uncanny ability to depict tension in teen relationships. Her cartooning is lively and expressive, skirting the line between naturalism and caricature. Like many of the other features in this volume, it's part one of a longer story. 

I like the idea of this anthology as mixing a steady line-up of contributors with continuing stories with rotating guest-stars in each issue. The CCS feel is welcome, but giving bright young cartoonists like Stang a steady outlet is certainly also a good thing. Knickerbocker has had an interesting career as a working cartoonist, an editor, and a publisher--and he's good at all three things. 

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