Monday, December 12, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #12: Dan Nott and Sofia Lesage

Hidden Systems Preview & Sketchzine, by Dan Nott. Nott is about to establish himself as one of the best practitioners of comics journalism and non-fiction comics with his upcoming book, Hidden Systems. As this minicomic reveals, Nott has a curiosity about how the world works in ways that most people don't think of or engage with. He cartoons with an extraordinary sense of clarity and organization, breaking down complex ideas into comprehensible images with a minimum of fuss. While it's interesting to see Nott reveal a bit of his process here, his secret as a cartoonist is his lack of pyrotechnics. You don't read one of his comics for startling graphics or eye-popping draftsmanship. Those things would be a distraction for his actual goals as a storyteller. Instead, he draws the reader in with a few questions, piques their curiosity, and leads them on a path of discovery without it feeling like work. While he has specific points he's trying to make, he understands that a polemic won't be as useful as a book that gets readers to see things from a different point of view might be. While Nott's work might not look exciting, this isn't to say that it's not elegant and aesthetically appealing. It is both of these things, in a seemingly effortless way, but it's clear that he's refined his approach as a storyteller since his days as a student at CCS. He's always been interested in asking questions and exploring unusual scenarios, but he's saying more with less. I've read a chunk of what's going to be in the final book, and it's one that educators around the country should take a look at. 

October Rot, I Made This Comic Before The Queen Died, and Thank You, Data by Sofia Lesage. Lesage is a British cartoonist and CCS student whose comics express a sense of rage and despair by a world that attacks her on an existential level. October Rot is a hastily-sketched story with an image a page, with each page being about 3" x 3". This is a harrowing bit of memoir about an infestation of flies in Lesage's Vermont apartment, and the sheer terror it inspires in her. It gets even worse when the cause is found: maggots in the garbage can lid. The mix of rational disgust and irrational actions (like not just simply being another can) all intertwine in a way that reflects the way that the exterior manifestation of one's phobias can be a deeply traumatic event. Lesage's drawings are so visceral and so simple at the same time, making them all the more effective.

I Made This Comic Before The Queen Died is a meandering account of why Lesage thinks the monarchy is a bad and pointless idea. The comic is overly wordy and the images mostly lack power. Lesage herself identifies why this is in an afterword after Queen Elizabeth II actually died. She said she went "soft in a lot of places and fall to softening the 'get out the guillotines' energy with 'it's bad for them too." Whether or not one agrees with this stance, it was obvious that Lesage herself was second-guessing this decision even as she was writing and drawing the comic, because her arguments dance around the issue of why she thinks the monarchy is harmful without ever zeroing in on its essence. I think this makes a degree of sense, given just how the average British citizen is deferential to the idea of monarchy, even if they rationally believe that it doesn't make sense. Unfortunately for the reader, Lesage lost the plot in this comic, and its wishy-washiness shows.

However, Thank You, Data is anything but indecisive in the ideas that Lesage advances. She starts off hard and goes even harder by the end, refusing to let the reader and society off the hook. This comic talks about the character Data from the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the ways in which he's treated by his friends and fellow crewmembers. Data is an android, meaning that he doesn't experience emotions and social cues in the same way as his peers. Sometimes, he'll be asked for information but he won't know where to stop, and he'll be cut off with a firm but polite "Thank you, Data." It's a running gag. 

As a neurodivergent person, Lesage relates feeling the same way: a facsimile. She explains that her brain processes information differently than aulistic people, especially with regard to rambling, not understanding social cues from others, not knowing when to let other people talk, and feeling hurt every time she's shut down. Lesage goes a step further: she notes that at almost an animal level, having a brain that's wired differently is a guarantee that she will never be accepted, that the entire culture is built to cater to people who are aulistic, and that she feels anger and frustration for something that will not change. Data isn't a symbol of making her feel less alone; instead, he's a prime example of how even his well-meaning friends treat him as "not quite their equal, but their responsibility." It puts the autistic person in a box, and they are not allowed to be free of it if they want to interact with others. It puts the lie to the idea that they are just different, because they are clearly not treated the same nor allowed the same space to operate and function that others are given. It's a howl that's made all the more effective by Lesage's drawings, especially as she shifts between drawing Star Trek characters, herself in real life, and also herself as a Star Trek character. (Hilariously, she puts in a disclaimer at the end that not all of the drawings are necessarily accurate. Talk about knowing your audience!) Most importantly, she doesn't apologize for who she is, how she thinks, and what others might feel about her creating discomfort. It's a brilliant balance of theme, allusions, technique, and emotion.

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