Friday, December 16, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #16: Quinn Thomson and Sam Nakahira

Quinn Thomson has quite a future ahead of him doing what he describes as "slice-of-life science fiction." This can be a really effective use of genre as kind of set decoration for character-driven narratives, and with a large cast, the focus can shift from character to character if it's a serial. Evan Dorkin did my favorite example of this with Hectic Planet, which shifted from sci-fi shenanigans to slice-of-life and romance. For Thomson, his stories center around the crew of the Squab, a space cargo vessel. Their actual job is quite unremarkable; they're not soldiers or explorers or adventurers; they are there to deliver goods. 

The central character is Shannon Kent, a "genetically engineered canine" who is one of the toughest and smartest crew members, albeit one insecure about a number of issues. Thomson balances short vignettes centering around gags (like someone who ties a knife to a cleaning drone) and narratives that explore Shannon's emotions. A bit of shore leave turns into a disaster when a kid calls her a doggy and wants to take her home. An embarrassing situation when a human tells her to leave a cafeteria is resolved when she bares her fangs in an attempt to demurely be more aggressive. There are times when her canine nature overrides things, like when a ball is flung in her direction. In Zero Point and Zero Point: Routine (a silent day-in-the-life comic about Shannon), Thomson spins small and gentle stories with a crisp line and attention to detail. Some of his drawings tend to be a bit on the busy side (there's a lot of clutter in addition to grayscale shading), but at this point, this is just his aesthetic. A story where the character's main problem is their own fears about fitting but is actually supported by her friends avoids easy conflicts and their cliched outcomes. This is a perfect hang-out comic, as Thomson's clear enjoyment of these characters comes across on the page. 

Thomson mines the same emotional territory in Delia, a comic that dips into horror tropes. A young man draws a woman who's clearly disguising her features with a hat, sunglasses, and a scarf over her face. When he tries to give her the drawing, she trips and falls, revealing that she's a monstrous, demonic-looking creature. After taking a moment to compose himself, he gives her her hat and the drawing, and they walk home together. There is a sweetness to the story that goes along with a general theme of acceptance in Thomson's stories that's heightened by his facility in drawing monsters, aliens, and anthropomorphic characters. Right now, Thomson is mostly in the mode of writing vignettes without much of a narrative arc, but his narrative arc is usually quite strong in his stories. I'd be curious to see him try a longer story or series of stories. 

Sam Nakahira is an interesting cartoonist because their overall project stretches out over several forms of genre. They have precisely the right voice to do comics journalism and history: curious, questioning, and confident, but not overbearing. Like all good journalists, they let readers fill in the gaps instead of telling them how they should feel. At this point of her career, while much of it has been journalism or history, she seems most confident doing fantasy. This is true in their comic The Moon Jar, which has a delightfully loose line while zeroing in on cleverly-designed monsters and creatures. The story follows a young woman named Diana who inherits her mother's curiosity shop along with her sisters. She relates accidentally breaking a stone that contained a sleeping dragon as a child, and how this informs her respect and awe for creatures--but also makes her a little cocky. 

When a tiny demon (a kappa) tricks her into removing the stone keeping something called The Moon Jar closed, the contents spill out, which includes an octopus who stole a piece of the moon. Diana and her sisters have to consult with an elder (a turtle) and consult local pearl divers for help. The missing piece of the moon is wreaking havoc with the tides and flooding the town, but Diana is able to convince the irascible octopus into trading the piece of the moon for her eye--an eye that can see spirits, as a child of Neptune.The story is well-paced, has a strong narrative arc built around traditional stories, and easily-understood relationships with Diana and her sisters. It feels like the first of many stories with these characters. 

Nakahira also collected a few short stories, which revolve around the indigenous populations of Japan and the ways in which the modern government betrays. A story about the endangered dugong (akin to a manatee) of Okinawa, which is treasued by the indigenous population, evolves into a protest against a joint US-Japanese military base. There's a story about how the Ainu, another indigenous group, created the "umami" savory flavor using a kind of local seaweed called kenbo. When the were colonized by Imperial Japan, they outlawed "primitive" hunting/gathering methods, despite the strong influence kenbo had in trade. Nakahira tells the bizarre story of "Battleship Island," which was once used a dense-packed living area for what was essentially slave labor, especially of Koreans. Nakahira notes a reluctance for the Japanese state and people to own up to its legacy. In terms of technique, this is the best-told of the stories, with a number of striking individual images that bring her point home in a way that she does less of in the first two stories. Finally, her account of the life of Kaneko Fumiko, a 1920s non-person who defied the Imperial government as an anarchist activist. Nakahira's enthusiasm for this story is especially moving, as Kaneko unsurprisingly meets a bad end but leaves a powerful legacy. 

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