Saturday, December 31, 2022

31 Days Of CCS, #31: Rust Belt Review 2-4

Sean Knickerbocker has been regularly releasing an interesting anthology that's taken work from open calls, and the results have been uniformly fairly strong. He's also had a few serials running throughout, including one of his own. I reviewed the first issue last year, but there are three more he submitted for this year's CCS call. I'm going to review it in much the same way I used to review batches of issues of the old MOME anthology from Fantagraphics: I'm going to sort them by cartoonist, since so many of them appear in every issue. 

Sean Knickerbocker: The editor of the anthology and CCS grad is doing a great job in putting together these anthologies. First off, the actual page size is huge, something around 10 x 12". Each page is given a lot of room to breathe, which helps a number of artists whose style is densely packed. Knickerbocker publishes stories from others that are tonally and stylistically different, and he deftly balances one-offs with serials. Each 100-page issue is a satisfying read, in part because there's variety and some heft to them, but without the problem of feeling padded. None of these comics are a chore to read.

Knickerbocker is serializing a story called "Best of Three," which feels set in the kind of small industrial towns featuring desperate losers featured in all of his comics. This is a story about gamblers, grifters, and gangsters, only it revolves around a deadbeat dad who became a big-time and successful Magic: The Gathering player. The absurdity of this nerdy game replacing things like blackjack or poker is only matched but how absolutely true this scenario is. Magic tournaments have even been televised on ESPN. The story follows a narcissistic loser named David who inherits money from his supposedly dead father, but as the story goes on, more characters emerge from the woodwork in search of the real motherlode of money that he hid. The mobster angle gives this story a bit more frisson than the typical Knickerbocker story, which is not to say he doesn't have conflict. It's just that the conflicts are social ones and don't tend to intersect with genre tropes. That said, even the criminals in this story are grimy and desperate, accentuated by Knickerbocker's cartoony line, complete with exaggerated facial features and lumpy bodies. Each chapter takes its own unexpected twist, making it a fitting anchor for the anthology. 

Michael Sweater mixes his anthropomorphic animals with slacker punk aesthetics to tell a story that's more emotionally resonant than his stories elsewhere. "No Regrats" (in #3) is  about two rabbit friends, Timmy and Charles, and a wild night on the town that results in Timmy getting a tattoo on his chest that says "Simp." Timmy has no memory of this, so he goes with Charles to complain at the tattoo parlor, and the proprietor reveals that Charles told him to give him this tattoo. This leads to a comical fight, but the cliffhanger scene ends with Timmy saying that after the tattoo is removed, they are done. Much of Sweater's work is about being friends with horrible people who take advantage of you and what kind of impact this has on one's life, but this story is unusual in that it leads to such a direct break. As always, his storytelling chops are fundamentally sound; his scratchy line is a nice match for his cute figures, diluting some of that saccharine quality they possess. That solid storytelling allows him to focus on making his characters as expressive as possible. 

Audra Stang is someone whose Star Valley stories I'm reviewing elsewhere, but she's another regular from the first volume. This is a side story involving her young stand-in Adelaide and her friend Bernie, as they explore the tunnels underneath Magic Waters, the decrepit resort that used to make the town a tourist attraction. Stang's mix of a highly cartoony line in the vein of a Dell or Archie comic and intense greyscale shading provides a nice atmosphere for this journey underground. Paired with her friend and secret crush Bryson and his friend Jesse, Stang has a painfully acute understanding of teenage dynamics and how teens both wear their hearts on their sleeves and pretend they are completely detached. The plot revolves around Bernie wanting to take photos for a story, convincing Bryson to take them down there, but the result is both a fleshing out of every character and a bit more lore concerning Star Valley itself. Stang's stories about the conflict between working-class people and the wealthy make this a nice fit in the anthology. 

Andrew Greenstone greatly benefits from working on such a big page, because his art is dense, grotesque, and distorted. Working so big allows his art to have maximum impact, like a page where one character falls off a bike and hits the ground hard. Volume 2 continues the story of the twisted psycho who kidnapped a young woman for a demented game show, as the story mostly follows her paranoid boyfriend who's trying to protect her and reestablish their relationship. There's just enough of the first story's weirdness here to provide a strange flavor, but Greenstone swerves into the boyfriend's own madness. Greenstone's story in Volume 3 is unrelated but every bit as strange, as a zoo creates new animals thanks to the bizarre "Lemur Man" who comes out and turns humans into animals. What's great about the story is that it starts as a ridiculous urban legend that is very quickly revealed to be true, and the sort of grotesque transformation that the story demands is right in Greenstone's macabre wheelhouse. 

Brian Canini Canini is a very good cartoonist and his stories in volumes 3 and 4 were both highlights. "Silk Stockings" in #3 is a brutal family story that mixes the main character's (a teenage boy) general confusion and horniness with his parents' marriage starting to fall apart. There are just so many interesting character moments here, as the conflict centers around his father's lack of financial success coming to the forefront as they stay at his successful childhood friend's house. His friend very consciously "treats" his dad with lavish dinners, even as his mom seethes that it's not something he could pay for. Bruised egos and long-held resentments go side-by-side with the boy accidentally seeing the friend's attractive young wife put on silk stockings, sending him into a whirl of confused hormones. There's another scene where the friend's teen son expresses his loneliness by his eagerness to play hide-and-seek instead of play a video game. The simple line almost mimics something like a syndicated newspaper cartoon like "Hi And Lois" creating a tension between the conflict and the seeming happiness underneath. 

"False Flag" is a hilarious story that starts with a confusing scene with a young man half-dressed in the cold, then rewinds to a meet-cute romance, and then barrels into a spy story. The deflections and distractions work nicely in a story that utterly deflates the romantic premise, with the cute and squiggly line pushing the romantic aspect until it doesn't. 

Alex Nall's mix of naturalism, the grotesque, and the cartoonish is sometimes a mixed bag for me as a reader, but there's no question he's a thoughtful cartoonist. I can see what he's doing in terms of the style clash, but it often reads as purely dissonant instead of creating a carefully-constructed tension. However, his work in Rust Belt Review resonates, as his line seems a bit simplified for some of the stories. In "License To Kill," for example, Nall leans heavily on a thick line weight, carefully balanced black and white contrasts, and character design that emphasizes ugliness without going all the way to comically grotesque. The story follows a doomed high school crush that metastasizes into pure exploitation, until it transforms into some just desserts (literally and figuratively). "Facilities" is a sweet story about people working at a doomed mall, trying to find some solace and hope in each other. Like with Knickerbocker, there's always a sense of desperation in Nall's stories. Unlike Knickerbocker, Nall usually allows for a bit of hope. "Wall Of Fame" is a funny story about a conflict between a bartender and a regular, and it's ultimately about boundaries and space while despairing of one's ultimate fate. Nall, along with Stang and Knickerbocker, are truly the anchor artists of this anthology. 

Ian Densford & the Bros. McGovern This writer/artists team are another beneficiary of the sheer size of each page, because the Bros. use a highly smudged and messy style that's heavy on both lines and greyscale shading. Like many stories in the anthology, there's an interesting swerve in these stories. In "Soggy Landing," that smudged style is highly evocative of the muddy, messy war story that it depicts. Everyone is covered in mud and filth as a company tries to survive, waiting to be saved by reinforcements. Near the end, there's a huge swerve toward horror that's almost funny in its outrageousness, but Densford and the Bros never break character. Making the characters anthropomorphic goats somehow made the ending even more effective. The story in Vol 4 is also supernatural, swerving a bit from a coming-of-age country story. Densford is creating an interesting shared universe in these short stories, making them not quite a serial, but rather a series of thematically connected sketches.

Will Dinski has a couple of stories featuring his Eat Street Diners Club characters, who are regularly featured in an email newsletter. Dinski's weird, angular characters with minimal shading look constructed as much as they are drawn. This silly and mannered story about one of the characters finding a gun and the cop who chases him down is weird, lacking the usual sense of irony inherent in Dinski's story. He's playing this one loud and broad, and it feels a bit like filler compared to the rest of the stories in the volumes it appears in. 

Asia Bey Bey's "Open Roads" uses a four-panel grid (with amusing author comments at the bottom of each) page that really takes advantage of all the space on the page. This allows them to focus on their two leads, two young women hitch-hiking in the desert. The guy who picks them is a creep who then starts masturbating, which leads them to jump out of the car. The story really serves as a showcase for Bey's excellent and expressive figure work. While this looked to be a serial, only one entry has been published (in #2). 

Evan Salazar A number of these stories mix grounded, naturalistic settings with supernatural elements, and Salazar's story combines the lonely life of a young adult with a bit of video game fabulism. The idea of cursed games, magical games, and games that have some kind of deeper intelligence behind them is not an uncommon theme in fiction (especially in comics), and this one has a more benign one, as a strange game winds up summoning a cat that becomes the young man's companion for many years. It's not explicitly stated, but Salazar, using a sketchy and cartoony style befitting a video game, makes it work. 

Sienna Cittadino Their line is a bit wobbly at times and their character design is similarly shaky, but Cittadino is an excellent storyteller who understands tone and subtlety. It is a (presumably) autobio story that sees "Sienna" as a teen go to a pool party, only to be a largely ignored introvert. They are much more at home on a soccer field, but their mom is berating them to be happy and cheerful, and resents Sienna's lack of enthusiasm at her presence in their life. Cittadino says a lot without having to spell things out, and the solid storytelling allows them to use a paucity of dialogue.

Mike Freiheit This was a strong story by Freiheit, that starts from a fairly ridiculous place and gets exponentially funnier, weirder, and more outrageous. It's about the funeral of an awful person who plans to have their body turned into diamond and then preserved as an NFT. This was all planned by his brother, who proceeds to give the most vicious eulogy of all time, culminating in revealing that he cloned his brother and will raise that child as his own, defeating him in combat when he's 18. Of course, the bullied becomes the bully in this story, but it's so outrageous that it's hilariously satisfying. This isn't meant to teach a lesson; rather, it's one long rant against toxic masculinity. 

Sam Grinberg The best shaggy dog stories and escalating jokes start from the most absurd of premises. So it is with Grinberg's "Pancake Jake," a story about three friends. Two are ghost-hunter types who see the significance in everything, and the other is a skeptic. When they convince him of the diner monster legend Pancake Jake, who appears if you say his name three times after ordering funny face pancakes at a diner. This then actually happens (and the reveal of the monster is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious), leaving the story on a cliffhanger. Grinberg's stylized character design is appealing, especially with the way he uses blacks to provide contrast. Hopefully, this serial continues after Vol 4. 

Gina Lerman This is the first part of a serial and very little happened, as it's about a young woman going to an art residency in Vermont, being informed that aliens abducted a couple, and then not finding her friends at the remote cabin. Lerman also benefits from the big pages, as she employs a nice, thick line with a simplified line. 

Matt MacFarland MacFarland excels at slice-of-life stories, and this is a good one: recalling some summers spent as a waiter in a family-owned Italian restaurant filled with insane characters. MacFarland's line is functional and stands out when he's exaggerating character moments. The story fits snugly with the many other working-class settings for stories in the anthology. 

Raziel Puma Using a 12-panel grid (Santoro-style), Puma uses a clear-line approach to this story about a kid inspired by Allen Iverson in trying out for basketball. It's really a story about sibling rivalry that ultimately becomes a story about empathy, and freezing in the moment. Puma's drawing and storytelling are both excellent, as the story is well-paced and features a lot of expressive figures that hang together nicely on the page.

Jordan Speicher-Willis brings some punk energy to the proceedings in telling a story about a bunch of kids who pull an elaborate prank in order to help pay for school lunches for the rest of the year for everyone. That punk anarchist hatred of the system but desire for help and mutual aid is baked into the story, mixing direct action that flirts with violence but never violence for its own sake. The scribbly line from Speicher-Willis dips in and out of hatching, spotting blacks, and other techniques to keep things flowing, but it's that clear-line energy that adds clarity to the proceedings. 

Andrew White I can't imagine a better candidate to do one and two-page interstitial pieces than White, who skirts the line between pure comics-as-poetry and work that has some of these qualities but trades more in narrative. Regularly working with a 12-panel grid, White creates a poetic rhythm in his panels, often alternating word and image in each one. His use of negative space in that rhythm gives his text-only panels their own sense of weight that keeps them firmly attached to the narrative instead of taking the reader out of it. Almost every strip tends to be about environments, as you see sky, mountains, and clouds, until the final strip in the book, following a quietly tortured figure as she collects honey or syrup from trees. There's a beautiful delicacy and precision to the lightness of White's line and approach. (Full disclosure: Fieldmouse Press will be publishing a book from White.)

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