Saturday, October 14, 2023

Brian Canini's Airbag #1

Brian Canini's Airbag is the sort of one-person anthology series that was initially popular in the 80s and 90s and has seen a resurgence in recent years. It's a format I'm quite fond of, giving artists a chance to air out shorter ideas in an age where the graphic novel has become the be-all, end-all for the market. Canini goes all-in on this idea, complete with a letters page and recommended reading. It's the classic John Porcellino format, or perhaps HATE or Eightball

The stories here are all about emotional conflicts stemming largely from inertia and stubbornness. Canini is largely a naturalistic storyteller, but he counters that with a highly cartoony, exaggerated style of character design. In the first story ("Where Do We Go From Here?"), for example, the story is about a middle-aged man meeting his diminutive father for lunch at a diner. His tiny father's oversized head and exaggerated eyebrows make him an immediate comedic figure. This is further emphasized by his jokey demeanor, in contrast to his son's dour expression. Then, things get real. 

What was once a tense mystery is explained in detail, as it's revealed the man's father (and mother) hate their son's wife, blaming her for keeping their grandchildren away from them. The details of who did what and when are less important than Canini's vivid attention to gesture. The son's face is comparatively boring compared to his father's; his oval head and simple lines to convey aging (like bags under his eyes) belie his integrity, loyalty, and an urgent desire to make things right. As the son calmly but firmly lays out the problems, his father's once-friendly expression twists into rage. It's a ridiculous sight, as the father clearly has no conception of himself. It's clear he sees himself as bursting with righteous fury, but instead, he's just an impotent and pathetic baby. The rain bursting on the window at this time is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose in echoing his barely restrained anger. The son's reaction--to walk away and say "I'm ashamed of you"--was the one thing he could have said to deflate his father. Canini leaves the father at an inflection point. 

The same is true in the second story, "Lost Mountains." It opens with a woman named Claire walking out on her boyfriend Mark for his lack of ambition. Years later, she still haunts him, even as he looks exactly the same (a long, scraggly beard is symbolic of his inertia). His frustrated friend calls him out on this, shows him an opportunity to meet someone new, and Mark just ignores it, preferring to wallow. He's still miserable, and as he ponders suicide, he's given a bit of advice by a homeless man asking him for money: stop looking backward. Once again, Canini leaves this miserable person at an inflection point, only this time, he's the protagonist, and the reader is privy to his self-pitying inner monologue. Mark is both insufferable and totally relatable, making him an uncomfortable protagonist. At the end of the story, neither the reader nor Mark really know what he wants, other than something other than his current life. 

"Broken Like Achilles" finds Canini switching around protagonists in the middle of the story. It initially seems to be Rob, a college student crashing a frat party with his friends. He's uncomfortable crashing the party and talking to people until a beefy jock named Tony strikes up a conversation with him. An unlikely friendship is formed, as Tony becomes the real protagonist, all because Rob engages him in a way that he needs to be engaged. Tony forcefully breaking up a fight clearly leads to a true friendship. This time around, the inflection point is at the beginning of the story, where on 9/11 someone is trying to reach Tony, with the implication being that he died. The ambiguity adds tension to the story, and once again, Canini refuses to let the reader off the hook with a neat ending. All of these stories are messy and sad, including the prologue story about an ice fisherman (designed to look a lot like a combination of Bluto and Captain Haddock) who bemoans his romantic fate, only to find himself facing total disaster. Like the rest of the issue, it's remarkably bleak, even as most of the protagonists and antagonists make their own fate. Canini's storytelling is excellent, although I feel like he can push the extremes of his character design even further. 

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