Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #30: Dakota McFadzean

Dakota McFadzean came into CCS as an already fully-formed talent, but it's clear that his experience there only served to bolster his confidence and encourage him to take even more chances as a creator. In his first collection of short stories, Other Stories and the Horse You Rode In On, McFadzean manages to create a surprisingly coherent meta-narrative. McFadzean is not unlike Joseph Lambert in that many of his stories have to do with the ways in which children engage the world in magical realist terms, but there's a certain melancholy that pervades his work in ways that it doesn't for Lambert. A big part of that is McFadzean's work is marked by its sense of restraint and subtlety, even in the craziest of situations.

For example, the opening story "Standing Water" is about a kid navigating a world that's frozen in time, as though he were the only one who could travel through a world that's entirely underwater. Friends, family and pets float limply in the water, and his attempts at interacting with the world reveal a hidden well of meanings that have lost all their significance in the wake of what is essentially the end of the world. What seem to be acts of revenge or cruelty lose their meaning, leading him to a sense of sad resignation in a totally absurd situation. There's no background or explanation given here, because the emotional resonance of this world is what's important.

The same is true in "Unkindness", which is one of McFadzean's very best stories. It's typical of his work in that it depicts small town life in Canada in an entirely unromanticized fashion and also contains unexplained elements of magical realism. While there's a strong streak of naturalism running through his work (the world he creates feels quite solid and real), his character design here is looser and more expressive. He allows for a certain rubbery quality of reality that gives him the opportunity to mold and bend it. An "unkindness" is what is referred to as a gathering of ravens, and there is indeed a mysterious and surprising visitation by the birds in the dead of winter. The birds observe, feed and even communicate (one says "goodbye" to a little boy), often by creating a series of mysterious lines and circles in the snow. The title also refers to small acts of unkindness in the story, leading up to a mother essentially telling her teenage daughter that she was a mistake. There's a sureness to the way in which McFadzean flips from character to character in this story, each of whom are just trying their best to get by in life without a whole lot of happiness or fulfillment. When one character tells another "I'm going home to run out the damn clock like I do every damn day", it's a brutal statement of how life is that comes after a joke that covers up that fact. There's also a sort of hidden momentum and tension in this story generated by the wild card factor of the birds and the repressed emotions that well up as the story unfolds, exploding in a manner that is unexpected. It's also a story about different entities being at cross-purposes and being unable or unwilling to fully communicate their desires. That's made literal in the mystery of the ravens--there's no real sense of what their purpose is or if they mean harm to the humans in the town, but it's also expressed in the way that characters talk past each other. McFadzean never spells out the secrets and mysteries in his stories, preferring that they hold a charge for the reader to interpret as they see fit.

One running theme in the book is that of loss or the sense that something is about to end. That's true in "Boxes" (about a young woman leaving a town and the people she sees on the bus behind) and "Skeletons" (about a boy telling his best friend he's going to move). The former story concerns the boxes we put other people in as we classify them, the ways in which others see us that we don't understand, and the ways in which categories in general limit us. The latter involves a supernatural element, as the titular skeletons refer to what happens when we look back. If that seems like a heavy-handed metaphor, it's mitigated by the way in which McFadzean uncannily is able to get at the ways in which kids actually behave toward each other as well as the genuinely spooky nature of his imagery. "Seelie Court" is a different take on this kind of relationship, where two friends share their difficulties as young adults in a context of wishing magic was true. While McFadzean offers a visual hint regarding this magic, the real power here is in the way the two boys are able to talk to and relate to each other in an honest manner, while still retaining the profane, slightly distancing tactics that boys have with regard to their feelings.

Another story about loss and memory is "Ghost Rabbit". This story features the parallel narrative of a young girl growing up in a house where her mother struggles with her own mentally decaying mother along with an anthropomorphic rabbit haunted by the titular ghost rabbit. The lingering images of memory loom large in this story and they're elegantly portrayed by McFadzean. McFadzean implies that the anthropomorphic rabbit's narrative is a product of the girl's imagination as she processes the repeated phone conversations her mother has with her grandmother, until she actually sees a rabbit in the wild. Initially, that real-life meeting leads to a joyous fantasy sequence (featuring two pages of the characters dancing with each other excitedly in a manner not unlike that of Charles Schulz or Bill Watterson characters) but the ghost lingers further when she understands that the rabbit is sick and soon dies. We see that small ghost hop after her when she comes inside after covering the dead rabbit with leaves, as the girl has acquired the same sort of ghost that she imagines her mother is burdened with. This is a simple, elegant and poetic story.

McFadzean also seems to be fascinated by the human capacity for cruelty. "Everything You Can Think Of Is True" is about a child who can literally think a weird, child's version of anything he wants into existence--only he's being held by scientists for experiments. McFadzean's primitive line used for the things the child imagines is almost heartbreaking in its execution, especially when the child literally disappears into his fantasies. "Brokenface" is another more fanciful tale involving a man without a face and the assorted cartoonish indignities he suffers as a result; the story has the rhythm of a Milt Gross strip, even as it grows weirder and more contemplative by its conclusion. "Snotgurgle" transfers McFadzean's interest in the real lives of fantastic creatures like gnomes into a nightmarish torture scenario, one whose seemingly happy ending is a cruel fake-out of its own. "And The Horse You Rode In On" is an Archie pastiche that features extended segments about a lone horseman riding out on the prairies by himself, relishing his solitude. This is the daydream of a nebbish who is manipulated, abused and/or ignorde by school administrators, fellow students and his parents. He has a laughable lack of agency even as he's drawn to fit in a kind of Archie-verse, content to flit from embarrassment to embarrassment even as he refuses to truly knuckle under to anyone else's desires. There's a delicious, unresolved tension at the end of the story where the protagonist is given a chance to renounce his "purity" once and for all with a bag of weed that was given to him, but it's unclear what path he will choose.

The oddest story in the book is "Leave Luck To Heaven". It's about a young man visiting a slightly older person to have a "session" playing a video game. The structure of the session is more like Lacanian psychotherapy, wherein the analyst is often cold and demanding, threatening to throw out the analysand if they detect inauthentic action or speech. This has the rhythm of therapy, with the interesting detail that the reader can't see the eyes of either character. The corpulent, slovenly and highly erudite analyst has long hair that obscures his eyes, while the analysand is wearing glasses that deflect the reader's gaze. This device prevents the reader from getting a clear idea of either character's motives, forcing one to rely entirely on body language and what is actually said. The story also features the only color portion of the book, which plays out in a Chris Ware-style diagram that's also a sort of circuitry sketch. The story sums up McFadzean's work in a nutshell: subtle, bizarre, restrained, probing, melancholy, hopeful and mysterious. Like the analyst, McFadzean has no interest in giving readers pat answers to the scenarios he introduces. Instead, he wants readers to experience the isolation, loneliness, tenderness, familiarity and strangeness of the environments he creates and the people he introduces. Thanks to his skill as a draftsman, storyteller and writer of dialogue, each and every story is a success, and each story builds on the momentum of the next.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #29: Irene 3

Irene is currently the best of all the CCS-related anthologies. The editorial crew of Andy Warner, DW and Dakota McFadzean is not only a talented group in their own right as artists, they also seem to have a great sense of how to bring each of their aesthetic approaches to bear in the anthology in a manner that produces a cohesive final product instead of a bunch of stories that clash. For example, DW's scribble aesthetic and repurposing of text for decorative reasons is in line with the old Fort Thunder group, so it only makes sense that Leif Goldberg should contribute a story here. In "Newton's Mist", we see a figure battling against the forces of physics in a magical forest; though just two pages, the images are primitive and powerful. DW himself takes on what I like to call the Mat Brinkman spot in the anthology: creating a series of related interstitial images. In this case, it's scrawled, funny images of a band called "Veronica and the Good Guys". Some of the drawings are tiny and fine, while others are blown way up in order to give the reader a sense of the thickness of the line. Indeed, the essence of DW's drawings is to constantly remind readers that they are drawings, that they're made out of ink.

Andy Warner's influence can be felt with the presence of Barack Rima, a Libyan cartoonist and filmmaker whose dream comic "Nap Before Noon" is a fascinating trip not only through his own subconscious, but through the cultural and political landscape of Libya. The shadowy, hand-constructed look of each page certainly bears the mark of his cinematic influence, yet he's interested in the single, striking image above all else on page after page. This story held down the middle portion of the book, and it served as a fascinating change of pace, resembling nothing else in the book. Warner's "Boatlife", by contrast, is a slice-of-life story told in his typical naturalistic style. Relating two teenage girls hanging out in a cemetery, it's the sort of "nothing happens" story that's nonetheless full of crucial emotional beats and events that create lasting memories.

McFadzean's closest aesthetic compatriot in this comic is Sophie Goldstein, whose "Edna II" I reviewed here. Like McFadzean, Goldstein's storytelling is crisp, clean and assured, which allows her to go off on flights of fancy or use cartoony figures in a story that is otherwise naturalistically told. McFadzean drew DW's story "Ten Minutes' Break", a fascinating and funny workplace strip about three creatures essentially dealing with creation myths and alien civilizations. However, it's entirely from the point of view of working stiffs taking a break from their otherwise endless labors. McFadzean's every bit as good drawing fantastic characters and weird scenery as he is drawing average people and the plains of Saskatchewan.

Certainly, there are creators present here who cross lines. Alabaster's "Gin" combines the fanciful, beautiful and cartoony art with a story that's emotionally painful and raw, all wrapped in a quirky, decoratively interesting package. Jess Worby's "The Sasquatch In Brooklyn" has a heavily-shaded, ramshackle aesthetic that fits right in with DW, but it's easy to see how its humor and characterizations fit in with the other editors. The same is true for Mark Connery's "Whots It Mean", bringing more of that ragged art that brings a bawdy sense of humor to the proceedings. I would guess that the origin of this fused editorial aesthetic is that the CCS experience is one that encourages artists to understand and appreciate the work of artists whose approaches are radically different from their own. I would also guess that the editors deliberately sought out work that combined different aspects of their own aesthetic interests.

The stories by Luke Howard and Ben Horak are other good examples of this. Howard's "Dance Yourself To Death" is perhaps his most original, best-realized story to date. Using a slightly flat line and character design style, this story of the dark ways in which artists gain inspiration has a powerful payoff at the story's climax and then another shock in its denouement. In an anthology filled with downbeat and often disturbing stories, it was the perfect capper for the book. Horak's "What're Fiends For?" is a more broadly comic story, but no less dark than Howard's work. It's the ultimate example of a well-meaning but utterly destructive friend. Horak impressively manages to up the ante of menace in a rhythm not unlike that of a Looney Tunes cartoon, only with a viscerally disturbing ending.

It's likely that Kramer's Ergot and perhaps Non are significant influences on Irene. Both of those anthologies were fueled in part by Fort Thunder's influence and contributors; Goldberg himself is a KE alumnus, of course. It's certainly not a straight copy, but rather an influence in the sense that the editors wanted certain kinds of aesthetic approaches to comics to be present in the anthology, and once selected, they wanted those artists to have total freedom. For example, Dan Rinylo's "Find 'Sleepy'" is less a story than a reader activity, as they must find the one "sleepy" ghost on page after page of other ghosts. Cleverly, the pages are designed to make the reader's eye explore a space in much the same way a Brian Ralph or Brian Chippendale story might, only it could easily appear in Highlights or the old Nickelodeon magazines as well. Irene continues to be an anthology that's greater than the sum of its parts, a statement that's all the more impressive when one considers how individually excellent many of the stories are.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #28: Adventures In Cartooning, CCS Booklet, Jai Gronofsky, Dan Archer, Ian Richardson

The newest book in the First Second line of Adventures in Cartooning, Characters In Action!, returns to the original's tactic of doing a full story and then explaining its techniques for imitation at the end.  CCS chief James Sturm once again teams up with grads Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost (who handles most of the art chores) to create a charming, funny and ultimately useful guide to character generation. The story follows the knight who's been the protagonist of each book, trying to figure out why her castle is under assault by a host of weirdos. A Hollywood director named "Otto Airs" (ouch) is casting his new movie, which leads to all sorts of shenanigans. It was quite clever of the team to compare casting a movie with creating one's own comic book characters, which made it natural to discuss "wrong" fits for roles, what a "right" fit looks like, etc. When it came time to actually discuss specifics, the reader is ready to absorb the highly useful tips on how to design simple characters that are easily reproducible from panel to panel, how to tell characters apart using only body language, how to draw different character expressions, etc. There isn't an emphasis on more advanced ideas like panel-to-panel and page-to-page transitions, just a grounding in the basic skills to encourage a fledgling cartoonist to draw a story with confidence. In that respect, it's the most useful book yet in the series.

The promotional pamphlet for CCS has traditionally been a strong comic in its own right. This year's pamphlet, drawn by Brandon Elston, is no exception. His style is a mix of underground exaggeration and alt-comics cartoonyness, drawing from the same sort of classic comics and kids comics that folks like Terry Laban, Jaime Hernandez, Peter Bagge and Robert Crumb did. His style is in the same ballpark as fellow underground enthusiasts Joseph Remnant, Ed Piskor and Noah Van Sciver. However, Elston's art is much more rubbery and clear-lined than those artists. Elston uses cross-hatching when appropriate, but his work is nowhere near as dense as those peers; instead, he prefers to use strong black and white contrasts to heighten his goofy, grotesque character work. This is a talented artist still cycling through his influences but already demonstrating he has the chops to do any kind of work he wants.

Let's take a further look at a trio of CCS cartoonists who sent me word of their on-line efforts.  First up is Jai Granofksy, who's doing a traditional webcomic called Waiting For Baby. It's just 29 pages in at the moment, but there's something wonderfully earnest and intimate in the way he's revealing both himself and his relationship with his girlfriend, Shira. The story starts with his courtship of Shira, one that spanned a number of years, and has stopped with Granofsky encounter a minefield of self-doubt and depression as he's wondering if he's a fit candidate to be a father. His character design is fleshy and cartoony, with lots of big bodies and expressive faces. He reminds me a bit of Mike Dawson, who employs a similar style of expressive realism in his comics as the reader always knows that this is a story with real emotional stakes that's given just a hint of distance with character design and expressions that occasionally get rubbery and distorted. His use of color is mostly muted and restrained, until he needs to emphasize something like a bedbug infestation. That restraint allows him to occasionally use color as a sort of exclamation mark,and it's an effective storytelling tool. Granofsky's story is one that's as much about his own painful self-exploration as it is (at this point) about the pregnancy and fatherhood, as a family dynamics experience hammered home his terror that he might pass on bad genetic traits. The framework of the pregnancy takes it out of the realm of simple autobio navel-gazing, as does his honest devotion and care for both his girlfriend and the future baby.

Second is Ian Richardson, who sent me links to three stories. All three are about prey and predators to some extent. "Prey" is the most visually direct version of this kind of horror story, as a creepy man follows a young girl (complete with balloon) down into a deserted subway stop, only to find out that prey that was too good to be true certainly was. This comic is interesting because of Richardson's interesting use of weird angles to create a disorienting effect for the reader. "Husk" has a visceral quality not unlike that of a Tom Neely comic (without the same level of polish), as this time the predator is a former companion: a black, mossy substance that has sharp, needle-like edges. That substance protected a mariner who happens upon a magical island (that looks not unlike human skin), but when it looks like the island's magic will free him of it, the substance acts violently. The least successful of the three stories is "Alpha", an overly talky comic about a dog that eventually takes revenge on an old woman who kills her husband (and the dog's master). This revelation is not made explicit, but is telegraphed way ahead of time like an old EC comic. That's the oldest story discussed here, and the subsequent stories feel like Richardson attempting to explore the same kind of idea in more subtle and visually exciting fashion. "Prey" in particular is especially promising  because it succeeds in providing the kind of visual shock that "Alpha" does not.

Lastly is the prolific Dan Archer, the cartoonist/journalist whose work is everywhere these days. His "Introduction to Comics Journalism" is a useful an d visually fluid overview of the discipline/art, one that gets to the heart of the "objectivity" debate in journalism. Archer makes up for his limited rendering ability by trying to think of innovative, interactive ways comics can relate a story, like in this account of the 2007 Nissor Square shootings in Iraq. Archer uses a slide show to advance the timeline on top of a map with simple icons, and the reader then clicks on "hot spots" to read a brief comic describing the action. It's an amazingly effective way to get across eyewitness accounts of a complicated and awful incident. This strip is a more standard approach, as Archer uses the effective device of using one person's anecdotal experience to bring the global slave trade into sharper relief. When Archer uses a single shade to accentuate his drawings, it gives his comics power and consistency. However, when he tries to use too much color in too small a space, like in this strip about the US banking crisis, the result is a cluttered and fussy looking page that's hard to read. That strip about the shootings in Iraq was like nothing I've never seen before; it had some small elements of animation but its design and heart was all about comics. I'd love to see a similar kind of comics/map/timeline combination for other events in the future from him, as it really takes advantage of technology without simply having bells and whistles for their own sake.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #27: Luke Howard

Luke Howard is an artist with a considerable amount of talent who is rapidly cycling through an array of influences that reflect his rendering skill and sharp sense of design. To be sure, Chris Ware's combination of precision and emotional vulnerability can be found on these pages. Gabby Schulz's witheringly cynical point of view and grotesque character design may be seen on others. The single biggest influence seems to be that of the angular and colorful design qualities of Lilli Carre, an influence that's even clear with the level of ambiguity Howard seems to enjoy inserting into his narratives.

Junior is his longest work in this set of comics I received, and it's like a weird Ware/Schulz matchup. It concerns the titular character on a trip to visit an aunt he never knew he had (he was adopted by a lesbian couple) to sign over the estate of the father he never knew. The issues of having a missing father and the painful attempts to make any kind of connection with a relative obviously suggest Ware, but the hilariously awkward but strangely self-aware and lovable nature of Junior suggest Schulz or even Peter Bagge. Junior, with a wispy blonde mustache and the sort of ballcap and shorts that a ten year old might wear instead of a grown man, is the sort of character incapable of not saying every single thing on his mind. Ranging from asking another man to hold his hand during a plane take-off because he was scared to vocalizing the real tension between himself and his aunt, things get delightfully weird when he starts a dialogue with a cardboard box. That bit of magical realism is never explained, yet it made total sense in the context of the story. Junior a sad, funny comic that punctures its pathos with weirdness and tinges its humor with longing and despair, and this dynamic plays out both in terms of the story and the illustrations.

Howard's also published a trio of flip-comics, containing two stories apiece. She Me You/Goldfish Day is a good illustration of the different sort of styles Howard works in. "She Me You" is a heavily Carre'-influence story about a man who confesses his attraction to another woman to his wife, which causes her to move to the ceiling, away from his life and other people entirely. With characters that possess sharp, angular features and a blue wash as part of another magical realist setting, one can sense Carre's similar preference for stories about alienation. The main difference is that Howard's approach is slightly warmer and more direct. "Goldfish Day" features a more tremulous line and character design that's closer to Joseph Lambert. Indeed, it's about young girls experiencing the joys of goldfish ownership (and camaraderie in general), until one girl's goldfish simply doesn't die like the others do. That sense of survivor's guilt and rejection by her friends as a result is presented as a traumatic event, yet one that the reader can't help laugh out loud at.

Forms/Copy shows off two more sides of Howard. "Copy" is about two small magical beings, one constantly yapping and complaining about the other's general perfectness. As they walk through a forest that's at once gritty-looking and clearly shaded with computer effects, Howard keeps ramping up the annoying qualities of the one character, until he's given a surreal comeuppance that wouldn't seem out of place in a comic by Brian Chippendale. "Forms" returns to the more angular side of Howard, coupled with that slightly cartoony character design, as it tells the tale of two men, ignorance, fear and the cyclical destruction of beauty as a result. Howard frequently writes about characters who put themselves into difficulties because they are unwilling or unable to perceive their own mistakes and tendencies; he punishes them because they punish themselves.

Finally, How To Be Shapes/Best Seller is Howard's most design-heavy comic in terms of how the design affects the narrative. "How To Be Shapes" involves a curious toddler who wonders about what happens to the blocks he pushes into a cube toy once they enter, and so magically squeezes himself inside. However crossing over changes him into a spectral creature that slips in and out of people--eating their food, seeing what they see, etc until they die of starvation. Howard's use of color is crucial in telling this story, especially in terms of the transition from child to creature. "Best Seller" is a love story between two books at a store, one a work of historical fiction and the other a sci-fi novel. It has a funny, strange ending that makes sense in context with the rest of the story. Both stories, which rely so much on color, have sort of a NoBrow aesthetic to them, as though they were first cousins to Jon McNaught or Luke Pearson. Howard's understanding of how to use color as a form of narrative is every bit as sophisticated as theirs. These comics are funny, clever and technically accomplished, but I still get the sense that Howard is rooting around and dabbling in a variety of styles as he endeavors to find his own voice. It's clear that that voice will have a degree of sweetness to it but an even larger hunk of cruelty, cynicism and grotesqueness to it. It may also be the case that he never settles on a particular visual style, instead preferring to match his art to his subject matter. In either case, his work ethic and chops both indicate that he's a cartoonist well worth watching.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #26: Awesome Sound, Can't Lose, Stranger Knights 4

Awesome Sound is an anthology published by Sean Knickerbocker. The low-fi cover belies the beautiful contents within, which look like they were printed on a risograph. DW's endpapers, which forcefully push both text and image to the point of violent distortion, are fitting for a comic that's so visceral and unsettling. Dan Rinylo's "Beast" is told with an Ernie Bushmiller-style simplicity, as the young boy's face here is two big black dots for eyes, a black line for a nose and a mouth that goes from black line to black oval, depending on his emotions. Using a nine-panel grid after an initial splash page that establishes the boy at the edge of a forest, each page is interesting because the central panel is almost always a scene of stillness: we see the boy looking, see him smiling, see him in the middle of walking and then see him running from right to left when wild dogs start chasing him. That sets the story from amusing to frenetic, but the final middle panel is an image of an empty street--right before a wild dog who is chasing the boy is run over by a car. It's both dark and comedic, given the x over the dog's eye and the generally cartoony nature of the story, but the bright red blood on a page that's mostly black and white adds a level of terror to the proceedings.

Knickerbocker's "Do You Still Feel Alone?" begins with a brother and sister in the woods, on the run from something unseen. The way he throws the reader right into a chase scene propels the story right along, heightening its tension from the very beginning. That tension is ramped up when they are assaulted by a nude man, who is stabbed to death by the sister. Knickerbocker pulls back further, revealing that this is an island where a plane has crashed, its inhabitants reduced to life-and-death struggle. It's a brutal, unforgiving little tableau that has no pat ending, and the fact that it's drawn in that cartoony style reminiscent of Chuck Forsman and Sammy Harkham makes it all the more unsettling. Indeed, the later story where a young couple sets themselves on fire in a house (revealing a pentagram on the floor) is a sort of cousin to the sort of thing Forsman did in The End Of The Fucking World. Finally, Juan Fernadez's red ink two-pager is a perfect fit, as his scribbled-out faces go through a progression of consumption. This mini is short but every image packs a punch.

Can't Lose is an old-fashioned fanzine dedicated to the TV show Friday Night Lights. It's everything a fanzine should be: in-jokey, craft-conscious, and gently mocking in a reverent manner. "Coached" by superfan Melissa Mendes, this zine has an interesting sprinkling of well-known cartoonists. Popular topics include the Christian speed-metal band that the character Landry starts ("Crucifictorious"), the comically awful Billy, younger brother of lead character Tim (Henry Eudy does a fine job of pointing out just how weaselly he is while Nomi Kane posits a magical night the two share in the desert), and how doubters often come around to becoming obsessed with the show. Jon Shaw's "Friday Nightlife" speaks to this, as a character who mocks a couple mourning the last episode starts to watch it and eventually enters his own weird world of living out other, self-imagined seasons. Sam Spina actually made me laugh out loud in a strip where he and his wife are asked why South Carolinians are buying Texas beer, and they reply in unison "Texas forever". My favorite strips were Dan Zettwoch's hilarious story about Dillon getting routed because Saracen used photocopies from the playbook to hang up Crucifictorious flyers (lovingly designed and drawn by Zettwoch, of course) and Jeff Lok's tale of escalating terrible behavior being excused "They're good kids". Can't Lose even has a cut-out Tim Riggins paper doll. While bits of it might me mystifying to those in the dark, the premise is laid out clearly enough for the jokes to land.

Stranger Knights 4 was published, as always by Bill Volk. This light-hearted fantasy/sci-fi/superhero anthology has always been on the uneven and amateurish side. This issue is the first to look good from cover-to-cover, and each story is funny to boot. Volk's "Brega and Snurrd" sees him use a cleaned-up, simplified version of his line that emphasizes character expressiveness above all else. The story follows familiar Dungeons & Dragons/fantasy tropes, but it's really about the relationship between a mother and her teenaged daughter. Of course, the mother here is a bearded dwarf and her daughter is trying to pass as human at her wizarding school. When the mother demands the presence of her daughter for an adventure (ie, bonding session), tension arises in an amusing manner. This is a crisply-paced story that actually gets across real feelings in its fantasy context. I'd love to see more from these characters and their world. The Volk-written "Thousand Year Grudge" (drawn by Bryan Stone) is a denser, grittier story involving anthropomorphic animals, thievery, romances gone bad and multiple double-crosses. The thickness of Stone's line is coupled with cross-hatching, lots of spotted blacks and other noir visual effects to counter the funny animals and the wonderfully ludicrous character of Maggie, the young bird who decides to be a thief. Ann Lewis' "Headless" is a bit on the cruder side in terms of rendering, but her use of humorous body language in telling a story about an empty but animated suit of armor sells it effectively. Finally, the Volk-Mary Soper continuing collaboration "Incantrix X" continues to be a reliably amusing story with idiosyncratic character design and odd design choices.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #25: Max Mose, Rio Aubry Taylor, Casey Bohn, Bill Bedard

Max Mose's recent comic The Grove is another of his sci-fi/horror commentaries on capitalism and culture at large. With a beautiful and disturbing silkscreened cover, this full-color piece (printed on a risograph, perhaps?) is one of his most striking works. Working in similar waters as Matthew Thurber, the story concerns a rapacious city literally draining the inspiration out of its artists for the benefit of its corporate classes, overseen by a sort of magical deity of capitalism. When one of the city's citizens rebels, he's shot out of a cannon into the nearby forest. Of course, when he messes with the "unnatural" order of things, a reprisal is ordered and the book's final conflict occurs. Mose leavens this critique with absurd imagery, jokes, self-aware critiques of his critiques and a general sense of awareness that the state of nature is no more welcoming or just than humanity's need to construct and eventually exploit its resources and then each other. Mose's pencils have become much sharper and cleaner while still retaining the grotesque and frequently bug-eyed quality that makes his pages pop. His use of color has been a big boost in getting him to make his pages cleaner and simpler, but he also seems to have found just the right groove and sense of confidence in letting go of clutter and over-rendering. That new simplicity only makes the images we do see all the more powerful, weird and funny.

Bill "Billage" Bedard is another CCS cartoonist whose work I only saw for the first time at SPX. Coffee Hunters represents the silly, sketchy side of the artist. With cartoony characters and stick figure warriors that are heavy on gesture and body language in telling their story, this mythological spoof features a tribe hunting for wild coffee. Rife with coffee and bean puns, this scratchy little mini is packed with eye pops and other visual jokes as well. It's dopey and good-natured, understanding that this is a bit of entertaining fluff that's nonetheless prepared with care and affection. On the other hand, his full adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic lyrical poem The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner represents the serious, delicate side of the artist. Bedard truly engages the poem, using a thin line but a lot of grey-scale shading to add a bit of depth. Still, the whole story conveys the ethereal, monstrous, fantastic and spiritual aspects of the poem, with the Mariner's spectacles giving him a further sense of removal from his crew and the reader as well. The nightmarish qualities of the poem translate quite well to comics, with a number of lines leaving Bedard plenty of room for visual interpretation regarding violence, spirits and storms. In other, more still scenes, Bedard captures that deathly tranquility as well, his illustrations a fine counter-point to Taylor's rich and evocative language. Bedard's natural sketchy, grungy style eventually takes over the story, which is all for the better for this comic, as it's not a neat or comforting tale.

Rio Aubry Taylor's first issue of the moving and unsettling Love, Currently sees him break new ground as an artist.Told in a distinctive white-on-black page with various color fields and patterns popping into panels, it's a story of a man named Lan who fails to come to terms with his own anger and fear after the death of his daughter. First his marriage disintegrates, and then his life in general goes to hell. This is a first-person account of his own attempt at self-destruction and abandonment of his faith in the world, god and humanity. Taylor's art is haunting and evocative, as the way he often likes to use abstract patterns, light fields and dense cross-hatching serves a narrative purpose as a reflection of Lan's consciousness and emotional state. At just eight pages, it's Taylor's most coherent, dense and emotional work; I am eager to see where he will be going with this series.

Casey Bohn is one of the more distinctive stylists I've seen from CCS. His comics have tended toward loopy science-fiction that is conversant in all of the genre's tropes yet subtly commenting on its cliches and tendency toward obvious metaphors. It's a gentle nudging to be sure, as Bohn's art both celebrates its Jack Kirby influence with its bold, almost abstract use of thick lines and odd angles and is well aware of the silliness of its imagery. President X concerns an astronaut who becomes aware that aliens are about to invade Earth and establish a puppet president (the titular President X, who barely appears in this comic despite his distinctive appearance--it's a sort of shaggy dog element). It takes him years to get back, and no one believes him but a hilariously depicted group of hippies. Of course, they prove to be crucial allies, but Bohn plays up the violence vs non-violence angle in an amusing, heightened manner. The climactic fight is absolutely hilarious, as the eyeball-shaped alien is thwarted by its own digestive juices ("I'm eating myself! I...I'm delicious!"). Bohn represents the sort of humorist whose knowledge of and ability to work within a genre sharpens the humor within the piece while providing a credible, enjoyable story.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #24: Queerotica

Queerotica is the aptly-titled anthology containing "queer erotica". What I found interesting about it is that the editorial team of Allie Kleber, Joyana McDiarmid, Laurel Lynn Leake and Sasha Steinberg specifically asked each contributor to come up with their own definitions of both "queer" and "erotica". That bit of editorial direction proved crucial in forcing each artist to think deeply about their choices in coming up with pieces (stories or illustrations) that fully expressed their own understanding of the term. Reclaiming pornography/erotica is something that every generation of cartoonists seems to do every few years, from the earliest underground comics (both gay and straight) to anthologies like Smut Peddler, True Porn, Dirty Stories and Thickness. Each one of those books had a strong editorial hand that both selected and directed their contributors to think about identity and sex in particular ways, and Queerotica's finely-honed editorial edict led to a surprisingly coherent and fluid read.

The anthology itself is beautifully designed. Leake's front cover is sensitive and evocative, with hands belonging to various genders and identities interlocking with each other, evincing both desire and tenderness. The back cover's parade of different shoes amusingly both recapitulates the front cover's theme of diversity and gives it a slightly dirtier take, suggesting what happens when shoes come off. The book's purple ink was an interesting choice, working well for the large variety of storytelling choices and line weights in the book. The pin-ups all contained striking images, some sillier than others. One person's erotic image is of course completely ridiculous to another person, so the pinup by "A.B. Fiddlestyx" featuring a furry reflection in a mirror just made me laugh. Laura Terry's monster orgy was deliberately funny but also had a strange erotic charge. Rio Aubry Taylor's beautiful drawing of two figures in an intimate embrace was the perfect complement to Terry's over-the-top image, once again recapitulating the kinds of pieces a reader would find throughout the anthology. That was repeated with Miz Moody's feather tickling illustration and Rachel Dukes' frank but tender image of a woman in front of her partner wearing a strap-on dildo.

The opening piece, Alexis Cornell's "Arbiter and the Bird", features two women in bed, as one is nervous about having sex. It's a funny, sensitive piece that explores the very idea of sex as a key component of relationships and how this can be difficult for many people. Cornell nails the characters' body language and relationship to each other in space, which is absolutely crucial for a story about this level of intimacy. Morgan Boecher's "To Share" is about how difficult it can be to find a sexual partner, someone to share his body with, after he made the transition from female to male. Boecher makes the most of his somewhat crude line to tell a story that's in turns sad, funny and hopeful. "Headspace", by Ivy Weine and Kleber, is a mild BD/SM tale, the sort that uses it as a healing force. Parts of it felt pretty rote and cliched, and at ten pages the story started to verge into self-indulgence. Kleber's illustrations for it were quite good, especially the weird, freckled character design for one of the protagonists.

Kimball Anderson and Leake's piece, "Are You Sure" is not unlike Cornell's piece, but this time it features two (physically gendered) men. Leake's choice to use a fuzzy, distorted line and a thin line weight was interesting and appropriate, given the difficult feelings discussed in this story. That fuzziness made the intensity of their actual sexual contact all the more intense as one partner engages the other in his reticence and gender ambiguity (the partner identifies as the non-gender specific "neutrois"), while the other has to confront his partner's differing sex drive. By contrast, Lena Chandhok's line in "Oral Sex" is smooth and even cartoony, as she relates an argument between two women experimenting with talking dirty to each other, the awkwardness and upset that this causes, and their eventual make-up sex. Chandhok's approach here is direct, both in terms of the humor and emotional content and the explicitly detailed manner in which she drew the sex scenes.

Joyana McDiarmid's "Nothing In this World" explores polyamory and one woman's struggle with the concept, as well as her (soon to be ex-) boyfriend's being OK with her having sex with women but not men. For this character, she views any sexual encounter outside of their relationship as cheating and is distressed to find out that he doesn't. This leads her to an encounter with a woman who talks about polyamory and her relationships with other women, bringing her into a moment concentrating totally on the present and what they bring to each other. McDiarmid certainly doesn't skimp on the sex scenes either, but they're completely integrated with the story's emotional content, down to the very end. Her rendering style, with angular faces that have a minimal level of detail combined with her fleshy way of drawing bodies, makes this one of the most effective stories in the book.

Fydor Pavlov's "Gentleman's Gentleman" is more traditional gay porn drawn in a thin, delicate line; there's not much more to the story than just the sex scene. Lawrence Gullo's "The Fisherman" and Laura Hughes' "The Outlaw" are two example of using fantasy tropes to explore sex and identity. Gullo's story about an alienated fisherman neatly ties in issues related to otherness as the title character winds up having a silent sexual relationship with a gender-ambiguous mermaid/man. Hughes' story doesn't escape its fantasy tropes, mostly goes for laughs and winds up as the only juvenile story in the anthology. The book ends on a strong note with Melanie Gillman's "Wrappers" is a different kind of fantasy story, one in which both gender and genitalia are totally different constructs. Her character design here is especially excellent, as she quickly deflects reader expectations while still being able to relate both the embarrassment and powerful sense of discovery when two people explore each other's bodies. The way Gillman also subtly explores concepts like gender pronouns is also quite clever. Steinberg's "Somnata" is a beautiful and later hilarious way to celebrate this anthology, as it starts with three figures dancing an erotic and delicate ballet (Steinberg's line is beautiful and thin here) and ends with Steinberg himself crashing the party. All told, Queerotica has a high batting average of quality stories for the initial volume of such an anthology, and its impeccable design and careful sequencing by its editors make it a feast for the eyes.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #23: Bingo Baby

Bingo Baby is touted as an "experimental collaborative comic book" at its home site, Penny Lantern. The script was the result of a collaborative role-playing game called Fiasco, which aims to be a RPG version of a Coen Brothers movie, where you play characters with "powerful ambition and poor impulse control". The players included CCS alums like Amelia Onorato, Denis St John, Donna Almendrala, Joseph Lambert, and Bill Bedard, along with professor Jason Lutes. After recording the game and turning it into a script, the group parceled out storytelling responsibilities in a mainstream "assembly-line" style. Onorato drew the characters and some backgrounds. Bedard, Lutes and St. John drew other background details. Almendrala inked the whole thing to give it page-to-page consistency. Bedard and Lambert did the colors, while Alemendrala and Lutes lettered it. The results are interesting, if uneven.

The story concerns a handful of intersecting characters in a small town, each with their own set of obsessions and delusions. Carol Anne is sensible but obsessed with playing Bingo, the central metaphor of the book. Her (technically) ex-husband Rob is a dreamer who fancies himself an actor. His brother Jake is a petty drug dealer living with his elderly relative Nan, and he's trying to find money that she may have hidden inside her house after winning a big bet on a horse race as a young woman. There's Missy, who's trying to negotiate being a single mother after being thrown out by her parents, and Goldie, a drug-addled older man who fancies himself the father of her baby. Each of the characters has dreams that directly or indirectly interfere with the others, which seems to be a product in part of the game's mechanics. It also conveniently lays down a plot as the players/writers try to find a voice for each of the characters.

The problem with the book is that some of the characters don't escape the confines of the game. Rob is a key character, connected in many ways to several other characters, but he feels more like a twitching pile of scribbled-down character traits than an actual person. The same goes for Jake, who at least is written as a sort of darkly comedic, incompetent character in the Coen Brothers tradition. Of all the characters in the book, only Missy operates on a level that approaches logical, calculating desperation, and it's fitting that she winds up as the only real "winner" in the story. The problem with many of the other characters is that unlike in a Coen Brothers or caper movie, where ordinary people are thrust into desperate situations, Bingo Baby features characters with more outlandish personalities (or non-existent personalities) who have things happen to them. Indeed, the real "action" of this story occurs when one character accidentally burns down the house of another; the only other true actions taken are by Missy. Yet Missy isn't thrust into the spotlight quite as boisterously as the story does the crazy Goldie or scheming Jake. That makes the story's climax more interesting but results in some wheel-spinning along the way. Visually, the team does a good job of maintaining page-to-page continuity, with Almendrala in particular doing a great job at designing distinctive-looking characters. There's a frequent dearth of background details, but the Lambert/Bedard coloring team helps make up for that by constantly varying background hues. There was definitely a strong group mind behind the concept of the book; just like in the game Bingo, things had to line up somewhat at random and fortuitously for Missy to make her getaway. Hopefully, future iterations of this experiment will yield more nuanced characterizations.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #22: Chuck Forsman

I covered a couple of his minis earlier in this month's worth of features, but the arrival of Forsman's second Fantagraphics book, Celebrated Summer, certainly is worthy of another article on him. Interestingly, he had completed this book prior to starting The End of the Fucking World and Oily Comics in general. TEOTFW was in some ways a reaction to the kind of storytelling he was doing in Celebrated Summer, a book that in turn sprang from a minicomic about the lead character, Wolf.  One can see the differences between the two, as Celebrated Summer is denser in terms of the art and far more internalized in terms of its emotions. The story follows Wolf and his friend Mike as they drop acid and go on a road trip after high school ends. Unlike TEOTFW, which is all about dramatic decisions, heightened experiences and young people who go to extreme measures in an effort to escape their lives, Celebrated Summer instead focuses on quiet desperation and confusion.

It's clear that the acid trip and the road trip are a means to try to escape, to experience thrills and to take a shortcut to the kind of adventures experienced by the kind of people who inhabited the world of TEOTFW. Of course, Mike and Wolf soon realize that LSD is not a drug that lets its users run away from their fears and tensions--it only heightens them. Forsman has total control over his line and his visual vocabulary in this story, propelling the duo (drawn in that Charles Schulz/Dik Browne mode) into a psychedelic state that is as accurately drawn as anything I've read about this drug experience. It's not just warped visual perception but rather the removal of sensory filters that allow us to go about our day. That results in Mike getting lost in rapt fascination looking at a bush or Wolf staring into a mirror, following along with the visual distortions and hallucinations that occur.  When a cityscape starts to warp, Wolf wisely and fearfully advises, "Just keep driving".

Of course, the drug trip, realistically as it is portrayed, is just a backdrop for talking about the relationship between Mike and Wolf and their own frequently unstated insecurities. Wolf is a big kid taught to restrain himself, and that he is being raised soley by his grandmother undoubtedly has everything to do with his difficulty connecting to others. He alludes to when "his mother started pulling away" while giving no other details, but that quick marker tells us everything we need to know about his anxieties. Mike talks loud but has many insecurities of his own, especially regarding women and intimacy. It's not entirely clear why they're even friends, as Wolf frequently resents Mike's aggression. Dropping acid has the potential to be a powerful bonding experience, because as Forsman demonstrates your acid buddy is going through the same kind of experience and looking at the world with the same set of perceptual filters being thrown out the window. However, Forsman shows that it's also an isolating experience, as communication becomes even more difficult.

The central metaphor of the book is the circle. Wolf sees images turn into circle, inverting black and white. He talks about his thoughts running in circles. The entire experience feels self-referential, as he constantly thinks about his childhood fears looping into his adult fears. Later, he loops back to the acid experience itself, regretting the loss of time, the lack of living in the moment.  It's a plea for wanting to be able to isolate moments instead of the inevitable sense of living in a headlong, rushing stream of experience. If anything, the acid trip explodes their sense of alienation: from society in general, from each other and from their own selves.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #21: Luke Healy, Max Riffner, Mathew New, Simon Reinhardt

This time around, I'll be discussing the work of three current students, set to graduate in 2014, as well as one graduate from the class of 2013.

Luke Healy's Of The Monstrous Pictures of Whales is one of the more fully-realized comics I've read from a student. Starting with the beautiful, silkscreened cover, continuing with the whale-themed endpapers and into the confidently rendered, simple clear-line style, Healy creates memorable and distinctive characters as well. Healy's watchword is restraint, as he slowly reveals the reason why two Irish sisters and their mother go on an ocean voyage taking off from Iceland while quickly establishing their fractious interpersonal dynamics. The ship is a whale-watching voyage, and one of the daughters, Liz, is an acerbic young woman who winds up being a sort of object of affection both for a whale (it only surfaces when she's out on a particular deck, soaking her every time) and the slightly buffoonish son of the ship's captain. Moby Dick and Herman Melville are name-checked a number of times, as the comic is indeed about a kind of obsession. In this case, it's about Liz's troubled relationship with her father. The end sequence, which uses larger panels at the bottom of the page to slowly relate in real time Liz's emotional reaction to having pitched something valuable at the whale "following" her and smaller panels on top to flash back to the history of the relationship with her father, is emotionally powerful. Indeed, Healy seamlessly incorporates humor (both absurd and sarcastic) into a comic that at its essence is about grief. I haven't read much else by Healy, but this comic establishes him as part of the very top rank of CCS artists.

Mathew New's Billy Johnson and His Duck Explorers is a Tintin-inspired bit of nonsense. Borrowing a bit of Herge's character design, the story mixes in aspects of Indiana Jones as well as Bill and his talking duck Barrace Wilcox open the comic with absurd dance moves that's a result of a competition performed at random for someone who came to deliver a package. New's sense of silliness goes from there, as they must deliver a trident to the middle of the ocean, Billy angers the statue heads on Easter Island by picking their noses, causing them to get up and walk into the ocean, and the intrepid duo encounters a Lara Croft-style explorer when looking for a valuable artifact. New's line is decidedly unfussy and utilitarian, aiding the gags in the simplest manner possible. The mini itself is an amusing trifle of perfect length, as I'm not sure the concept could sustain a narrative that was much longer than a few pages.

Simon Reinhardt's comic, Crime Planet, is a graphically bold, if extremely silly, comic about the rise and fall of a gangster that brings to mind classic crime series like Crime Does Not Pay. Reinhardt makes up for limited rendering skill with a bold, dynamic sense of page composition, employing dense blacks on some pages to draw in the reader's eye and carefully spotting blacks on other pages so as to move the eye around the page. Starting with a boy who declares that "Crude entertainment has eroded all my moral fiber", Eddie Ford "turns to a life of crime" as a result, He gets recruited to a mysterious criminal organization called Crime Planet, and his subsequent success and eventual downfall are documented in a manner that slips between deadpan and directly comedic. Inbetween, there are various "public service announcements" for neighborhood watch announcements with secret codes and a corpse protection service. Like New's comic, it's all good dumb fun. Reinhardt doesn't quite have the chops to pull off every visual gag he attempts, and that's a strain on the reader at times, but the boldness of his storytelling does offset this difficulty.

Max Riffner graduated in 2013 from CCS, but he's had a long career as a webcartoonist. He did a strip called Lydia that I quite enjoyed. The comics I'm reviewing here were part of this CCS thesis packet and include the minicomic Doomsday Democracy and the book The Crippler's Son. Using a sketchy, expressive style that reminds me a bit of a slightly less scribbly Jeff Lemire, The Crippler's Son is about a professional wrestler nicknamed "The Crippler" (a name he took from his wrestler father) and his much younger brother, James. James is an ER resident whose entire education was paid for by Jack ("The Crippler") and the success that his wrestling career brought him. The Lemire comparisons extend to his Essex County trilogy, which is a story about familial relationships and misdirection regarding same. It's also about James seeking an identity as a gay man who grew up without real family relationships or close bonds. It's also impeccably researched, as Riffner did a fantastic job researching the back story behind wrestling and the kind of terms that only insiders tend to use, and made it part of the book's vernacular. Whether or not someone knows what a "shoot" or "kayfabe" are isn't important, because the technical aspects of the sport are akin to the behind-the-scenes nature of being an ER doctor. Indeed, Riffner makes pointed comparisions between the ER doctor locker room and the wrestling locker room, even if what happens afterward is obviously different. The point Riffner makes is that James learns only too late just how much he means to Jack, and why, even as he tries to open himself up. While the relationship between the two becomes obvious at a certain point, the way Riffner ends the story gives it a powerful sense of emotional ambiguity.

The mini Democracy Doomsday is a far more labored (and labored-looking) comic using zip-a-tone and other visual effects, printed in blue ink. It's about a Nazi-smashing robot that wakes up in a world where the Nazis won World War II, and finds a way to wipe out every Nazi and everyone under Nazi occupation. While nicely drawn and designed (the tall, angular and slightly goofy robot is an especially great character design), the end of the story is a bit heavy-handed. Riffner's use of restraint in The Crippler's Son is what made it such an effective story.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #20: Beth Hetland, Colleen Frakes

Beth Hetland has slowly, subtly refined her line and storytelling through sheer hard work. The first chapter of a longer story that she's doing with writing partner Kyle O'Connell, Half Asleep, is easily the best work of her career. It's the first time that Hetland has seemed to be in control of her line on a panel-to-panel basis, particularly in the way she draws her characters. It's the second time she and O'Connell have collaborated on a major project (their first such project was Cycles), and this time around, O'Connell left a lot more room for Hetland to tell the story visually. That's generally the biggest problem with writer-artist collaborations, that the writer over-writes and doesn't trust the artist to tell the story, but it's O'Connell's sense of restraint as a writer that allows Hetland to reveal details through body language. The story involves an unusual university and a brilliant professor whose research in "Hypnology", a science that basis its neurological and engineering insights on dream symbols, makes her a campus celebrity. Conflict is set up between her and her eleven-year-old daughter, whose preciousness made her the youngest-ever undergraduate at the university. However, it also introduced tension between her hyper-focused mother and her status as a daughter. Hetland and O'Connell cover a lot of ground and background detail in the form of a campus tour given to a visiting dignitary, as the reader is slowly introduced to this world and the unusual technology that's come about as a result of the professor's research. By the end, the artists have laid down a lot of narrative pipe, and I'm eager to see how the conflict is further explored.

Colleen Frakes continues to mine her childhood spent growing up on an isolated prison island off the coast of Washington, and Ghosts & Pizza is in some ways the purest distillation of that experience so far. I noted in her earlier attempts at writing about McNeil Island that she seems to have a book's worth of stories and memories about the experience, and they seem to be seeping out, slowly but surely. This minicomic features both of her approaches to telling her story. "Ghosts" is written from a present-day perspective looking over the past, as Frakes employs a thick, brushy line on single-page panels to illustrate various buildings on the island and recall their status as either haunted or not haunted, wondering if ghosts only haunt old places. In "Pizza", Frakes uses present-tense story structure to describe she and her sister attempting to get a pizza from the mainland and the comic obstacles that get in their way. Here, Frakes uses a thinner line weight to reflect the "present-ness" of the story, as life lived in everyday moments rather than a more isolated look back at images. That's also reflected in the way she crams as many as eight panels into the small pages, once again reflecting time passing quickly. It was also a good move on Frakes' part not to worry too much about explaining the backstory of the island and how she wound up there once again; those who had read the other comics would certainly know what's going on, while the story was still perfectly intelligible for someone who hadn't. Frakes still seems to have barely scratched the surface of her experiences growing up there, and these stories seem to work best in bite-sized doses that are less reflective than they are immersive.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #19: Adam Whittier, Josh Kramer, Andy Warner

Josh Kramer's fifth issue of his comics journalism comic The Cartoon Picayune continues its steady improvement, thanks in part to the participation of two polished artists known for their powers of observation and history. Andy Warner's "Sex Workers of the World, Unite!" is an even-handed history of the sex worker movement that was born in San Francisco. It's a movement designed to gain rights and legal protections for all classes of sex worker, from stripper to porn actress to prostitute. Warner did the legwork of getting interviews from a variety of different points of view and key members of the movement. Starting from a place of at least being sympathetic to the plight of sex workers led Warner to making a number of fine distinctions in the internal conflicts within the movement, which I found fascinating. As always, Warner's naturalistic style is clear and bold, with an emphasis on thick lines and spotting blacks as a way of drawing in the reader's attention, and a slightly cartoony style used for character design.

The other major story in this issue, Emi Gennis' "The Radium Girls", fits into her interests by being about unfortunate and unusual deaths but also snugly fits into this issue by unearthing the facts regarding the radium poisoning of female factory workers and the astounding callousness with which the Radium Dial Company treated these young women. Radium poisoning, which was in fact encouraged by the factory owners when they told the workers to swirl the radium-laced paintbushes in their mouths, is an especially painful way to die, but the company sandbagged and died until the end. Gennis' elegant, clear and decorative style frequently used an open layout and distinctive lettering, making it an appropriate pairing with Warner's piece. Kramer's own "Feeding the Meter" is much sketchier and lighter by contrast, which makes sense for this short story about a food truck owner's struggle to stay solvent in the face of onerous new laws. Erik Thurman's "Seoul Grind" is about the explosive coffee shop market in South Korea, how shops struggled to find out the best ways to make coffee and how shops manage to survive in the face of stiff competition. It's less a story than an interesting anecdote, one suited for just a couple of pages. This issue really seems to get it just right, mixing past and present while juxtaposing certain commonalities between both while getting at issues with some resonance.

Andy Warner's The Complete Brief Histories of Everyday Objects is a skillfully assembled mini that uses a consistent design model to deliver interesting stories about the origins of common objects. He manages to find intrigue in objects like ballpoint pens (which initially sold for an outrageous $12 apiece as part of a speculative demand bubble), cinnamon sticks (which were protected and monopolized by Arabs for nearly 3000 years thanks to a monster story) and the safety pin (created in a rush to settle a debt). I especially liked his piece about the bath tub, which is less about the tub and more about legendary writer H.L. Mencken gleefully spreading misinformation about its origins. This makes him the father of fake trivia. Warner then ends each two-page piece with bonus "fun facts", cramming additional research into one row and creating punchlines with single panel commentary. 

Adam Whittier's Phoenix: The Ford Pinto Story, is a tirelessly researched history of the Ford Motor Company's disastrous and dangerous Pinto model that was responsible for several deaths due to the way its rare gas tank leaked and exploded, even at slow speeds. Whittier documents the culture of auto makers at the time, which was that "safety doesn't sell", which led to the Pinto being rushed into production to compete with foreign competitors. The comic directly quotes the many outrageous things said and done by Ford executives, led by Lee Iacocca. Whittier makes some interesting story choices by going with a bright, whimsical drawing style as well as the decision to make "Phoenix", the Pinto prototype, have anthropomorphic qualities. In the context of the story and Whittier's rendering choices and (especially) color choices, having Phoenix talk made sense. In a story with events that were hard to believe (balancing profit over human lives), the fantasy element of Phoenix (as well as the prototype Edsel that came around telling Phoenix the real story) fit right in with larger-than-life characters like Ford and Iacocca. Balancing that fancy with direct quotes and stringently-researched hard numbers gives Phoenix the unusual distinction of being a critical documentation of corporate culture that's also entertaining. Whittier also touches on the idea that trying to recreate historical scenes always adds a fictive, narrative element; putting a talking car in there simply heightens that for the reader and allows Whittier to create a sort of Candide-like character whose fate is controlled by others.

Whittier's A Most Unfortunate Face is a smaller minicomic that shows off his facility for creating grotesque character designs, something that plays into Phoenix on a lesser scale. Whittier's exaggeration is limited to that character design, because he's careful not to overstate his case by using erroneous information that overinflated the number of people who had died in Pintos. Phoenix isn't Whittier's attempt at doing a Ralph Nader-esque Unsafe At Any Speed screed. Indeed, he is even-handed and understanding of certain aspects of corporate logic, especially when it's driven by consumer demand for cheaper products that don't sacrifice certain luxury add-ons. He condemns Ford and Iacocca for the lengths they went to in ignoring the pleas of their safety engineers and their sheer arrogance in how they thought a jury would never punish Ford. Whittier also notes how this trial was the flashpoint for making safety something that consumers would start to demand. This is a solid piece of historical writing, one backed up by primary documents and that has a carefully considered point of view that focuses on historical context as well as the events themselves.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #18: Lena Chandhok

Lena Chandhok is one of many CCS cartoonists who are looking for a style and a voice. Her collection of mostly student work, Leftovers Are Good Luck, is filled with a number of charming comics rendered in a variety of different styles. There's the clever design conceit of the cover being a refrigerator and the top portion being the "freezer section" and the bottom portion the "fridge section", with the two sections actually cut separately. That top portion is an hourly comics challenge as well as a nicely drawn Peanuts pastiche, featuring Chandhok looking not unlike Lucy. The hourly comics capture a day in the life of a CCS student, from the interesting lectures given (like being made to watch La Jetee and 12 Monkeys) to how dinner plans can change on a time because of heavy snow. She packs a surprising amount of detail into what are obviously hurried comics.

The rest of the stories range between fantasy to autobio to visual experiments. I especially enjoyed "Robot Baby", a funny and touching story about a couple who give birth to a robot and all of the weird complications that ensue. When Chandhok uses a fantasy trope, it's always in service of a greater metaphor, and that was certainly the case in that story. "Fear" and "A Week of Ups and Downs" are both autobio involving her boyfriend (the cartoonist Paul Swartz, who was entry #1 in this series) in a variety of stressful situations. "It Never Knows In San Papel" sees Chandhok use a thick, chunky line that's less effective than the thinner line weights she eventually chose. "Blue" is about a faceless woman turning invisible like so much plastic packaging in a store; I got the sense that this one was originally in color and it suffers a bit in greyscale here. In short, this is decent student work, but is fragmented in the way that early work inevitably suffers from. Still, there are a number of sparks of inspiration to be found, especially thanks to Chandhok's solid character design and wit.

One can see how all of that paid off in her most recent comic, Pony Tale. Once again, Chandhok uses fantasy tropes to explore identity issues. In this case, it's about a young woman named Callie who is half-centaur in a world where mythological creatures are quite real. Her only problem is that she looks like a normal, bipedal human; her centaur heritage is hidden. It's a clever metaphor for any number of identity issues, from race/culture to sexuality, where one's assumptions regarding another person are based solely on appearances. It's also about the hurt that results when someone trying to identify with a particular group is excluded because of some arbitrary criteria. Using a chunky, cute line and giving her pages a bit more thickness with more greyscaling and spotting blacks, Chandhok avoids bludgeoning the reader with her message by coming up with an amusing, well-designed cast of characters as Callie's circle of friends. The repeating motif of Callie staring into the mirror at various angles before leaving is a clever one, especially as it gives over to greater confidence toward the end of the comic. I'd love for Chandhok to revisit this world, perhaps from the perspective of one of the other characters.