Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stories That Need To Be Written: Over Easy

Reading Mimi Pond's book Over Easy (Drawn & Quarterly), one gets the sense that this is a book that had to be written. As a professional writer and cartoonist for over thirty years (The Simpsons, Pee Wee's Playhouse and Designing Women are among her credits), Pond has an understanding of story structure as well as narrative and character arcs. The story of her time as a waitress in the kind of colorful diner with the sort of memorable people in an era that turned out to be more interesting than one originally supposed practically writes itself. Indeed, even among her other coworkers, there was an artistic urge, a yen to record and explore this experience. Pond captured it at the time through her sketchbooks but didn't actually get to structure it as a whole story until nearly thirty years had passed. That life where so many of her coworkers had ambitions to be famous writers or poets but either didn't have the talent or drive still proved to be fuel for Pond. The distance of time made it much easier for her to be both kind and cruel to her stand-in character, Madge. Kind in the sense of forgiving her youthful over-eagerness but cruel in how she depicts how Madge is simply not as cool as everyone else, not as desirable as everyone else--not as much a "character" as everyone else. Telling the story from her point of view makes all the more sense, as Over Easy isn't just about a working-class experience in one's youth, but also about the transition in youth culture from hippies to punks. As a nation, it was a time of being betwixt and between, about underachieving, about having no future.

The first thing one notices about Over Easy is how beautiful it is. Pond's a scribbly artist who's great at capturing the essential elements of each character and is just as hard on her own caricature as she is on everyone else's. The glorious green of this book that provides its single-hued wash is that green of diner tabs, of diner counters, of seventies furniture. It's comforting and slightly sickly at the same time, and it's telling that every character, no matter how they imagine themselves, is all in that same green wash that represents an era. I should note that Pond is never so pretentious as to say "It was the end of an era..." in this comic. Instead, she lays on detail: a tedious fellow art student goes from hippie to punk seemingly overnight, cuts his hair and buys a leather jacket, for example. The fabulousness of the waitresses at the diner came from their thrift-store dresses and in one case, the punk rock haircut and attitude ("a punk Lauren Bacall thing that drives men wild"). Pond's caricatures are all just slightly on the exaggerated side, but not so much as to render them grotesques. Still, the slyness of moves like making the hippie dishwasher girl "Daisy Deadhead" have flowers for eyes is a hilarious sight gag. The composition of each page is relatively simple though never in a grid that's static from page to page. Pond will go from a page with five panels to a page with two panels that highlight a particular character's features to a single-page splash and then back to a page with as many as six panels. It's a way of deliberately keeping the book out of a rhythm or a rut, breaking up a story that essentially has no real spine of a plot.

Indeed, the book is defined by variations on a theme--that theme being the actual hard work of a diner. The days are broken up by moments spent ogling cute boys in the diner, of moments of interpersonal drama, of jokes shared, bad feelings vented and drugs inhaled. Pond's stand-in, in a theatrical sense, has a walk-on role to all this drama, coming into the story halfway through after years of romantic entanglements, betrayals, bad feelings and other general myth-making. This episodic, character-based approach is carefully attached to the greater generational story that Pond is telling at the same time. She's cautious not to overplay her hand in this regard, but the cultural signifiers of the era play a part in each person's story, not the least of which is her own. Pond's Madge is an art school drop-out whose belief in art itself was greatly shaken by school and many of the people she met there. The "real-life" experience she craved in the diner proved to be grueling but also enriching in ways that wouldn't become clear until much later.

The fact that thirty years passed before she took on the task of processing the experience and spinning it into a story shows that this was almost a necessary incubation period. Pond the artist wasn't quite ready to do this book until she had had time to both process the experience and develop her skills. The results are remarkable. Pond is a good enough writer that she could have simply written a novel or screenplay based on her experiences, as her turns of phrase are bright and memorable without dragging into "tell, not show" territory (In fact, according to an interview with Tom Spurgeon, she tried to sell Over Easy as a novel but didn't get any bites.) Instead, her narrative captions and descriptions enhance her simple, lively drawings. Consider the panel where she meets perhaps the true hero of the story, her future boss "Lazlo Merengue" (an assumed, hippieish nickname that she immediately addresses in all its silliness). She refers to his "welcoming laugh" as "a bubbling fountain of entre nous" while creating a rich and detailed caricature of a man who should have been easy to ignore or write off, but instead had levels of rich depth and warmth. Lazlo and Madge are platonic soulmates in this book, as their senses of humor and points of view are very much in alignment, even as Lazlo has an uncanny charisma and knack for getting along with all kinds. Over Easy is a love letter to him as much as it is to the diner itself, because characters like Lazlo tend to become a nexus point for weirdness, intrigue and excitement. All things and scenes must pass, so I'm eager to read the second part of the book to see how the story of Madge, Lazlo and the others changes as identities start to become a little less fluid and a little more hardened. Until then, this seems an early and easy candidate for one of the best books of the year.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Catching Up With Ryan Cecil Smith

Ryan Cecil Smith is one of my favorite young artists to make extensive use of genre tropes in such a way that is true to the concept while subverting it for humorous results. There's also a certain restlessness about his work, as he's exploring different narrative and visual styles. He also clearly thinks long and hard about the worlds that he creates, using world-building as a way to explore different visual and linguistic tricks and tangents. Smith also has tried his hand at other types of comics, like sketchbook diaries, collaborations, and humor. Let's take a quick look at some of those other types of minis over the year before examining the jumbo third issue of his ambitious S.F. series, which was published by Koyama Press.

Howard or "Howie" is a funny little fourth wall experiment, as an increasingly belligerent, musclebound meathead. The narrator cautions the reader that even though Howie is just a creation of pen and ink, he's still trouble. That leads to the hilarious punchline of the book, one that takes advantage of it being on actual paper. It's a good gag, and Smith takes full advantage of the physical space on the page and the grotesque qualities of his steroidal subject. Weird Schmeird #1 is a flip-book he did with fellow Closed Caption Comics member Lane Milburn, using that particular phrase as the central meeting place for their flip book. Smith's portion is about a fantasy adventurer looking around his environment for glory, and he spends much of his time incredibly bored. Suddenly, he's pushed into absurd combat sequences that feel every bit as artificial as the other sequences in the story, finishing up various "levels". It's a silly story that finds Smith subverting the fundamentals of video game adventure tropes, just as Milburn subverts horror tropes in his side of the book.

Cold Heat Special #5 was done in collaboration with Frank Santoro (who did the layouts), as a supplement to Santoro's series with Ben Jones. While I've never been sure of exactly what's going on in the overall series, this mini is simple. A frail man and his daughter are living out in the woods in a society where food is scarce and there's danger around. She goes out in an effort to get food. She encounters a man who kills a dog to get food, and when she tries to do the same, she finds it doesn't work. There are a series of heartbreaking scenes when she gains genuine comfort from hugging a dog before she unsuccessfully tries to kill it. The minicomic is done in a 2 x 3 panel grid; what's clever about it is the way that Smith occasionally has the action from one panel bleed into the next, like one two-panel sequence where she's hugging the dog, or another two panel sequence where they man is using his knife to slash a dog's throat. It's a clever strategy, having action so powerful that it busts through the sequencing strength of a panel border.

Mostly Girls and Cafes is one of Smith's earlier comics, and it's exactly what it sounds like. On a trip to France in 2007, he kept a sketch diary of the places he saw, the people he met and the things he ate. The best pages are those where he gets to draw women who pose for him, like Courtney towards the end of his trip. You can see Smith's style begin to coalesce in this mini, with lots of big, chunky lines for some of his figures, alternating between realistic and cartoony drawing styles, varying line weights to create different effects, lots of hatching and use of blacks to create mood. It's also a nice snapshot of a young man who's on a European adventure and looking to meet interesting people and create connections, though there's a sense of caution running throughout the book as Smith is careful not to waste too much money. Mostly, one gets the sense of a young artist trying to experience and record as much as possible, and finding that balance difficult at times.

This brings us to Smith's most current work, the epic sci-fi homage/parody S.F. Modeled after the feel (rather than plot) of manga and anime tropes, this third issue of S.F. continues to follow the adventures of S.F. mascot Hupa, a young boy whose parents were randomly killed by the Seductress, leader of the Pirate Nation. S.F. is Smith's all-encompassing and telescoping series of abbreviations. At its root, it's unstated that it simply stands for "science fiction". In the story, it stands for Space Fleet Scientific Foundation Special Forces (or S.F.S.F.S.F.). There's a large and colorful cast of characters that include talking cats, intelligent birds and duck-billed men as well as more traditional "scientist-fighters". Getting to work big here suited the scope of Smith's ambitions, as the first part of the story is a giant space battle and cat-and-mouse game in an asteroid field. The second involves suspicion on the part of S.F. member Russell (the cat) regarding Hupa--is he a robot spy? They investigate the site of Hupa's parents death, as Hupa recovers some stationery and some mysterious gems wind up in the hands of the disguised Seductress. The third part of the book details the bumbling yet successful adventures of Agent Man, the lazy S.F. member who somehow lucks into defeating his enemies on a mission. As always, Smith leaves the issue on a cliffhanger, once again highlighting the secret importance of Hupa. The comic is a success in part because of Smith's kitchen-sink approach, which is part parody of wacky adventure manga but also an understanding that having no limits to the kind of cartooning he can bring to bear on his series only makes it more appealing. Smith alternates between highly detailed and clever space battles to using rubbery figures, absurd perspectives and a use of zip-a-tone and other effects to give each page depth and texture. That mix of larger-than-life reality on the page is a perfect match for the space/soap opera nature of the characters and their struggles, as well as the silly wordplay and slapstick humor Smith throws in. Even the craziest jokes and bigfoot gags fit together with more serious drawings if the narrator keeps a straight face throughout, and that's just with Smith does here.

Smith is continuing to make "supplementary files" (yet another SF) for S.F., the most recent being S.F. v P.N. It's an adventure story wherein the fleets of S.F. and the Pirate Nation battle each other, but it's also a clever constraint comic in that all dialogue and text in general is laid out in a pattern where words beginning with "s" and "f" are then followed by "v", "p" and "n".  Not every word begins with those letters, but there is a cycle where words beginning with those letters (and in that order) are used. What's remarkable about this little comic, is that this constraint is remarkably fluid and entirely consistent with the sort of dialogue used in Smith's other comics. He's not afraid to use florid language, nor is he afraid to use slang. As always, Smith's comics look like bizarre artifacts, managing to seem both old and new. The use of spot reds add both text and clever visual effects, taking the reader slightly out of the action, as though we were watching the events on a television screen somewhere. The extensive use of zip-a-tone effects heightens that feeling of artificiality, that these are images instead of real events. In all of his comics, Smith never wants the reader to forget that they are looking at drawings and wants them to think about the sheer beauty of lines and dots on paper while getting swept along with the story. That push and pull between his vivid imagination and acceptance of the artificiality of drawings qua drawings is at the heart of Smith's work, working in parallel to his love of genre and desire to turn it inside-out and see what makes it tick.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Meghan Turbitt's Sick, Beautiful World

Meghan Turbitt is an artist specializing in the hilariously grotesque as she isn't afraid to get graphic, gross and intimate in satirizing celebrity culture, popular aesthetics and social media tropes. Her work reminds me a lot of Lauren Weinstein's early comics in the crude but powerful energy of her drawings, her willingness to get as gross as possible in service of a gag, and the anarchic sense that anything can happen in her stories. Not surprisingly, Weinstein was one of her teachers at the New School. In Lady Turbo and the Terrible Cox Sucker, Turbitt starts off with her comics namesake and Brent, a transgender geisha (don't ask) going to a club to drink and dance. It winds up with a priest kidnapping Brent for his own demented pleasures, the priest (Cardinal Cox) trying to become Pope (by means of a biggest dick contest, of course), and the musician Prince acting as Lady Turbo's fairy godfather. It's all totally ludicrous and wonderful, as Turbitt slips between very simple drawings and close-ups to emphasize lurid, silly and weird gags.

In the follow-up, Lady Turbo's The Biggest #Loser, Turbitt takes her character to Hollywood after Pope Brent refuses to take her calls. Turbitt utilizes more extreme close-ups and makes more of an attempt to use naturalistic drawings (or at least recognizable caricatures) in this comic, as the likes of Mel Gibson and OJ Simpson show up as key characters. Turbo dubs herself "the biggest loser" for not being able to talk to her friend, turns to twitter for advice (with the likes of @slutdummy and @69mycat sound off, along with an ad for "The Biggest Loser" TV show that Turbo thanks is a statement aimed at her. After she lands in Hollywood, her character meets Gibson ("Shalom!") and is drawn in ever-increasing states of mouth-agape shock, with each drawing getting more exaggerated and funnier. The issue ends with her meeting OJ Simpson, going off to a bar with him and kissing him. Turbitt's comics are loud--her lettering gets huge when someone is shouting something, which is often. Most every page has a weird revelation that involves eyes bugging out or hair standing up straight.

In her most recent comic #FoodPorn, Turbitt combines the obnoxious tendency of people to take photos of their food at trendy restaurants, a number of gross drawings, and the quite literal interpretation of the comic's title to relate a series of scenes wherein a gross person makes delicious food, causing her to be filled with desire so overwhelming that it causes her to do engage in a variety of sexual acts. A gross-looking pizza parlor chef suddenly transforms into a hunk in her eyes when he makes the pizza, cradling her as he feeds her a slice of pepperoni. This is where Turbitt's exaggerations take central stage, especially when drawing her tongue.It either rolls out of her mouth like a carpet or whips out of her mouth like a weed-whacker, scooping up toppings from a taco maker. Every chapter is presaged by realistic drawings of the food to be seen, giving the reader ample warning as to what might come next: sushi placed strategically on her body for the sushi chef, ranch dressing on her face from Buffalo wings, a rendezvous with a toilet seat thanks to a bartender (in a truly disgusting, hilarious scene) and the one scene that leads to true love--getting a decent cup of coffee. This is the comic with the most consistently interesting drawing from Turbitt, given that every one of the gags has to be sold by her ability to draw exaggerated, lurid figures and poses. Turbitt's voice is a welcome one, part of a new generation of cartoonists who aren't afraid to focus on humor and their own personal takes on it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fantasy Minis: Gordon Harris, Evan Palmer

Let's take a look at some minis steeped in fantasy tropes:

Ainulindale, by Evan Palmer. This is an adaptation of the first part of J.R.R. Tolkein's The Silmarillion, which is Tolkein's lyrical creation myth story that begins with the god-figure Illuvatar and his creations the Ainur. One of the difficulties with The Silmarillion, and with this chapter in particular, is that it lacks the kind of world-building detail found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There are also no characters with which we can learn more about what's going on slowly. Instead, Tolkein dumps a lot of abstract myth-making on the reader, making it a bit of a slog--especially since this material was released posthumously by his son Christopher and much of which was not entirely finished. Evan Palmer cleverly stepped in and turned the abstract into beautiful sequential images that trimmed as much of the text as possible and instead used pictures to explain the rising and falling musical themes of Illuvitar and his creations ("the offspring of his thought"). Paralleling the story of Lucifer in John Milton's Paradise Lost, there arose one of the Ainur (Melkor) who chose to rebel against his creator. This chapter reveals how Illuvitar sought to try to discipline Melkor at first and attempted to convince him to participate in the themes of creation, but Melkor only sought to destroy everything put in front of him. Palmer's use of color really sells the story, as his blues and deep purples in depicting the Ainur when they're abstract make sense. Later, he uses a lot of silhouettes and simple but colorful character designs for the Ainur when they choose physical form, giving the comic a certain playfulness that the text lacks. About the only negative regarding this adaptation is that it probably needed to be three times as big to cover the full majesty of the story and Palmer's imagery; things feel a bit cramped as they stand. I'd love to see him try to adapt later chapters as well, especially the bits that are actually character-oriented.

The Secret Origin of the Dust Elves #1, by Gordon Harris. This beautifully-printed little mini is a hybrid of comics, prose and illustrated text. Harris is able to make that combination work because of a united aesthetic, with a midnight blue wash and matching decorative patterns that mark each prose page. It's a good strategy because at this stage, Harris is a better illustrator than he is a cartoonist. By that I mean that his panel-to-panel transitions are sometimes a bit stiff and his figures lack general fluidity of motion. Given that the first part of the book is a chase scene, this is a vital aspect of the work that's not quite up to snuff. That said, the illustrated prose is clever, in part because it signals a different kind of storytelling as part of the narrative. The story concerns the titular Dust Elves who are essentially resigning their position, only one of them gets noticed by one of the girls in whose room he sometimes travels. The problem is that she asks the questions "Where do they come from?", which apparently is the one question they cannot abide. So they sit down at a computer to write their "secret origin", which naturally turns out to be a lot of nonsense, before the issue ends. This section of the book is drawn as a comic, only instead of using the warm, handwritten style of lettering, it uses a computerized font to mimic the artificial nature of what they're writing on the computer. The wash here is purple, perhaps to indicate purple prose. It's a highly effective and funny metastory, and one can sense that Harris will continue to make it even sillier as the issues go on.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Three From The Triangle: Adam Meuse, M.R. Trower, Jenny Zervakis

One of the reasons I helped create DICE (Durham Indie Comics Expo) was to spotlight the interesting and diverse range of cartooning talent that's emerged here in what's known as The Triangle portion of North Carolina (Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill). Mineshaft of course publishes out of Durham, and there are long-time cartooning veterans like Eric Knisley (a DICE co-organizer), Kevin Dixon, Mark McMurray and many others. Here, I thought I'd spotlight the work of three cartoonists who had these comics available at DICE last November.

Roh and Eik, by M.R. Trower. Trower is a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and these comics reveal a young cartoonist with an interesting point of view who is rapidly developing. Roh was student work (done in Paul Karasik's class) and there's a lot here that makes that plain. Trower works too small in this comic, with a number of scenes lessened in terms of emotional impact because Trower tried to cram too much onto one page. This is unfortunate, because their linework is quite excellent, with an expressive quality that matches deft draftsmanship along with a fluid understanding of panel-to-panel transitions. Roh follows a high school girl who was born with frog-like creatures who's treated as a freak by her peers, teachers and parents. Only a P.E. coach (herself an "other" because the students think she's a lesbian) see Roh's potential as a track star on the hurdles. I thought that was a nice touch, adding a clever real-life use of her frog-related abilities. When Roh is told to dissect a frog in class or else, she rebels against the teacher, principal and even her parents, who want her to have "the surgery". All of this is, of course, a pretty clear metaphor for queer issues in general and transgender issues in particular. The latter half of the book gets a bit messy, as Roh runs away from home, meets a soul mate, and then encounters an actual demon in human form that tries to kill them. When Roh saves them both, they are provided a deux ex machina out of their entire existence: the opportunity to live on another world where everyone is "strange". This was clearly a wish-fulfillment scenario, one that came out of nowhere, and it took what was an emotionally wrenching and powerful story and gave it an easy way out.

Eik, finished in early 2013, is a more nuanced and interesting story that touches on similar themes. The story once again opens in a school, with a figure named Eik who's a sort of anthropomorphic set of geometric shapes, running for their life. Chased by a mob of slightly different shapes and patterns, they manage to escape underground. From there, Trower takes us on a tour of Eik's world, where children are allowed to change their shapes only up until a certain age, when that shape must harden into a societally-acceptable form that directly informs their role. Be it labor, enforcement or simply "filler", once you line up and take your form, there's no going back. Eik's dilemma was realizing that they were due to become part of the "martyr" class, whose members could help "beat back enemies of society by participating in a noble suicide mission". Trower's work is all about subverting the idea of binaries, fixed roles and the societal pressure that demands this sort of conformity, and Eik's world proved to be a more flexible way of exploring this metaphor than Rho. When Eik literally goes underground and is given a variety of choices that include isolation, surrender and confrontation, they choose confrontation. That leads to a battle with self that results in a sort of blossoming that transforms the whole of society, but not without personal cost. It's an ending that has a utopian quality, only this time it's one where society is transformed instead of escaped. The cartooning is uniformly excellent, as the vagueness of the characters' forms allows Trower a lot of room to invent their own set of cultural norms that are still closely tied to ours. The clear linework is dazzling, especially in the sequences where Eik is trying to negotiate pipes underwater and the populace is transformed; indeed, there seems to be just a touch of the Fort Thunder aesthetic to be found in those pages, only with far greater use of spotting blacks. In these two comics, Trower's already shown an interesting use of genre tropes for metaphors related to identity and oppression and has demonstrated an impressive set of cartooning skills. They promise to be an ambitious and challenging artist as their work continues to mature from a storytelling perspective.

Strange Growths #16, by Jenny Zervakis. John Porcellino has long listed Zervakis as an inspirational figure for his comics; in fact, he will be publishing a collection of her work for his Spit-and-a-Half distro in the near future. It's easy to see why Zervakis, whose output has been greatly slowed in the past decade because of family and work, was such an important figure for Porcellino and others interested in comics-as-poetry in the 90s. In her most recent issue of her series Strange Growths, Zervakis focuses on drawings of her environment, her children, her pets and the simple implications of everyday life and everyday sensory experience. Take "Winter Wonderland", for instance. This is a simple story about a rare snow day in Durham, one that she and her daughters took advantage of by making a trek to the local college campus. With great precision, Zervakis describes the feeling of the air and environment around her. With her scratchy and grey-scaled imagery, she depicts how alien the landscape became covered in snow and ice, most of all getting at the stillness and sense of magic that all three felt.

Zervakis' comics also have a warmth to them thanks to a creator not afraid to fully express her emotions without worrying about a particular kind of payoff or a potential lapse into sentiment. In "I Am Thankful For Betty The Dog", Zervakis transforms a simple story about a lost dog with health issues into an examination of her family structure, the emotional development of her older daughter, and her own feelings when that dog reappears again as though by magic. "Postcards From Ripley's Aquarium" shows the artist ilustrating the weirdness of aquatic creatures, using a fat line and lots of black in a manner that captured something essential about these animals. There's a crude beauty in Zervakis' line; it's not quite as refined as Porcellino, but there's a sense of immediacy and even urgency in the way that she draws her stories, her dreams and the observations of both her children and herself. This is a must-read for any fan of this kind of thoughtful, reserved sort of storytelling.

White Cards, by Adam Meuse. Meuse was a revelation for many at DICE, because while he's fairly well known locally, this hilarious cartoonist doesn't have much of a national profile. The out-of-towners who saw his witty, absurd and frequently filthy cartoons were impressed. While he generally works with a simple and uncluttered line, there's actually a great deal of studied clarity and simplicity to be found in his work that clearly came after a great deal of thought. In White Cards, comics that Meuse drew at work to stave off boredom for him and his co-workers, the opposite was true. These are totally off-the-cuff, disgusting and hilarious gag strips involving him and his co-workers Heather, Tracy and Curtis. They are frequently violent, scatological, sexual and wholly inappropriate. My favorite part of the book was a series of cartoons involving Tracy having a sexual relationship with a giraffe that gets every bit out of this possibility as one can imagine, including a giraffe's neck/cunnilingus joke that had me rolling. Meuse excised the cartoons that were too in-jokey and provides all the necessary information needed to enjoy each series of jokes. Mostly, he expertly captures that sense of frustration and mind-numbing boredom that can lead to shared moments like this, where there's that one co-worker who does something to make one's day more exciting. Meuse just happened to be that co-worker, who was fueled by their interactions to create something memorable.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Off-Beat Fairy Tales: Beautiful Darkness

The week in off-beat fairy tales and other weird stories focuses on an actual fairy tale: Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet's Beautiful Darkness. Described by some as "Thumbelina meets Lord of the Flies", the book has a take-no-prisoners approach in coldly examining an environment in a manner that elicits gasps. One gets the sense that the authors took great delight in subverting reader expectation on every page as they raised the stakes on what kind of horrible and/or horrifying event they could cook up next. Vehlmann's best known English translation was the Jason-illustrated book Isle of 100,000 Graves, while Keraskoet is the illustration duo comprised of Marie Pommepuy and Sebastien Cosset, best known to English-speakers as the artists behind the lurid Miss Don't-Touch-Me series.

The book starts with one of the most terrifying and yet hilarious fake-outs ever. The kind fairy girl Aurora is aided by her friend Plim to help her impress the Prince who has come to visit her for tea and cake. That first page of interactions couldn't be any more steeped in stereotypical modern children's fairy tropes. If you've ever seen the Australian TV show The Fairies, you'll know precisely what I'm talking about. When something red drips from the ceiling into the cup and the ceiling itself caves in, the focus pulls back and there's chaos and mayhem everywhere as the host body for the fairies falls down dead. She's a little girl who dies in the middle of a forest for unknown reasons, but all of the creatures living inside of her must react to her death, one way or another.

This is a reverse-quest book in that it starts with a large cast that is slowly winnowed-down as the book proceeds. While there's plenty of unexpected gore and violence (a cat comes in the night to prey upon the fairy camp, a toad eats the Prince, a fairy who was part of a group of triplets gets dragged off to an ant hill), it's the character interaction that proves to be far more cruel and horrifying. Hierarchies based on little more than intimidation and personal charisma form to subvert the fairy utopia Aurora worked tirelessly to create, one that would end with her marrying the Prince. Her basic sense of kindness blinds her to the machinations of others, like the vain and cold-hearted Zelie. The authors suggest that some of the fairies correspond to potential aspects of their host who just died; Zelie bears a striking resemblance to a doll she carried, for example, and Aurora is the name of the company on a notebook she carried. While most of the fairies took to the forest and tried to negotiate a life with the animals therein, one fairy is unwilling to depart the corpse. In a series of scenes that start off as revolting (the fairy eats the maggots now inhabiting the decaying host body in a visceral fashion) and wind up as sad and pathetic, as she starts to dream that she was the girl and later finds herself quite isolated in the girl's eyesockets, shivering and afraid.

Seeing characters betray each other and seek to gain an advantage over each other at a moment's notice, as I mentioned earlier, is the truly disturbing characteristic of this book. The character of Plim embodies this sort of feckless self-advancement, as he is content to be lead thug for Zelie after bullying and intimidating any number of other characters into doing work for him or taking what's theirs. It takes a while for Aurora to learn that the others view her leadership as a benign organizer as a kind of joke when they all betray her affection for the Prince, leading her to leave. When the feckless fairies manage to find her safely snug in the cabin of a human, it looks like the pattern is going to repeat itself as Zellie installs herself as being in charge and immediately sets upon finding punishments for Aurora. Aurora ponders leaving this all behind but returns not because she has no other choice, but because the clever and industrious fairy has a plan. When she takes advantage of the fact that the other fairies believe her to be oblivious and overly trusting, Aurora leads them to a final fate that's fitting for them and for her, as the starry-eyed dreamer winds up finding her prince after all, after a fashion. Only in a fairy-tale such as this can such a brutal and vicious ending be construed as a happy one.

Visually, Kerascoet plies beautiful water colors on top of simply-rendered and cute characters. This makes the scenes of death, decay and violence all the more jarring. That's especially true when they visually reference stories like The Borrowers or The Wind In The Willows to give a sense of what happens when these tiny creatures meet actual forest predators and their desires. Even saintly Aurora is not immune to fits of violence, as when she claws the eyes out of a mouse who had betrayed her with her tiny, needle-like nails. That scene establishes her understanding of the forest as a place where one either adapts or gets killed and puts an end to her viewing herself as a benevolent, wise and admired figure and leads her to understand that there's a sucker born every minute--and that she's been a sucker. Without their mastery of the studied cuteness of each character and the subtle gradations in mood and emotion they express (the doll-like Zelie in particular is a masterpiece in terms of a character going from blank to malevolent with disarming speed), the narrative simply wouldn't work. Similarly, the final image of the book, when Aurora gets her happy ending, is that of the cabin in the snowy woods, a light blazing from a window. It's like something out of a pictorial depiction of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" or Norman Rockwell in the way it captures warmth, only the reader knows what lies beneath. Drawn & Quarterly certainly made sure that the visual impact of the book was not muted in its translation.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Off-Beat Fairy Tales: Oak

Max Badger's Oak is one of the last books that received a Xeric grant, and it was one of the worthier recipients to ever earn this honor. In addition to being a fine and assured debut comic, it's also one of the better all-ages fantasy comics I've ever read. Badger's figures are simple and fluid, with the unnamed orphan protagonist being an especially well-crafted character. The squarish head, the big dark eyes and the messy hair make him easy to follow across the page. Badger keeps things simple with him in order to make it easy for him to depict the character in a variety of states and moods. Most of his character design follows suit, with more detailed backgrounds like forests, caves and a village detailed enough to almost feel and smell. He modulates tone with an extensive use of greyscaling and spotting blacks; he uses very little simple white negative space. This is important, because each panel has a sense of weight and solidity to it, grounding what is in reality a fantasy quest story into a mundane and humorously realistic stumble through the woods.

What makes this book so enjoyable is that it's a quest book only by accident and on the sly. It's book-ended by a classic fairy-tale trope: a tree begs a woodsman to spare it, and in return alerts him that Death is coming for them both. They set a trap for Death which doesn't work, but he's so impressed by their bravery that he grants them each a wish. The woodsman accepts his own death but wants his son to be spared. Death instead agrees to make him brave. The tree wants the boy to have his strength, so if he doesn't fear death, he'll at least be tough enough to deal with what comes with that attitude. We are then introduced to the orphan boy, whose fearlessness and toughness come into play in an almost naive fashion, as he helps to save a girl from humiliation.

From there, the narrative of the book is the boy trying to return to a certain spot so he can go on a date with the girl the next day. However, he keeps getting interrupted and going the wrong way. He first falls into the tomb of a king and talks the king's ghost into getting out of there. Then he encounters a huge, talking snake that wants to eat him, but in a long and hilarious chase scene with a number of twists and turns, the two become allies. He encounters a dead soldier's ghost and convinces her to turn away from revenge. An intelligent cloud decides to follow them around and be his pet. The orphan convinces each of his companions to abandon their quest, not join one, though they all agree to help him get home for their own reasons. Each of these supporting characters is rich and interesting enough to support a narrative of their own--some of them funny, some of them grim.

Badger cleverly ties up their story threads at the end of the book, when the orphan's return is to a town that's been taken over. What was a gentle, loping narrative suddenly becomes tense and exciting, as though the characters were called in from back stage to deal with a crisis. The book seems to end in tragedy, a fact that alarms the tree at the end of the book. As it turns out, Death visited the tree a few times to tell him more about the boy, and Badger cleverly outlines the fate of every character--with the orphan boy last. Oak is cleverly structured, funny and genuinely warm without being overly twee or treacly.  At 9 x 12' and in hardcover, Badger is smart to work as big as possible, letting his pages breathe and his characters fill up the page. Badger keeps the reader off-balance, slipping between action, slice of life character work, comedy and drama from scene to scene, and one gets the sense that he could work in any kind of genre and produce a work of similar quality. He's got all the tools needed to become an excellent and interesting cartoonist; it will simply be a matter of further refinement and continued inspiration.