Saturday, November 15, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 15: Wade Simpson

When Wade Simpson sent me the first two chapters of his serial Hell Or High Water, he noted that he didn't consider himself to draw in the CCS house style. That statement pressed me to think about just what that house style might be, if there even is one. To be sure, few CCS graduates are drafting virtuosos in the sense of classic cartooning and illustration. Katherine Roy, Joseph Lambert and Dakota McFadzean are examples of three grads with incredibly precise control over their lines. Many of the CCS cartoonists use a ratty, loose and highly cartoony line, which is not a surprise given the institution's embrace of multiple styles but especially funny animal comics. A few of them go even further than this and more into Gary Panter mark-making territory, like Dan Martin or DW. The smallest subsection of CCS artists are those heavily influenced by manga and those who draw in a traditional, naturalistic style.

That certainly describes Simpson's Hell Or High Water series, which is a work of historical fiction. Everything about it is off the beaten path. Each issue is a hardback board book, with the backings attached to a couple of signatures inside. I've never seen anything like it in comics, giving it a distinctive and even old-fashioned style. The story is set in Prohibition-era Detroit, at a point when the city in many respects was one of the most beautiful in the US. It's a story about the corruption of authority in both church and state and about those who stood to make a lot of money running alcohol during Prohibition. It's about lives shattered by the hypocrisy of authority and how those traumatized by the past lash out in the future. There's murder, double-crossing, and politics all in a dance together.

The series' greatest strength is Simpson's obvious and meticulous research. Not just in terms of period detail (though this is clear and heavily footnoted), but in terms of the larger cultural and political trends. The comic is stylish even as the figure drawings are mostly utilitarian. If there's a CCS influence to Simpson's work, I'd say it's from faculty member Jason Lutes, whose Berlin series would seem to be an obvious predecessor. Unlike Lutes, who unfolds history entirely within the flow of the actual narrative, Simpson often makes asides to the audience regarding key members of the cast and their histories. In that regard, his work reminds me more of Rick Geary. From his extensive use of hatching and blacks, that would seem to be a match, but Simpson quickly returns from tangents to get back to the increasingly complex narrative and expanding cast of characters. Simpson is a solid cartoonist whose figures look like he's trying a little too hard. There's a stiffness to some of them that inhibits panel-to-panel flow. That said, Simpson has a knack for creating tension, as when two hired killers go after a woman who double-crossed a bootlegging gang. Simpson is also quite clever in terms of how he titles, organizes and presents information, using multiple meanings and levels of different concepts related to drinking. The story is only two issues in, but Simpson has created some beautiful-looking art objects that mix in true accounts of criminal activity with a cartoonist's flair for the dramatic.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 14: Laurel Holden

Laurel Holden's work is very much in the Colleen Frakes continuum established at CCS long ago. By that I mean wry, feminist takes on fairy tales, myth and fantasy. Each of these narratives works on its own as a coherent story that adds a rich, new take on familiar genre elements like witches, curses, the mystique of the sea, etc. At the same time, each story examines and reflects on factors like gender and how they traditionally twisted these narratives. At the heart of Holden's The Sea Witch, we find a story about a woman who is respected but feared because of her magical ability to create ropes which bring good luck and even more to sailors who treat her well. It's partly a revision on the idea of how women "trap" men into marrying them and taking care of them, one where the actual agency, thoughts and dreams of the woman in question are addressed in full instead of cast to the side.

The narrative follows the Sea Witch's influence waning when a new captain came around who didn't need the Sea Witch's help. At first, he was a threat who needed to be removed. Then he became an object of fascination and even affection for the Sea Witch, and therein lies the tragedy. Through a series of carefully-plotted events, Holden shows the Sea Witch fall in love with the captain and for disaster to overtake them. Of course, the way in which Holden manipulated the story meant that she wasn't resigned to a stereotypical tragic ending where the female character is published for her hubris and actually expressed sexual agency. Holden neatly side-steps that cliche' as she creates a new, more complicated fate for all of the principals involved.

Holden relies heavily on water colors to provide depth and nuance to her characters, as her line is wispy and cartoony. Holden really knows how to draw clothes, boats and ropes, and her facility in doing so makes the rope metaphor in the book easily understood. With a single panel per page and some wild coloring schemes to keep the reader interested, this book simply flies by quickly, much like a fairy tale would. The brightness of that coloring scheme brings the reader in, but the story's sad wit is what makes it worth reading.                

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 13: The Applied Cartooning Manifesto

The free comics pamphlet The World Is Made Of Cheese: The Applied Cartooning Manifesto, was an interesting topic at SPX, where it was being distributed. Co-written by Center for Cartoon Studies president James Sturm and drawn by Marek Bennett, it asks young cartoonists to reconsider how they think of their careers. Basically, it calls his own school on the carpet for some of the critiques from outside of it: that it's a school that students spend a lot of money on in order to learn how to make minicomics. It starts off by noting that if we judge cartoonists by how much money they make, audiences they build and things created, then they're not worth much and cartooning as a career is highly problematic.

Sturm then goes into a series of events that should have many cartoonists nodding: living a spartan lifestyle, creating comics when they can, burning up time on social media and conventions to help build an audience and then find some way to make money off of all this labor. Sturm instead asserts that the world is changing and becoming more open to the use of comics than it used to be. Comics are being used in education, medicine, business presentations and community histories. This is what he calls "applied cartooning", wherein one's skills can be used in all sorts of profit-making sectors that aren't simply graphic design or illustration. Comics journalism is a kind of hybrid of this, as it has the passion of personal work but a platform, goals and audience quite different from the average comics fan--even an alternative comics fan.

He makes the useful distinction of "applied cartooning" vs "pure cartooning"; that is, comics strictly meant to be read as Art, not to be part of a larger project or purpose. He notes that becoming involved in Applied Cartooning doesn't mean that one shouldn't pursue their own personal projects. Taking that a step further, consider a journalist with a weekly column who also takes time to write a novel or series of essays. While Applied jobs might not be a cartoonist's passion, they are at least comics, and not illustration, graphic design or a job that has nothing to do with cartooning. For some cartoonists, especially those who don't consider themselves to be writers, Applied Cartooning could be an ideal career path. Dash Shaw, early in his career, was hired to do comics for a breast cancer website, and he mentioned in an interview I did with him that he enjoyed the job and experimented a lot with different sort of visual techniques.

The comic cribs heavily in terms of style from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, which means that it's clear, bold-looking and easy to understand but also that its attempts to convey meaningful information are sometimes facile. Bennett's simple and cute line was a deliberate choice, as the use of anthropomorphic animals bit directly from the McCloud "iconic characters are more identifiable" playbook. This is a manifesto and not a handbook, but there's some (admitted) fuzziness surrounding the concept. Indeed, on the last page, Sturm admits that this is not a new idea, but that giving it a name "gives it visibility, gravity and momentum". He compares it to the term "graphic novel", a term most actual cartoonists don't use very often but that "civilians" use quite regularly. All of this is prelude to offering Applied Cartooning at CCS, and this is really where the thrust of this comic will succeed or fail. How will CCS provide a diversified enough curriculum for Applied Cartooning, especially when the very concept is still such a scattered concept? It's an important question, though one must admit that CCS has had a powerful influence on comics pedagogy. It's had an impact both in inspiring other stand-alone cartooning schools (often founded as a reaction and even corrective to some of CCS's strategies) as well as mainstream art schools. After years of warning prospective students that they will likely not make any money with the degree they received from CCS, this is an interesting paradigm shift for Sturm's institution.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 12: Carl Antonowicz, Matthew New

Ostrich Cycles, by Carl Antonowicz. This is a grim, formally ambitious comic about an elderly doctor who slowly starts to lose his grip on reality and his adoring granddaughter whom he inducts into his demented schemes. His figures are intensely shaded (to the point of what looks like stippling on some of the pages) throughout, even as his character designs are bland to the point of dull. In terms of design, the mini is extremely impressive and disturbing, but the figurework's wobbly naturalism frequently took me out of the story. In one panel where the granddaughter looks up with adoring gratitude that she gets to pick out their next "patient", her face looks stretched and warped and her eyes oversized. I couldn't discern whether this was a deliberate decision or not, but the result broke up the atmosphere of the story. The structure of the story is such that the comics are told from the granddaughter's point of view, slowly revealing what's happening. They alternate with hand-written pages from the grandfather, with the quality of the script becoming increasingly deranged and sloppy as his descent into total lunacy becomes more pronounced. The scrawl goes from being written on blank paper to any loose newsprint laying around, giving it a collage effect. This aspect of the comic's visual works quite well, giving insight into the man's initial and reasonable critiques of society to his paranoid, delusional theories about brains being directly manipulated by the government. The character of the granddaughter has clearly been affected by the manipulations, though by the end it's not clear just how this will affect her long term. There's a coldness to her narrative affect that still indicates that she has her own will and opinions, even as she went along with what her grandfather said. Whether or not she will grow up to be a sociopath or her affection for the titular ostrich, a creature scorned by her grandfather for ignoring reality and by her father for being ugly, is left to the reader's imagination. The comic is an ambitious experiment that doesn't completely click on a visual level.

Billy Johnson and His Duck Are Explorers, by Mathew New. Mixing in equal parts Herge', explorer story tropes and absurdist humor, New's comic is both an affectionate send-up of and tribute to the intrepid explorer story genre. Starting the story in the middle of a chase with an irate gorilla, the titular hero and his talking duck friend, New immediately plunges the reader into the adventure and rightly concerns himself only with the facts at hand: there's a young adventurer with a sword (its name, "Mr Jabbers", immediately reflects how silly all of this is), a duck that talks and a gem-encrusted idol that the monkey wants back. It's deft, exciting and funny storytelling, given some weight by his bright but not garish use of colors. As the adventure proceeds, New slowly provides backstory as to why Billy does what he does: he's trying to impress an explorer's society, he's trying to live up to the example of his dead parents, etc. (We never do find out why the duck is a professor or why he can talk, but that's neither here nor there as it relates to the protagonist's primary narrative.) After a crazy adventure involving secret maps, a lost monkey city, treasure and aliens, Billy winds up with no proof of what he just did. The reveal on the final page as to what Billy really does for a living is surprisingly touching and sad without being maudlin. This comic is well-crafted, breezy and adds some surprising depth; it's a comic that I can now easily being transformed into a young adult comics series.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 11: Reilly Hadden

Bird Girl, A Mass Of Shapes and Scratches and Astral Birth Canal 0, by Reilly Hadden. Hadden is a talented second year CCS student, and these three comics show three radically different styles and approaches. Bird Girl, a tiny mini with a dashed-off and scribbly approach, represents Hadden at his most spontaneous. It follows around the titular character and her abuse at the hands of her fellow birds, and then takes a hard left turn when she's abducted by aliens and pecks the eye out of a carrot-like creature. The entire thing feels spontaneous and free, as though Hadden wasn't sure how he was going to solve a storytelling problem until he got there. The heavy use of blacks, the sullen but expressive bird characters and the freewheeling scribbles on each page represent a cartoonist who's in his own private comfort zone, simply making up silent stories as they come to him.

A Mass Of Shapes And Scratches, on the other hand, is a little more labored. It's essentially an argument between two friends about finding meaning and the essential fruitless meaninglessness of life. That argument is given a kick in the pants by the end of the story, as they work through the one man's nihilism, only to see him trip and hit his head hard on a table, leading to his demise. It's kind of an obvious gag, and the neurotic energy Hadden brings to the page with extensive use of hatching, cross-hatching and spotting blacks is undermined by the stiffness of his character design--especially in how characters relate to each other in space. While there are interesting ideas here, this is a comic that feels underbaked on the whole, though it clearly represents the artist trying to break out of his comfort zone.

Astral Birth Canal #0, on the other hand, sees the artist hit upon a winning idea and absolutely seizing it. He uses a simpler and modified style of his character design from Mass of Shapes, one that puts greater emphasis on the character itself, rather than the labor that went into making the character. It also allows the characters to connect to each other in a more meaningful fashion, It starts as a "teen in distress" comic that's not uncommon for CCS students to write about, as a boy named Crockett is forced out of his house by his ridiculously oppressive and abusive father. Hanging out with his female best friend (who is concerned about his welfare and wants to talk to him about it, to no avail) and her brother at a bowling alley/arcade, they happen upon a new video game called Astral Birth Canal. When her brother flips a switch, the game transforms into a shape and takes them to another planet, and an adventure. All of the original themes are still intact when the trio arrives on the planet, but the story takes a hard left turn into genre weirdness. This fusion of genres should prove to be interesting, especially since Hadden seems to have found a visual style he's happy with.This will be a series to watch.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 10: J.P. Coovert, Melissa Mendes, Rachel Dukes

Frankie Comics #2, by Rachel Dukes. This is a collection of Dukes' elegant and sparely-drawn strips about her cat. Dukes became momentarily famous when her strip "Life With/Out A Cat" was stolen from her website and used elsewhere without her permission, pointing to the sheer, naked piracy that occurs on an everyday basis on the internet. Dukes, of course, is a comics lifer who's been making ambitious anthologies like Side A and Side B while still a teenager. No one every went broke by making comics about cats, and many smart cartoonists like B.Kliban and Jeffrey Brown have had mass-market success with their cat comics. Dukes' Frankie comics are clear, well-drawn, and (most importantly) funny. Building off video game tropes in some strips and quotidian activities in others, Dukes alternates between quick-hitting gags (like a Cat vs Human fight) and slow-burn gags that build to a single punchline (like letting the cat manipulate her into increasingly difficult and annoying requests). This black & white comic adds zip-a-tone to give it depth and weight, but they look far better using the two-tone approach seen on her website or even the full color treatment she's used in some anthologies. At some point, I hope she collects enough of these to present to a publisher.

Joey, Lou #17 and A Very Special Lou, by Melissa Mendes. If there's a running theme connecting the three artists in this column today, it's that all three have a genuine sense of warmth and empathy that shows through on the page. Mendes has slowly built up a body of work about the lives of children, from comics about a version of her own life to new series like Lou that deal with similar stories of outsider tomboy types. The last issue of her Oily miniseries Lou found her exploring unfamiliar territory: putting her characters into actual danger. The events that led up to the younger brother character getting a gun pointed to his head in an abandoned building are complicated, but they're all a byproduct of what Mendes does best: family dynamics, family conflicts and the relationship between families and their pets. I'm not sure she quite stuck the landing in this issue, as she seemed to struggle with providing a happy ending with creating dramatic tension. The way she created the latter almost seemed gratuitous and random, and these are qualities I never associate with her work. A Very Special Lou, a follow-up to the series, finds her on more sure ground. It's about the contentious relationship between Lou and her younger brother, John. On his birthday, the one thing he really wants is some kind of input from Lou, who seems put off by him. When he finally gets it after an otherwise idyllic birthday (complete with attending a local wrestling card), it's clearly the gift he values most. Mendes adds a single-tone red accent to this comic that doesn't quite show up right on many of the pages (there's lots of bleed), but it's interesting to see her experiment with color after relying solely on her scribbly, expressive line.

As such, Joey is a big step up, both in terms of content and form. It's more reminiscent of a Max de Radigues comic than her prior material in that it deals with a kid who's having a lot of trouble at school and at home with constantly arguing parents. His only ally is his older sister, who at one point buys him a wolf mask. Given the opportunity to be someone else, and someone scary and powerful to boot, he naturally never takes the thing off until he's confronted by bullies. When this happens, there's no chance for solace from his parents, who are too busy screaming at each other to notice that he's not there. There are several lovely grace notes at the end of this comic, which has what can be called an ambiguously happy ending. Adding that level of ambiguity gives this comic a different quality than her prior stories, even as the rigid 2 x 4 grid keeps the story on a steady pace. I'm enjoying the restless quality of Mendes' comics, as it indicates a cartoonist who's trying to grow and expand.

Simple Routines Volume 3 and Broken Summer, by J.P. Coovert. Coovert's a member of the great 2008 graduation class at CCS, and he's been slowly cranking out gentle, warm comics for a number of years. His autobio/journal series, Simple Routines, is always a welcome presence because of that warmth, optimism and general decency that emanates from him and his comics. I don't generally consider the works of an artist as a referendum on their lives or personalities, but it's hard to not like the Coovert that we see in these pages. He's someone who's not afraid of his emotions, as the strips about graduating from CCS show in some detail. Most of all, he talks about his friendships and the way that they keep him connected to his past, and the lengths he goes to in order to keep them fresh. The strips about missing his fiance' (and later wife) Jacie are equally touching. Not everything is sunshine and roses, as there is real desperation in the strips where he's looking for a job and worrying about his worthiness as a person .His spare and lovely line that is as expressive as Duke's is laid out in classic Kochalka-style four-panel grids, and he alternates between strips with punchlines and strips with memorable and more serious final moments. There's nothing ground-breaking about his work here; it's simply an excellent example of the form.

Broken Summer is, in many ways, what cartoonists should aspire to do from time to time: make a comic that literally includes all of your favorite activities. This is about a magical world where monsters, kids and anthropomorphic animals all hang around and play video games, ride skateboards and go to concerts. It incorporates Harry Potter-style magic in a library as well as body-image issues in one neat package, making it a perfect all-ages comic. The stories are episodic and slightly aimless, but Coovert has a few through-lines that connect the characters and their activities together. All-ages comics seem to be Coovert's calling, as he infuses them with an easy charm that still has a little bite and sadness to it.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 9: Sean Knickerbocker and April Malig

Rust Belt #3, by Sean Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker's comics have always struck me as what happens when the teens from Chuck Forsman's comics grow up and have to deal with real life. The answer is: poorly. Drawing in a style similar to Forsman's emulation of cartoonists like Dik Browne, Rust Belt #3 details a man being confronted in a bar by a friend regarding his drinking. It quickly escalates into the police being called and his long-suffering caretaker sister once again being disappointed by her brother. The story ends with the man recalling his sister always sticking up for him and him always repaying her with selfish behavior. It's a story about patterns repeating, again and again, and the title of the series is indicative of that certain sense of hopelessness and being one of, as Hunter Thompson would say it, The Doomed. Knickerbocker's use of zip-a-tone gives the comic a bit more substance and structure on the page. The back-up story, originally printed in an anthology, is a sort of more extreme version of the idea of being doomed. A couple goes into their house, douse themselves in gasoline, and (with a pentagram revealed on the floor), set themselves on fire. Without a single word and using deep pencil shadings to get across a sense of melancholy, Knickerbocker takes us to the end for this particular couple, who clearly see themselves way past any other solution. While slightly less rooted in reality than the first story, it's simply a warped reflection of how quickly things can go south. Knickerbocker walks the tight rope of empathizing with his down-on-their-luck characters (they are not played up for sport) and excusing their actions.

Bananas 2, by April Malig. Malig's visual approach couldn't be more different from not only Knickerbocker's, but virtually every other CCS grad whose work I've read. Influenced in part by manga, Malig uses swirling lines, distinctive patterns and bright colors in bringing her poetic narratives to life. Her work is highly immersive, like in the opening strip, "Mission Statement", which depicts her breathing out "a tiny piece of me/and have it/find its way to you". That journey across the page and a landscape is beautiful, especially in the way that her use of color is non-naturalistic and frequently counter-intuitive. "Inelegant Structures" reimagines a lost relationship as a series of sound-like waves, a series of circuit boards turned into a maze, and ultimately a last barrier preventing intimacy. Her black and white journal comics perfectly illustrate particular frames of mind, providing the reader with new information rather than simply providing a picture to reiterate a particular set of words. Playing it straight,narratively-speaking, with her "Vampire Princess Cat" story is almost jarring compared to the rest of the comic. It's a cute, whimsical and quite meta story that mixes slice-of-life touches with manga send-ups, all with a narrator and lead character who comment on each other throughout the story. Malig's figure drawing is less interesting than her other types of drawing, and they look flat and awkward at times when interacting. It was interesting to see her flex a different kind of storytelling muscle, however.