Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Attention Center For Cartoon Studies Students and Alums

Greetings to all Center for Cartoon Studies students and alumni. I'll be doing my third annual "Thirty Days of CCS" feature in November once again, and I'd like to encourage you all to send me your work for review.  I'd also like to thank the many cartoonists who have already sent me new material to review. I'm always interested in seeing work from artists with whom I am not familiar, especially the newer classes.

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #6: Friends

Friends is a crazy book by German cartoonist Jan Soeken, published by Polish concern Centrala (by way of England). It's inspired by the true story of two German police officers tromping through the forest in order to attend an initiation of the German version of the Ku Klux Klan. This story doesn't concentrate so much on the ideology that fueled their desire to join a hate group; instead, this is a story about two stupid guys (each of which is stupid in their own unique way) getting lost in a forest. One of them, Hermann, sees joining the Klan as a huge jump in social status. (A "meet and greet" was planned after their initiation ceremony.) The other man, Thomas, seems to be joining the Klan as a way to somehow potentially meet women, since he had just broken up with his girlfriend; all in all, he's far more ambivalent about that idea.

That Hermann is angry about Thomas' ambivalence essentially provides the impetus for the slender book's plot. Thomas annoys Hermann by getting lost, taking off the hood of his Klan outfit, complaining about what they have to do in order to join the Klan, etc. Hermann annoys Thomas by taunting him about his girlfriend and in general being a bully. That conflict reaches a flashpoint when they encounter a guard dog tied up in a fenced-in area in the middle of the forest, surrounded by barbed wire. When Thomas, in a fit of pique, throws his hood into the dog's compound, it kicks off a series of hilarious and awful situations that escalate as the book proceeds. Thomas is full of good intentions and poor judgment, while Hermann's cruel single-mindedness, which leads to an horrible--if fitting-- final scene/gag. Soeken's comedic timing is excellent as he turns a classic comedic trope (the bully and the sad sack) on its head with art that's scratchy and pleasingly minimalist but still quite expressive.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #5: Pablo & Jane and the Hot Air Contraption

There are few cartoonists better suited for a highly-detailed, interactive kids' comic than Jose Domingo. He and Jon Chad have done books jam-packed with simple but compelling images that both tell a rolling narrative as well as challenge the young reader to find certain shapes on each page. In Domingo's earlier book for NoBrow, Adventures Of A Japanese Businessman, he subjected the titular character to a series of ever-escalating and hilarious tortures that took the reader's eye around the page in seamless fashion. In Pablo & Jane and the Hot Air Contraption (published by the NoBrow kids' imprint Flying Eye), he sets up an adventure with a couple of kids, a mouse scientist, a villainous cat mad scientist and a machine that takes a trip into the Monster Dimension.

Domingo has a remarkable sense for how to create, sustain and build momentum in a narrative. By starting slowly and establishing the personalities of the two kids, the reader is immediately invested in the proceedings. With each character being built of overlapping geometrical shapes, he gives himself a versatile set of tools upon which he can easily move these protagonists through a variety of environments. Domingo also uses a deep, rich color palette to saturate each page with a vividness that conjures up the spooky house and lab. While he packs a lot of detail into a number of small panels, Domingo also frequently goes big for dramatic effect, creating an air of mystery and awe. When the reader finally arrives at the meat of the book as they are asked to find a missing part of their ship in a monstrous version of London, it serves as an "I Spy"-style activity as well as a chance for Domingo to go crazy in terms of providing eye-pops in every corner of the page. That formula is recreated in different environments, like forests, the minarets of Moscow, Athens, the swamp, India, Australia and more. The narrative has a satisfying but open-ended conclusion as Domingo sets up future books as well as future conflicts. The book is just the right size for a kid to hold and even has a padded cover that gives holding the book a sense of tactile comfort. This book is a happy meeting between a publisher willing to give their books high production values and an artist with the wherewithal to take full advantage of this.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #4: Super Cakes

Kat Leyh understands that the best part of superhero movies and comics are the interstitial bits when the characters are trying to get to know each other. Kurt Busiek once noted that his favorite part of the Lee/Kirby X-Men series was when the team would hang out at the beatnik cafe in Manhattan, and that was a significant inspiration for his Astro City series. Leyh's short collection of stories, Super Cakes, gets at just this series of interactions. The first strip simply starts out as a quotidian strip about two lovers, Molly and May, having a leisurely breakfast together and talking about deepening their commitment. Then May gets a page from her job, which turns out to be as the superhero Tank. Molly is also a superhero named Shift.

The comic mostly focuses on off-days, small moments, family gatherings and the like, focusing on issues of identity and connection. Mai's family is almost absurdly accepting of differences; never mind accepting a non-Asian partner for Mai, never mind accepting a same-sex relationship--this is also a family with a number of adopted super-powered beings. The contrast here is to Molly, who grew up an orphan who was taught how to use her powers in a cruel manner, making her overwhelmed by this much love and acceptance. It's no surprise that the weakest of the stories is the last, where they go on patrol and fight ice creatures, but more significantly meet another superhero. It's perfectly competent in its execution, but the constraints of action limits the way the reader is drawn into the story. This is a light-hearted story that makes great use of color but also revels in its quirky character designs, resulting in a solid mainstream comic.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #3: Dirty Hands

David Alvarado's book Dirty Hands is billed as his "collected works". It's really a loose collection of sketchbook drawings, doodles and other ephemera. Alvarado is in the branch of comics that one might call Bigfoot Grotesque, which combines elements from bigfoot cartoonists of the 1920s and 1930s along with more contemporary drawings that are oozing, pulsing, dripping or otherwise unsettling. There's also a bit of influence from underground artists like Skip Williamson, and this aesthetic is now quite popular in the form of Adventure Time and other Cartoon Network shows. Artists like Jon Vermilyea, Michael DeForge (especially earlier in his career), Andrew Smith, Rusty Jordan and Jesse Jacobs provide some examples of this. In many ways, Marc Bell is another important touchstone for this explosively whimsical style of art.

This book is interesting to look at; the weird and varied range of illustrations, art styles and graphic experiments are fascinating. The choice of colors and paper stock made every page stand out, and this is a credit to the publisher, RJ Casey's Yeti Press. The drawings themselves are whimsical, occasionally disturbing and frequently funny. Anthropomorphic bananas on one page segue into highly-detailed monsters, while a set of items deconstructing Charlie Brown is next to a trippy, solid-red cat. I found myself wishing for some sequential work in this volume precisely because his illustrations are so fluid and active on the page. They look as though they're going to jump off the page at times.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #2: Tuff Ladies

Till Lukat won the Ligatura Pitch Prize, giving him an opportunity to get his book published by Polish (by way of England) publisher Centrala. This is a book about a variety of women from history who weren't necessarily virtuous, but were tough in a variety of ways. The format of the book is a single-page illustration of a subject, followed by a short comic strip and explanatory text. In some ways, this book reminds me a bit of a NoBrow production, with that mix of illustration and comics along with the color scheme and high production values. 

The blend of subjects is certainly strange. Some of the women were noble (like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai), some were criminals (Ma Barker, Belle Starr, and Ulrike Meinhof) and some where victims or tragic figures (Ellen West and Linda Lovelace). With several interstitial sections explaining things like the Inquisition and slavery in the U.S., there's a weird Young Adult book vibe to this project. I'm not quite sure who the target audience for this book is, but it's a bit grisly and violent for the average YA reader but it's not sophisticated enough for the average adult reader. Perhaps it's simply aimed at the average European reader unfamiliar with US history?

Regardless of the book's odd tone, the execution is pleasantly quirky.. Lukat brings a delightfully ragged line to the table, as he manages to capture the essence of each subject's story whether that anecdote is direct (like Tubman's story) or oblique (Meinhof's story just has a strip about a building that she blew up). The best part about the book are the strips for each subject, as Lukat has an ear for the most interesting anecdotes for each one, drawn in a rubbery but sketchy style that left me wanting more. Tuff Ladies is a fascinating, if fragmented, first work.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Thirty Days of Short Reviews #1: The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan

The Bizarre Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan, by Laura Howell (Soaring Penguin Press). This collection of shorts posits the famous composers of light opera as strange, wacky shonen manga action heroes. It's drawn very much in that style, with superdeformed, cute character designs, "mecha" robots, etc. Howell takes a page out of the Kate Beaton playbook in the way she mines history and the arts to create a recognizable world around her characters. Unlike Beaton, Howell is doing this just as an extended goof, without the pointed satirical wit that Beaton often employs. While Howell is willing to go deep into the history of art and music for the source material for her gags, the resulting jokes are pretty cheap and silly. In its essence, it's a well-executed high concept gag that's well designed and drawn expressively in the style that Howell chooses to ape. If you like Gilbert and Sullivan and intentionally dumb situational gags derived from manga adventures, then is literally the comic for you. On its own, it's an enjoyable piffle.