Saturday, December 10, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #10: Colleen Frakes

Iron Scars is the title of Colleen Frakes' new fantasy serial, and in many ways it's a departure from her past work, and in some ways it's a fascinating continuation. The story is set on a small island whose only connection to the mainland is by ferry, and there's a small community living on the island. That's a clever use of Frakes' own background of growing up on an island off the coast of Washington that housed a prison, as her parents served as staffers. It also features fantasy tropes like witches, faeries, shapechanging and magical objects & quests. Generally speaking, Frakes has tended to undermine fantasy tropes by either pointing out their sexist underpinnings or else simply reimagining them in the grimmest possible fashion. In stories Frakes has written involving children, she often taps into the idea of nightmares coming true, often in a way that's far worse than the original nightmares themselves. There is some of all of that in this story, but Frakes made one key change that altered the entire tenor of the story.

That change was setting the story in modern times. As a result, it made it easy for the story's central character, a girl named Tyee, to actively and hilariously reject magic in her life, despite being the daughter and granddaughter of witches. In Frakes' familiar, thick and brushy line (even the heavy line weight of the panels adds some heft to the narrative), Tyee rejects a magical reward from her (unknown to her) grandmother and throws back a talking fish that promises wishes. "Maybe I don't want a magical destiny", she protests. Witches are frequently seen phenomena, as the ragged Sea Witch comes ashore in a sort of effort to play with the children, whom she naturally terrorizes with her bizarre appearance. That's a nice bit of characters design on Frakes' part, who makes her a pile of seaweed and fish with a face. 

By the third chapter, Frakes reveals what the story is really about: intrafamiliar problems and the complication of mixing families and houses after divorce. The character design of Tyee's dad is wonderful, all scraggly beard and unkempt hair. This is where Tyee complains to her dad why he can't live with his partner Nils in the same house as her mom, which leads to the highly uncomfortable conversation with children about how sometimes parents no longer fit together. Frakes nails the awkwardness of that exchange. In the fourth chapter, we get a hilarious sequence where it's revealed that the witches of the island are mostly interrelated, not all of them like each other, they act as guardians of the island (and the world), and they all have other things to do. It's the last bit of narrative pipe that Frakes lays down before the action begins. Frakes ties together the family conflicts with the magical ideas in the story by having one of the teenage girls owing the faeries a favor--and that favor is to kill Tyee's mother, the witch. Frakes creates a nice atmosphere by framing that sequence with Halloween, blurring the lines between make-believe and magic even further. Frakes has certainly expanded her range and her ambition with this story, which looks like it's headed toward a graphic novel's length. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #9: J.P. Coovert

JP Coovert's most prominent trait as a storyteller is a relentlessly upbeat tone. Even when he's discussing personal travails in his long-running diary comic, Simple Routines, he manages to find ways to not just emphasize the positive, but rather to demonstrate how he copes with those problems and how he seeks support. In the most recent volume of Simple Routines (#5), Coovert deals with not only the medical implications of what turns out to be prostatitis, he also admits how difficult it is for him to confront the embarrassing nature of his problems, even to his beloved wife Jacie. There's a sense where simply getting that down on paper worked through a lot of those issues for him, even if there wasn't a neat solution. Indeed, most of Coovert's autobio comics, even though they follow the four-panel rhythm of gag strips, don't tend to have a neat resolution or a punchline. Many of them don't even pretend to be funny, or comprise complete thoughts.

What he does express is how much he enjoys being around his dogs, and his simple, clean style is absolutely ideal for drawing animals. He talks about culture that inspires him. There's an almost childlike glee that he evinces when a friend comes into town to visit him, or when he travels to see a childhood friend. Coovert, who turned thirty during the course of doing these comics, actually cops to not quite feeling like an adult. In his case, that translates to not wanting to lose the feeling of childlike wonder and enthusiasm he so often displays, because he demonstrates maturity in a number of different ways. That includes his career working as a graphic designer for Target as well as his decision to quit to pursue freelance work, but it also includes the seriousness with which he takes his marriage and the effort he puts in to communicate. There are plenty of moments of that childlike glee, like when the life-long Star Wars fan gets to visit a huge collection for work, staying up late to play video games with friends, and rekindling friendships at comics shows. The intimacy he creates with the reader is not forced or fake, but rather a function of his skill as a storyteller and his guileless honesty.

The first installment of Coovert's YA fantasy story, Arc Dogs, is similarly upbeat, smooth and fun. It combines tropes from Harry Potter (the kids all go to a school for magic) with the sort of propulsive teen adventure stories featured in movies like The Goonies. That one of the kids is a dog and another is a bird is simply part of the premise, as a group of four kids stumbles upon a treasure map that reveals its path one step at a time. Coovert's line is smooth and simple (he hardly ever varies line weight), but he prevents his images from floating off the page with a judicious use of shading on every page. It's telling that he hardly ever uses a lot of black to fill in his backgrounds, because that would alter the overall atmosphere of his stories. Instead, Coovert adds weight to his compositions with that greyscaling, and he creates enough negative space to make every panel pop. Coovert doesn't a grid, but instead prefers to vary the composition of each page, in part as a way to keep the reader as off-balance as his characters. The action sequences are direct and Coovert lets the images do the talking, as those panels are silent. This is a well-executed opening chapter for the story, lacking only in firm differentiation between each of the characters. Certainly, their appearances all differ, but there's not much else to indicate personality or temperament issues as of yet. Considering that this episode wasn't especially character-centric, it's not surprising to see that lack of development, as Coovert was trying to establish his world and its rules. There's a lot of potential for a YA adventure here that could be aimed at a slightly younger crowd than most, both in terms of subject matter and storytelling style.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #8: Beth Hetland, Josh Lees

Half Asleep Volumes 5 and 6, by Kyle O'Connell and Beth Hetland. O'Connell and Hetland reach the climax of their story about a researcher and her prodigy of a daughter that she uses as a test subject in exploring the limits of human consciousness in the form of dreams. Throughout the series, the tension between the girl (named Ivy) and her mother has played out in the form of a series of maneuvers by each to gain knowledge. Her mother holds secrets and details about the experiment that she is deliberately withholding (as revealed in issue #5) for the sake of the experiment's scientific integrity. Ivy withholds details of her dreams that her mother desperately wants. Volume 5 lays down more narrative pipe, as Ivy continues her training, her mother discusses with "Uncle" (the talking monkey retrieved from a dream) that the risks inherent in the experiment are worth going through and that telling Ivy about them would not jeopardize the experiment, but also prevent him from returning from whence he came.

When Ivy starts the experiment, something inevitably goes wrong. From her mother's perspective, the chronometer measuring Ivy's experience of subjective time inside the chamber starts rapidly cycling, until it's reached forty years before she's able to shut it down. The end of the issue shifts over to Ivy's perspective in her dream world, as the visuals switch from the black and white of reality to the swirling pastels of the dream world. The last image we see in this volume is that of an enormous, fanged serpent. Volume 6 is the big payoff issue that everything has led up to: Ivy's adventures in her dreamworld. Hetland made a few subtle changes in her line and use of color in this volume in order to allow for a more coherent reading experience. Prior to this, the dream sequences were denser and purposefully more difficult for the reader to parse. That said, there were certainly dream images that recurred throughout the series and that had a major presence in this issue. Whereas the color created a blurring effect in earlier issues, that effect is much lighter here. While Hetland totally abandoned the use of the grid in this volume, she was careful to create transitions that were still relatively easy to follow, both in terms of image-to-image and page-to-page. That flow was important in being able to understand the story as it unfolded and heighten the tension of the confrontation between Ivy and the serpent.

Hetland's dreamscape is fascinating, as it's composed of both images and words-as-images. She's in constant combat with the serpent but is aided at times by the man in the rabbit mask who helps her in her dreams. She travels to the land of Us, where she meets variations of herself and her parents. She manages to dodge the serpent again and attends to her actual mission in the dream, but an accident scuttles it at the last minute. After seemingly killing the serpent once and for all in a brutally visceral action scene, it rises again, menacing her like it did at the end of volume five. What's fascinating about this issue is the way that Hetland and O'Connell incorporate so much information from earlier issues of the series into the dream narrative, yet so much of this issue is still daring, beautiful and unsettling. The use of dream logic is impeccably presented after being hinted at for so many issues, but there are still a couple of chapters to go to resolve the story--including the cliff-hanger at the end. In terms of the writing, the clandestine nature of virtually every character comes back to haunt them in terrifying ways; after a series' worth of hints and slow pacing, having an issue devoted almost solely to jam-packed visuals made it that much more powerful.

Hetland and O'Connell's creative partnership is explored by the duo in the cleverly-designed mini Team Work Makes The Dream Work. As an artist, Hetland has always been fascinated by the possibility of creating objects that demand reader interaction as much as she does doing actual comics. This mini is a perfect example of that, as she uses pizza as a metaphor. The mini looks like a slice of pizza that then unfolds and can be read in a number of different ways. The parts in green ink are from O'Connell's point of view, the parts in red ink represent Hetland, and the parts in purple represent both of them together. The way that the comic is constructed allows the reader to flip around the pages to expand them like an entire pizza, and then a flip allows you to see the next level. It's a perfect match of form and content, as the collaboration goes far beyond simply "writer" (O'Connell) and "artist" (Hetland). They also make it clear that they are creative partners, not romantic partners and amusingly refer to Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock as a comparison. The multiple meetings, the shared tasks like proofreading, and tightening up each other's work at every level paint this as a true collaboration, one born out of mutual interests and sustained through mutual respect and productivity. I like comics about process, and this was an amusing and entertaining way to depict the complexity and rewards of collaboration.

Triple Trio #1, by Josh Lees. Lees tends to write about teen adventurers, and he has a real sense for the rhythms of those sorts of stories. Triple Trio follows the formula of something like a Cartoon Network show (complete with a commercial break!) in telling the story of three young time travelers who are tasked with observing and sometimes fixing past events. They are led by Tracey Triple, a fantastically designed character with her green eyeglass frames, ponytail, and big frame. Tracey even comments on how she was called "Tracey Triple" as a derogatory term because she was bigger than most of her classmates but now wears it as a badge of honor. The first story involves a dance marathon in the 1930s that they are supposed to observe, but inadvertently summoning a dinosaur doesn't seem to affect things too much. The second adventure sees the group accidentally sent back to the Salem witch trials and inevitably accused of witchcraft and sent to rot in jail before execution. The punchline is that witches are real and break everyone out, and the story ends on a cliffhanger. It's clear that Lees' mastery over his line is still a work in progress, but his storytelling skills and ability to depict bodies interacting with each other in space are both solid. There's influence from both Archie comics as well as manga to be found in his character designs, but the other main characters apart from Tracey feel a little underdesigned in comparison.

In his more recent ashcan Liberty High School Detective League comic, it's clear that he worked diligently on these issues, as the five characters in the first panel look more distinct from each other in that one panel than most of the characters did in the entirety of Triple Trio. The concept behind this series is a mystery-solving club at the local high school, which is a fantastic idea that combines any number of influences (Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Scooby Doo, Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and remixes them in an entirely fresh way. Indeed, the mechanics of how mysteries are solved was a big part of this short story, as we get a taste of the main character (Bernadette), the school and internal conflicts. Lees is writing this as a long-form project, and I think it could have a similar appeal to Drew Weing's Margo Maloo series.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #7: G.P. Bonesteel

GP Bonesteel is best known for his tongue-in-cheek takes on horror and satire in general, and his mini series sixty/forty allows him to do this in a shorter form than his ongoing satire Jason. sixty/forty: Movies I Watched In 2016 isn't so much a comic as it is a zine with mixed content: lists of movies, illustrations and a short comic at the end. His parody drawings of films he didn't like as well as drawings of actors he thinks should be in the next Expendables film are funny. The strip where he's arguing with a friend about the film It Follows was especially amusing, as Bonesteel adds details like the friend stealing Bonesteel's sandwich, a diagram of the perfect sandwich, etc. All throughout, Bonesteel adds compelling arguments for a number of his points with regard to films he liked and didn't like. Someone who has strong opinions about film will find this well-assembled zine quite interesting.

sixty/forty Vol 5 is a more traditional comic as Bonesteel serves up several short stories. "The Day The Sharktopus Ate The Moon" was fun, as it's really about an apathetic lifeguard who refuses to do anything to stop the titular creature from completing its stated mission, reasoning that it doesn't have anything to do with him. It's a typical Bonesteel tactic of subverting a familiar story through logic, unsound as it might be in its premise, that is otherwise ironclad. "The Day The Frogs Fell" is one of Bonesteel's more visually intricate story, as it once again presents a debate regarding a potentially horrific or supernatural occurrence. In this case, it's the meaning of frogs raining down from the sky, with one unseen person talking about portents and other vague warnings and the other person doubting him. Bonesteel throws in a twist at the end where the seemingly deranged person turns out to be right. "This Is Howard" is an absurd space epic about a duck that steals a spaceship told in a deadpan narrative style, with occasional flashes over to the fuzzy duck in question. It's Bonesteel at his funniest, as his dry sense of humor is a perfect match for his minimalist, simple style. The absurdity in his work always comes from the concept, not the illustrations, even though their simplicity helps establish the deadpan quality of his stories.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #6: Alex Karr

Alex Karr's comics are a mix between fairy-tale fabulism and EC horror-comics twist endings. Ultimately, they are about agency and the ability to define life by one's own parameters, but they're also about the ways in which genuine concern by family can be constrictive and oppressive. In Fairy Godmother: Held Back, the audience is introduced to the titular Fairy Godmother, who is the narrator of the story in much the same way the Crypt-Keeper is in EC's horror comics, only far more pleasant. Both characters are moral scolds, but the Fairy Godmother at least gives characters a choice to do the right thing--even if she knows they won't.

In this story, we're introduced to a young artist named Iris and her father. Her father is totally disinterested in her burgeoning career as a successful ceramicist, and he is instead more interested in her finding a husband. He's a hypocrite who was forced to marry by his parents when he didn't want to, and then internalized the message to the point where he thought he had a "perfect family"--at which point his wife walked out on him. He screams at her in the restaurant and causes a scene, and afterwards encounters the Fairy Godmother, who is willing to grant him his wish of Iris having a man to take care of her. That's when the comic takes an EC turn, as Iris ironically gets in an accident, loses both her arms, and is taken care of by a male physical therapist. While she does eventually wind up happy, his inability to accept her no matter what leads to their relationship dissolving.

In the more complex Fairy Godmother: Sister's Forfeit, a teen named Rose resents her older sister Fiona trying to monitor her behavior like their now-deceased mother might. Rose is taking increasingly larger risks going out at night, and she also winds up in a car accident (!) that puts her in a coma. When Fairy Godmother appears, she offers Fiona a deal: Rose will live if Fiona takes over as Fairy Godmother, but that will mean Fiona never existing. Of course, the extra ironic twist thrown in is that Rose does remember her sister, but no one else does, and it drives her crazy. We're introduced to the Fairy Godmother queen at the end, who becomes a sort of meta-narrator as the concept of a larger structure is thrown into this otherwise simple story.

Karr's line is simple and expressive, with slightly distorted heads that emphasize emotion over form and action. Indeed, almost all of the action takes place off-panel in these comics, as Karr is far more interested in measuring reactions than producing shocks. The conceptual shocks of her ironic twists are far more disturbing than the visceral depiction of the actual accidents. The Fairy Godmother herself is an interesting character, because she's not exactly a benevolent presence in this story, even though she very much looks the part in her "princess dress" garb. Karr's comics need a bit of refinement in terms of evening out the drawing and lettering, but I see her making a leap like Katie Skelly, the nearest comparison I could think of at that stage of their careers. Her layouts are sophisticated, her storytelling voice is strong, and the comics are conceptually unusual. I'll be curious to see if she continues this series.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #5: Sophie Goldstein, Laurel Lynn Leake

Sophie Goldstein's House of Women is her best work to date, and the third of three issues does not disappoint. This sci-fi story about four women from a colonial & religious entity called The Empire comes to a violent and tragic end as the meddling the women do on the planet comes back to haunt them. Throughout the series, Goldstein explored ideas related to gender (the women were trying to civilize the female, "primitive" species on the planet because the men were too warlike), class, colonialism and empathy. Each of the women had specific missions on the planet but wound up personifying their roles so much that they were incapable of acting in other ways. The scientist had no empathy and hid a crucial secret (that one of the female natives in their midst was actually a male who hadn't sexually matured yet) as a way of manipulating the others. The nurturer who loved the natives as her children also had a paternalistic attitude toward them. The wise woman was judgmental and offered her wisdom too late. The leader was a romantic, both in terms of how she viewed her mission and her fellow explorers as family, as well as succumbing to the charms of a male operative on the planet.

In the end, the scientist became deranged from a lack of human contact and mistook obsessive longing for real interaction. The nurturer lacked any sense of pragmatism and she paid dearly for her mistake. The wise woman acted too late to do anything, and the idealist, romantic leader had her head in the clouds for too long to make any kind of decisive actions. Ironically, the only character with real agency in this chapter was the native male, who killed one person out of fear and killed another to protect a friend. The behavior of that character spoke to the ways in which the paternalistic understanding of the Empire showed how limited it was and just how much potential the people of the planet had as empathic beings, but by that point it was far too late. It wasn't the natives that were the undoing of the mission, it was the flaws of those carrying it out.

Stylistically, Goldstein continued to channel the crisp precision of Jaime Hernandez with the wild expressiveness of Gilbert Hernandez. The opening pages, when the scientist Rhivka is carefully washing her hair in front of religious iconography found on the planet, is a triumph of design in lockstep with content. Her deranged expression is not unlike a Gilbert character, but the boldness of the black and white contrasts reminds me of Jaime. The structure of these pages is also a clever recapitulation of the story, as that iconographic image portends a demonic presence on the planet that will bring disaster. Others have noted the influence of German Expressionist filmmaking, and that's certainly in evidence, especially in terms of the baroque character of the decorative aspects of the comic. The formal structure of the images is what allowed Goldstein to get away with the more melodramatic, larger-than-life elements of the story, as it allows them to become allegory instead of more sensationalism. Goldstein also throws in flourishes like a double-diecut cover that reveals new aspects to its images over a three page span. As I've noted before, it will take a special designer to do justice to what she's done on her own when this book is inevitably snapped up by a publisher.

Laurel Lynn Leake's Poly Morphous series is much a case of an artist prescribing good advice to herself and others, hoping that both might take it. Issue #4, subtitled "Adrift", proclaims that its contents are "sensitive, scribbly comics about mental illness, isolation and longing". Leake is an interesting artist in that she's always had tremendous insight into both the analytical and personal/emotional aspects of mental illness. Her self-described scribbly drawings are expressive and nuanced, as they manage to depict the war that goes on inside the head of someone struggling with mental illness. In particular, the ways in which one's rationality can be used as a weapon against oneself is something that Leake nails when she states that her illness "lends me iron logic to determine my badness". In other words, one can get trapped in a recursive loop that doesn't allow the possibility of outside perspectives and instead encourages extrapolation and catastrophization at all times. Leake talks about how accepting one's own limits is the only way to snap that particular Gordian knot.

Issue #5 discusses the frustration with the constant feeling of being sick, of not feeling like a person who can interact with others, of feeling like a person comfortable in their own skin. Here, the drawings of Poly are especially expressive, tumbling down and getting blurry in the same way the text talks about feeling out of focus. There's an essential playfulness that the Poly character possesses, even when the character is a reflection of Leake's own particular issues. Poly is a best self in many ways, a self that struggles but always manages to retain a certain lightness. That's true even in issue #6, when Leake discusses intensely violent negative emotions that are aimed at herself; Poly looks like they're about to snap in two due to the pain. Leake gets at another crucial point in this issue, as the extremes of mental illness often seem eternal and infinite in the moment, but they inevitably pass with time. As long as one practices forgiveness for oneself and accept not being perfect or "well" as part of one's being instead of personal failures, then one can negotiate these moments of despair. One can practically see Poly practicing deep breathing and grounding at the end, with their eyes closed as they sit on the ground. Leake also gets at a concept called "wise mind", where one is able to take two contradictory thoughts about oneself and finds ways to accept the truth of both in the middle.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #4: Reilly Hadden

Reilly Hadden continues to center his comics around his Astral Birth Canal universe, a bizarre and frequently absurd fantasy world that continues to expand from issue to issue. The loose threads that Hadden has been casting since the first issue in what seemed to be an improvisational fashion are slowly being drawn together, even as his storytelling and drawing continue to tighten up from issue to issue. Hadden has created a world where he can do anything, from conjuring up an epic, visceral and slightly silly battle to veering off to a far corner to see how one character is feeling at that moment. It gives these comics an elastic quality, knowing that while it's set in a fantasy world, Hadden might be telling a slice-of-life story just as easily as he might be depicting psychedelic weirdness. And of course, none of these possibilities are mutually exclusive.

The fifth issue introduces the "bear bus" in a sequence that contains a stick figure girl as well as a highly detailed and slightly grotesque drawing a of a bear bus driver. Hadden loves cognitive dissonance in his narratives and is able to produce that effect with both his drawings as well as the narrative tone. The fairy tale tone of the story and some of its characters is offset by the ever-increasing sense of weirdness and dread as the story proceeds, especially when the dialogue from seemingly-benign characters grows ever more bizarre. This story's destination, Land Grove, is exactly where the reader has been since issue one, and chapter two of the book reintroduces a human girl and the bird-girl friend she made. When last seen, the bird girl had had her beak ripped off her face by a frightening figure, and so the other girl replaced it using a sno-cone and some string. Hadden here uses the thinnest of lines and a great deal of white negative space to create an airy, strange atmosphere in a minimalist setting. The reader also gets a brief taste of a fight between Edward, son of Bork, against the Mega-Rat and the Rat-Snake-Man who turns into the Snake-Rat-Man. It's both a total lark on the part of the artist and a carefully constructed craft experiment. The final story involves a couple leaving their world thanks to climbing onto huge but harmless creatures who shed their bodies and go out into space. The story is unconnected (for the moment) to anything else in the series, yet the kind of logic used in its progression is the sort that's been the rule for the whole series, and it has the additional feature of being emotionally compelling as we follow the couple's ultimate fate.

Issue six features a long, funny battle with Edward and his opponents, making use of its backgrounds like a breezier Mat Brinkman comic. Again, the dominant visual on a Hadden page is not just what he draws, but what he doesn't draw: wide amounts of space. Just like in the segment where we catch up on bird girl and the adventurer, Hadden builds up "the Mighty Bird five", a powerful group of heroes sent to hunt after that, only to have them killed in a single stroke by the real creature that's hunting them. Hadden uses a kind of shaggy dog joke with a horrific punchline, once again keeping the reader off-balance. In the same way, the reader is surprised that just when it looks like Edward is going to get killed, one of his enemies does something surprising and flips the narrative around introduces an entirely new element. This issue also features side stories from John Carvajal and Hannah Kaplan. Both stories juxtapose the familiar against the strange, as Carvajal's is about a father and son explorer team finding a sleeping creature, discovering a gateway in its navel, and then disappearing as the creature barely notices their existence. The latter features a picnic where a sentient pizza's pieces are having a debate about moral philosophy before being eaten, but Kaplan makes it clear that the pizza is having an effect on those who ate it, both in terms of their words and their appearance. Both have a visual approach utterly different from Hadden's, as Carvajal favors a lot of spotting blacks to give his figures some more weight, while Kaplan fleshes out her more realistically drawn figures with a greyscale that slowly builds atmosphere. James Sturm adds a strip featuring the stick-figure girl from the first chapter that's drawn more in Hadden's style than Sturm's.

In The Grass is a short Hadden mini set in the same world. In it, we see a humanoid figure desperately trying to hunt down its dinner and failing. There's a narrative in the form of a letter that seems like it's written in the hand of the protagonist that's all about missing a friend and partly envying their freedom but also warning that what they're doing is a mistake that's too late to rectify. At the end, after a comic worth's of travails, it's revealed that the letter is about this figure, and he reads it again when he arrives home, knowing that he's made a tremendous mistake. It's cleverly-paced slice-of-life fiction disguised as a fantasy story and shows just how versatile Hadden is as a storyteller, even when working within the same milieu the entire time.