Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 19: Sophie Goldstein

Sophie Goldstein, in her time at CCS, evolved to become one of the more promising cartoonists to ever come out of the school. Her skill as a draftsman is obvious, but what's developed is her ability to couch sophisticated, sensitive commentary in science-fiction tropes. If the minis that emerged from CCS represent her graduate work, then her webcomic with writer Jenn Jordan, Darwin Carmichael Is Going To Hell, represents a sort of undergrad honors thesis. Spanning four years and 350+ pages, it manages to keep a single through line for the duration of the strip, with some wobbly tangents here and there. It's a little flabby and unfocused to be considered a single, coherent story but the strip's conceit practically demanded some kind of resolution.

The story is set in a world where every mythological being and god of every religion is quite real, and they are mostly hanging around earth looking for jobs. Ganesh is a waiter. Muses hire themselves out. The minotaur is a hard-drinking building super. Karma is real and determines one's afterlife. In the case of the titular character, he picked up a huge slab of bad karma when he didn't pay attention to a baby that he was sitting, right at the moment the baby became the newest incarnation of the Dalai Lama. The kid hit his head and became (in the unfortunate phrasingof the book) "retarded", resulting in poor Darwin's fate. No amount of good deeds done seems to be helping with his balance sheet, either. His best friend (and one-time girlfriend) Ella is the daughter of saintly missionaries, so she inherited their good karma despite having done little with her life. That kind of bureaucratic, almost arbitrary assignation of one's fate is one of my favorite things about this book, especially as it implies that both characters would need a significant shake-up to change their fates.

The way the strip was done was Goldstein & Jordan collaborated on ideas, Jordan wrote it and Goldstein drew it. It's a bit slicker and more cartoony than her current style and seemed to have drawn a lot of influence from similar strips. The strip is at its strongest when focusing on specific relationships in the context of mythology, as Jordan clearly did an extensive amount of research for each strip. It's at its weakest when the strip devolves into slacker humor or satirizing the hipsters of New York and Brooklyn. That's when the strip feels generic and loses the unique genre elements that make it funny and often disturbing. The way that myths and religious figures are brought into the modern world is frequently hilarious and on-point; while this isn't necessarily a new idea, Jordan & Goldstein manage to stay true to the original ideas without beating the reader over the head with backstory but still providing enough information to make it intelligible.

Ultimately, this is a story about relationships: the one between Darwin and Ella and the one between Darwin and his talking pet manticore, Skittles. Jordan and Goldstein are able to wring pathos out of both relationships, even though Skittles is mostly used for comic relief. There are a lot of smart jokes about relationships and the way they're writ large in this particular world of every myth being real, but there are also quite a few self-indulgent tangents that take the narrative off-track for pages at a time. I see this as a natural function of serialized web comic publishing, as both writer and artist try to find ways to stay motivated and focused over time. For example, a silly tangent about being "bike pirates" stemmed from Goldstein wanting to draw bikes. The jokes surrounding this bit were low-hanging fruit to be sure, but Jordan and Goldstein turned around and used it to reveal the intensity of the emotional relationship between Darwin and Ella. For every halting wrong turn the strip took, the authors always managed to find a way to turn it around and remain true to its overall emotional narrative. The apocalyptic climax of the strip manages to combine the character work, the mythological work and the snarky modern take on same together into a beautifully satisfying and cohesive package. There's a temptation as a critic who was once an editor to suggest cutting this or that parts of the book to make it a tidier and tighter read, but I see Darwin Carmichael Is Going To Hell as a glorious mess--and the glory can't really be separated from the mess.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 18: Romey Bensen

It's always great to get a bunch of work all at once from a CCS cartoonist with whom I am not familiar. Let's check out a variety of projects from Romey Bensen.

The Polar Pals. Featuring a penguin and a snow bear at the Audubon Zoo (Bensen lives in New Orleans), this is a nice entry point for Bensen's work. He's certainly in the top ten percent of all CCS cartoonists when it comes to sheer drafting skill, but some of that detail here obscures the cartoony nature of the characters. There's a pleasantly mannered quality to the narrative here, which proceeds at such a slow pace that the narrative itself becomes entirely secondary to the characters and the eccentric narrative voice.

My Biblical Daydreams. This is a grab-bag of short stories featuring a variety of approaches. Bensen's angular self-caricature is a particular delight, as he invests it with a sort of stiff but neurotic energy that's both serious and amusingly self-effacing. "The Temptation of Wormwood" is the most fleshed-out story here, following a man stalked by a cat who is talked into buying a streetwise, talking fruit with an eye and teeth. It meanders amusingly and ends suddenly. Bensen's line is scratchier here, with less of an emphasis on blacks. The open page layout with panels also lets his drawings breathe a bit more. I liked that the character is a rounder, more cartoony version of Bensen's own self-caricature.

The Extraordinary #1. This is Bensen's superhero project, and it's a delight. There's something about working with characters one came up with as a child and molding them as an adult into something with a bit more substance, and it's obvious that Bensen worked hard to make this into something that's an intriguing read. Bensen mashes up a bunch of superhero and manga tropes to create his trio of superheroes and uses time-shifting narrative tricks to both keep the reader off-guard and get across information in a creative way. The comic follows a robot named Tim Tanium, a girl with vaguely-defined magical powers named Ursula Violet and a boy genius who is their team leader. This most closely recalls the Doom Patrol, but Bensen notes hints of other kid-superhero comics as well. The use of time fracturing and recycling familiar elements with a new emotional context reminds me a great deal of Paul Grist's work. The thin, almost fragile line Bensen uses here along with frequently dense hatching and cross-hatching works well here, giving old material a new coat of paint, so to speak. There's something wonderfully delicate and fragile about this comic and its characters, and seeing that level of fragility is unusual for a genre comic.

The Garden of Earthly Delight. This was Bensen's thesis comic, and it's by far his most complex and ambitious. It's a mash-up of the Bible, Hieronymous Bosch and Elzie Segar by way of R.Crumb, and Bensen's chops were up to the sheer task of cartooning this in a convincing manner. There's a good bit of misdirection in what's happening, as the narrative introduces us to Turnip Head, a primitive man who decries his lot in life because the leader of his tribe is greedy and took away his apple. A plan to usurp him by manipulating a bigger, stronger guy goes awry when the bigger guy (Trunk) kills Turnip Head after taking care of the leader. That's when we learn that the protagonist of the story is the sister of Trunk's mate. She's an artist, painting pictures on the cave wall, as she's above the others yet a non-productive in the context of her tribe. Here, sex and food are treated as more or less the same thing ("It pass the time"), and both are fundamental urges driving everything else. Only the artist here is an exception, and it has every bit to do with her inability to adapt to outside life as it does to her ability to carry insight. Bensen's sparing use of color, page layout and the patois he created for his characters breathes life into the scenario of the artist's lament: failure in their lifetime, but with the possibility of their work outliving the achievements of kings. Bensen's approach may be tongue-in-cheek and even self-effacing in this regard, but it's still very much a comic about the process of being an artist. As such, it's an appropriate first major work for an artist who has a great deal of potential.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 17: Max Mose and Dakota McFadzean

Max Mose is one of the few CCS grads to specialize in horror comics. He is unique in that his take on horror and genre in general is brutally and pointedly satirical, creating comics that are frequently as funny as they are disturbing. His adaptation of Bram Stoker's short story The Judge's House is actually more straightforward than usual from Mose in terms of subject matter, though his own attitude towards elites is still plain as day. The story follows an arrogant young student who takes up residence in a decrepit, creepy house in order to have the proper amount of time and space to study philosophy. With a gloomy, slightly vibrating line and droopily-drawn characters, the story resembles something Edward Gorey might have drawn. The young man soon learns that a particularly vicious judge lived in the house and that he is not entirely departed from the premises, initially emerging as a huge, vicious rat. From there, there are all sorts of spills and chills that lead to our protagonist's untimely and mildly ironic end. Mose milks that drama for all it's worth while playing up the general arrogance and cluelessness of the young man; it's not so much that he deserves to die, but he's not an especially likable character. He's oblivious, arrogant and out of touch, and those qualities are what ensures his doom. Mose's figure drawing has never been better than in this comic, but his lettering was shaky. No doubt that was a function of adapting someone else's prose, but there were spots where the lettering being crammed into a too-small panel was a genuine distraction.

Dakota McFadzean, on the other hand, doesn't write explicitly about horror, yet his comics frequently have a quietly horrific quality to them. As opposed to Mose's critiques of modern, urban society, McFadzean's comics are meditations on the desolate loneliness of the country. In particular, he's interested in telling the stories of outsiders and the ways in which they seek to transcend their surroundings. He doesn't lionize them, however; the lead character here, Mary, is selfish, insensitive and immature. This pre-teen takes her best friend, Arnold (a fellow outsider), for granted. Mary struggles to come to terms with the excitement that her imagination brings her, especially with regard to play. This story nails that weird time when children start to become self-conscious about play and make-believe lest they be considered weird, and it's Mary's dedication to the idea of their being a guardian spirit in the woods that's been silenced by evil ("the Dark Empty") that shines through despite her own disbelief. That spirit is represented by an animal skull she finds in the forest; there's an especially arresting image where she tries the skull on as a mask and then goes to school late to find all of her classmates and teacher wearing animal masks as part of an art project. It's an image both jarring and amusing, which is precisely the tone McFadzean aims for in many of his stories. If the ending is a bit on the pat side, it's at least an emotional connection that feels entirely earned through Mary's attempt to redeem herself for her callousness with regard to her friend.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 16: Andy Warner

Andy Warner is an interesting CCS grad in that he has effortlessly bridged the gap between Applied Cartooning in the form of research & reportage and his own personal, slice-of-life work .The Palace Of Ashes is a perfect example of long-form reportage that one would probably call a "feature" if it appeared in a newspaper. It's a thorough, interview-driven account of how an old San Francisco creamatorium called the Columbarium has been slowly restored by a single man named Emmitt Watson. Warner has the gift of being a solid naturalistic cartoonist, capable of conveying tiny but crucial details regarding a subject. He's not quite at Joe Sacco level (who is?), but he's definitely in that style shared by the likes of Josh Neufeld. Solid, utilitarian cartooning that gets at the details and the facts while telling someone's story. And this comic is less about the building than it is one man's life's work, a work he knows he will not complete. It's a simple, beautiful story.

Warner treats his fictional characters with the same degree of care and compassion, even if their paths are a little more crooked and winding. When We Were Kids, a collection of short stories originally published in the first three issues of the anthology Irene, has a remarkable sense of continuity both in terms of theme and in style. Each of them is about an intimate but not sexual relationship and the ways in which that relationship takes on a special resonance due to circumstances. In "Come Into My Heart", for example, a pair of teens drop acid and walk to the sand dunes. The unnamed boy confesses to his friend, an unnamed girl, that his drama teacher made him perform a sexual act as punishment for not finishing an assignment. The confession comes as the boy is at the same time keeping both his friend and the world at arm's length, only to symbolically let her in when they have to huddle in the wind in order to light a cigarette. It's a clear but nicely crafted metaphor, one that's not belabored.

The same goes for "Champions", about a young boy's adoration of his live-wire older brother. Living in a house with an abusive stepfather, he sees in his older brother's reckless disregard for any kind of authority or sense a sort of heroic virtue. As his drunk brother prepares to go on a snowmobile race, Warner doesn't have to tell the reader the outcome of the race for the message to be clear: this is a doomed situation. Finally, "Boat Life" is the gentlest of the three stories. It's about a pair of friends in a classic Enid/Becky (from Ghost World) situation: one of them is going off the college and the other is staying home. How they carefully negotiate their future (through the language of put-downs and trash talking) is grafted to the graveyard setting, where the duo is getting high and dodging the creepy caretaker. While still firmly ensconced in their old paradigm of friendship, they take small, tentative steps to create a new one. Every one of these stories is about finding one's role, all of them to varying degrees of success. Warner's stories are polished without being overly slick and always try to get at the essential humanity behind every character.

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.