Monday, 20 January 2014

Comics Carousel: babies, onions, babies

Reviews! Or something approaching them... As ever, click on pictures to enbiggen, and click on bolded titles to lead you to places where you can buy said publications.

Shibutaro and the Frog by Emma Jane Donnelly: Still reading through and reviewing comics I picked up at Thought Bubble, of which this is one; Donnelly had a a clutch of eye-catching items at her table, including this great ice-cream print. Shibutaro and the Frog begins with young Shibutaro putting on his mac and hat to go looking for his lost cat Tobias one rainy morning, setting off quite happily, so it doesn't seem Tobias has been gone long. enough to cause worry Shibutaro doesn't have a voice, so perhaps his other senses are heightened, because he stops at a boarded-up, spooky looking building, something telling him he'll find Tobais inside, so in he goes.

And that's where things begin to go weird. Inside there's a skeleton in an armchair which swirls and swarms and turns into a monstrous, fleshy, horned mass, looming over Shibutaro, who is saved at the enth by a frog and some shrinking potion and pulled into a magical/demonic war between thuggish toads and the other creatures living in the garden. Donnelley does a great job realising her two main characters- the silent Shibutaro in his mac and distinctive mop of hair becomes a fixed identifiable visual, and the frog is quick-thinking, smart, bookish and a bit cheeky. He's quite a snazzy dresser, too.

There's something inherently pleasing about Donnelley's tale- without sounding too precious, you can tell this is a story bought to the page with sincerity and passion, something she was excited by. The strength of that feeling transfers through and helps to negate facets which could be improved upon: the art is loose and a bit rough, and while it often looks pleasing to the eye and suits the elemental nature of the tale, there are quite a few instances where it veers into sloppiness. The story ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but not so much that you can't enjoy this book in itself, although I'd like to know what happens next- which is the ideal for a first issue, really.

Donnelley's comic has a lot of potential; what excites me most about it is the freshness of the ideas and the manner in which she's explored panels and layouts, used black and negative spaces and the narrative touches- the little frog war- the rebellion, the frog/toad factions, animals choosing sides, kidnapping children to harness some strange power. She doesn't dumb things down for the reader either, the pace is fast, and while it gets a little unclear at times, it's not difficult to follow. Shibutaro and the Frog isn't perfect by any means, but it has a very appealing premise and a freshness- the kind of thing I'd love to see attempted  more of in self-published British comics- a little more world-building, imagination, adventure, characterisation.

Internal Affairs by Patrick Crotty, Peow! Studio: I used to hate things like this: silly, goofy stories with the most random elements plucked out of air and thrown together, with no attempt at any sort of sense and presented as 'mad-cap' or 'out there hilarity'. I guess my tastes have evolved because I really enjoyed this. Crotty's little riso-graphed comic propels the reader to the year 2XX1, where a young upstart of an onion (yes, an onion) is beginning the first day of his internship at a Mechanised Service Beurea. It's a much-sought after position, mainly because working for an MSB involves using Personal Mech Vehicles- essentially a huge, snazzy hi-tech robot machine piloted by the individual. The young onion's first task is to go out and buy some coffee for his manager, and he sets out eager to get things right and please his new colleagues, but eager also to finally drive a PMV.

Unfortunately, at the shop, they've sold out of the coffee so after trading lame insults, he leaves only to get distracted by a virtual game, before re-applying himself to the task. It's one of those first-day-at-work adventures where you go out and a crap-load of things seem to go wrong on top of the nervous energy you've built up- the kind of things that seem minute and unimportant in retrospect. Onion, it has to be said, disguises afore-mentioned nervous energy pretty well, being a confident young vegetable, even as the coffee run turns into something he didn't expect.

The thing with Crotty's little onion intern slash mecha machines tale is that it has absolutely no airs, he's not attaching any meaning to it, it is what it is- a bit of daft fun, and dare I say- charming with it. It's really difficult not to warm to a little onion dressed in trousers and a tee with his big manga eyes. Again, I like because it's obvious that Crotty's made something he finds enjoyable, in the way he'd like. That doesn't always work, but for a small, light-hearted book like this, it's perfect. What gives it an edge is the illustration: Crotty's art is at once sharp, messy, sketchy, much like Giannis Milonogiannis' needle-like lines, like the broken up bits of lead refills in electronic pencils. His explosions and mecha vehicle look fantastic, but where he really stands out is the manner in which he combines really loose lines -huge wavering scrambled egg eyes, for example, with the angular precision of background buildings- so you get something that's half-drawn almost placed against a fully-rendered city-scape. He moves between depicting a space with just a few motion lines to an incredibly detailed illustration. It's something I have't seen before and works much better than it perhaps sounds.

I'm sure some people will find Internal Affairs all a bit pointless, but Crotty's style and the brash panache with which he weaves his story as it gustily careens forward in no discernible direction, is admirable of itself. And the art is certainly worth your time.

Myriad by Lorenzo Ghetti and Ugo Schiesaro, Delebile:  I'm afraid I'm going to have a little bit of a moan here. I have a problem with comics that are the first issue of a larger story and don't make much sense unless you read all the other chapters. That's expected with the serialised model, and while I'm loathe to label, a € 7 comic from a small Italian art press is perhaps not the best way to sell an ongoing series. Complaint aside, Lorenzo Ghetti and Ugo Schiesaro's Myriad is an intriguing slice of sci-fi, setting up a narrative, plot points and characters that would no doubt spool out nicely over time. 

The Myriad is the name of a gigantic spaceship, home to a handful of people who appear to be either lost in orbit for many, many years or the last vestiges of human-kind. We join them at a handing over ceremony, one that seems to take place cyclically. The 5 older crew members hand over their  titles and responsibilities to the younger crew members, who have been adequately trained and taught for this time, and to take over the ship, and prepare to go into what looks like cryogenic pods with the difference being that these will put them to a peaceful but permanent rest. They do so having ensured that procedures are in place to continue the survival of the human race- via the embryonic implantation of a female crew member. Before heading into the pods the 5 elders each choose a name for the yet-to-be-born child, so the implication is that the woman is giving birth to 5 babies.

This is all really well-done, with relationships and tensions inferred at subtly, things hinted at rather then loudly telegraphed. There's a quiet sense of unease and depth, a whole lot more going on than what's being shown, and that's not easily achieved. Ugo Shiesaro's art work is lovely; a refined cartooning, adding texture lines to clean space to allow it to speak more. It's a fine, serviceable beginning, but one I simply couldn't warm to, and on further reflection of my earlier complaint regarding ongoing series, it brings to mind Abhay Khosla's thoughts on what a first issue should comprise of, and ostensibly Myriad doesn't work because it's too short: insubstantial and unsatisfactory. I'm all for things not being dumbed down, but there's a lot of characters introduced, and the reader doesn't get to spend enough time with them or the story to make any connection, which makes it difficult to care what happens next.

Out of Hollow Water by Anna Bongiovanni, 2D Cloud: I've seen Bongiovanni's work compared to Julia Gfrorer's and it's apparent in the way which her narratives treads lines between the supernatural/spiritual/horror, never siding with one particular reality or truth. There are similarities also, in the frank visual depiction of issues that are not frequently discussed in comics: violation, sexual trauma, abuse, mental and emotional anguish, female specific body experiences.  Bongiovanni's debut comic book contains 3 short stories: Monster, Out of Hollow Water and Grave.

The images in Monster are presented as square single panel pages, as the female narrator recounts a relationship gone horribly wrong- with implied emotional and sexual abuse: 'You made me an alien in my own body. A stranger. An unwelcomed guest.' As a result she's unsure of who she is or where she can find herself, retreating deep within herself, but even there, there is no escape, as the shadowy figure seeps along- 'It's a haunting. It can't be expulsed.' She twists and turns as if possessed, mutating into various disgusting shapes, pregnant with something unspeakable. Bongiovanni uses her sparse pencil to effect, creating ominous black beast-like shapes, silent images that shift from the white background to gray bringing down a veil over proceedings, something furtive, hidden, a further descent into dark areas.

The titular Ot of Hollow Water emulates the traditional comic format most closely, alternating between large single panel pages and small 9 page grids. A young, teen-aged looking girl travels into the woods carrying yet another of her sister's newly delivered babies to get rid off. It would appear that some of these babies have been allowed to 'live' in some fashion in an woodland enclave, but this one, under strict proviso from the older lady who's delivered it, must be thrown into the well. This baby, then, is different. The girl is reluctant to follow her give instructions, instead making her way to the enclave where the other children were left and chopping chunks of her hair off to leave a trail leading from it to the well, in the hope that they will see, follow and take in the new baby. Instead it is something else that emerges once she has left. There's an absolutely heart-rending and horrible image of the enclave interior of little malnourished skeletons covered in blankets, a doll strewn on the floor. Twice Bongiovanni gives us full page close-up shots of the young mother lying on the bed, her inert, blank, face, her eyes staring at nothing. It's clear the baby, or thing, was not the result of a consensual union, and again Biogovanni uses the idea of escaping and forgetting and repressing- here getting rid of the evidence and the baby. But never is it that easy.

The last story, Grave, is the most overtly readable, as the faceless narrator, head always cut off by a panel or obscured, buries a box in the woods,  flashing back to  what appears to be a childhood sexual trauma, the emptying of her memories and feelings into the box physically personified as a wave of vomit-like goo gushing from her head and into the cavity 'Put it back in it's grave. Bury it deep. You feel lighter. Almost in control.' That seems to be a theme here, with Bongiovanni- the attempts at forgetting, at hiding things that may give you away, at moving on, but never getting there, never quite managing- the experiences in there worming away deep within. Her illustrations aren't detailed or intricate, she uses pencil, simple figures, the starkness of white and black to push focus on the subject matter. I do feel a more matte paper choice for the book would have serviced Bongiovanni's smudgy, atmospheric artwork better- the glossy format for the often delicate pencils and visceral images doesn't sit right. However, that shouldn't detract from the fine debut of a fearless cartoonist willing to tackle subjects in comics that we need to see more of.

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