Digital Ash 8/23/2013: barking dogs, amateur pornography and philosophical monstersA comic review article by: Logan Beaver, Daniel Elkin, Taylor Lilley
Those of you who have been following the Digital Ash column here on Comics Bulletin know that, as a group, we're pretty big fans of what Study Group is doing. When I found out that one of my favorite cartoonists, Box Brown, was going to have a new series on Study Group, needless to say it created a harmonic convergence of glee here in my Northern California home.
Softcore is Box Brown's latest offering. It's all presented in a jarring palate of yellow and a deep, dark purple. Of the series, Brown writes: “Enter the world of faux-amateur pornography, paranoia, e-cigarettes and blak magik.” If that's not a tag line to get you interested, you are probably dead to me already. The first issue (which is all that is up at the time of this writing) is basically set up. We meet our protagonist, the “faux-amateur pornographer”, who seems to be getting into this “business” because he is either scared or tired of prostitutes. His buddy Frank has turned him on to the idea of hiring models to “service” him, and our hero is, in the course of this comic, taking his first pictures.
Candy, the Russian(?) woman our hero photographs, shows up with another guy, Nikolai. The first issue ends with some kind of weird allusion to some other thing going on. I assume this is the “blak magik” Brown referenced in his solicitation.
There's a lot of set up here, this being the first issue and all, but Brown has put enough things into play to get my interest. His characters have room for growth, his plot could go anywhere at this point, and his cartooning is, as usual, a treat to behold.
Brown's work usually deals with outsiders and outcasts trying to find either their purpose or place in the world. He often throws in a twist of some sort to comment on the futility of such an endeavor. Softcore seems to be another work along those lines, but in this case, exploring a world marginalized by and repugnant to the larger social order.
How “faux-amateur pornography, paranoia, e-cigarettes and blak magik” all fit together in this series will be interesting to watch. I trust Box Brown as a storyteller as much as I do a cartoonist, so I'm pretty confident that, in the end, this series is going to wonk my head with a deft touch and stylistic aplomb.
Study Group has established itself firmly as a great source of really interesting web comics and a platform for artists to showcase their talents. Softcore is a perfect fit for this venue, and it is certainly one that I will be following in the weeks and months to come.
- Daniel Elkin
Read Softcore on the Study Group Comic Books website.
Thunderpaw: In the Ashes of Fire Mountain
The one thing that surprised me most was, after we're given all this creepy, epic imagery of monstrous dogs and dive-bombing birds, that the characters in Jen Lee's webcomic Thunderpaw are basically dogs. I mean, not just talking cartoon dog people dressed like hipsters, but they like sticks and rolling around and smelling stuff. They're not even particularly complex dogs. Bruno is brave and confident, Ollie is scared and sad, and that's it. Bruno and Ollie are the simplest, flattest characters, but it doesn't matter at all. What matters in the story is their friendship, and their journey home. It clashes wonderfully, given that these adorable characters are in the midst of what may or may not be Ragnarok.
Oh, by the way, the comic is full of animated .gifs. Animated comics can be gimmicky and distracting, but, like any gimmick or cliché, when it's used with purpose it can be a surprisingly effective tool. What the .gifs in the comic do is establish the mood. It tells us about the characters, and establishes the extreme eeriness that makes this comic work. The rushing birds, twitchy scenery, and Ollie's jittery movements show us how terrifying this world is, while a light twitch of Bruno's ear and Ollie playfully chewing on a stick reminds us of the characters' innocence in the face of all this destruction and terror.
My only real problem is that it updates very slowly, which kills the pacing. Moreover, the comic doesn't have an RSS feed (that I can find). Unless you decide to also follow Jen Lee on twitter or tumblr, you stand a good chance of reading it one day, getting up to date on it, then losing track of it entirely. Also, Chrome has some issues loading some of the pages, especially the last page of the first chapter. Beyond that, it's an endearing, eerie, all-around well-made comic, and everyone should read it.
- Logan Beaver
Read Thunderpaw on thunderpaw.co
A Day at the Park
Permit me, if you will, to share a free pleasure with you. Free. Absolutely free.
You see, Kostas Kiriakakis is a man driven to make comics and post them online. He is driven to do this by monsters (or as he calls them, “strange characters”) that will not leave him alone. He claims to have no agenda beyond offering them expression, that they might ease their grip on his mind. But these “strange characters” of his are more familiar than he suggests.
Granted, these are strange-looking dudes, and we haven’t even had the panel where the goat-looking fella walks past with a fish on a lead. But the inciting incident, the theft of a blissful solitude, the betrayal of courtesy by assumption, and the reduction of your private vista from all you survey to a forward-facing slice of the view; of all the benches, in all the parks... This behaviour is suspiciously human. So too are the protagonist’s appearances, pitched somewhere between Pixar and Gorey though favouring slightly the literary elegance of the latter, for beyond the vestigial wings and reptilian cranium are clothes, hooped tee or tie, Bowler hat and cane combo… all distinctly human. Once they begin talking, and formal dress asks hoops what he has in his lap, we discover that even their habits are human, for after all these monsters are collectors.
You know where we’re going with this now, don’t you? It’s all coming together, a free online comic featuring monsters who collect things? It’s the digital generation sneering at us longboxers again, their spiteful faces illumined by the iPad’s sinister glow. This is just another way of ridiculing those of us who buy print copies, lumping us in with the speculators and completists, isn’t it?
No. This is not that comic. In fact, A Day at the Park has more tenderness for the human condition, and particularly the urge to gather our loves, than most anything you’ve read recently. There is no sneering here, and no print versus digital tub-thumping unless you want to work pretty hard to infer it, but how about we don’t, huh? Let’s play nice.
We live in a Golden Age of Free Content, which is to say that the concept of Free has never been more widely realised, nor imbued with such cultural heft as it is now. This is not to declare it an ideal situation, for the dynamics of Free remain heavily weighted toward the consumer, the majority of creators being under- (if at all) rewarded and/or recognised for their works. But as consumers, never has so much been available to so many, for so little. I do not know what Kostas Kiriakakis does for full-time employment (he builds a mean website, certainly, is that a clue?) but I am confident that this comic would wither and be lost within any other age.
Too many commercial rules are broken too quickly for this comic to survive as anything other than free content. It is, to all intents and purposes, black and white. That is, it is sepia-toned, which in the language of commerce is worse than black and white, because although nobody in marketing really knows what it means, they do know you can’t greenlight a Batman: Sepia-Toned miniseries.
There are far too many words, and none of them are concerned with plot. Below is a page with two speech balloons that feature over 25 words each. And none of them describe why the city is in peril, the villain’s one vulnerability, or what exactly turned these lesbians into werewolves anyway. No, instead, they’re all devoted to ideas. Abstract concepts.
Questions and answers. This is a comic in which two not-really-very-scary-at-all monsters sit on a park bench and discuss which it is better to collect, questions or answers. So what we’re really talking about is a chamber piece, a comic that eschews pretences to grandeur for a low key shot at genuine meaning. Which is an entirely laudable and utterly un-marketable aim. Can you imagine that elevator pitch? Monsters University: Post-Grad Thesis?
This comic presents a dialogue, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is objective, or even fair. Kiriakakis has picked a side in this debate, and it is difficult to see how anybody could either end up on the opposition, or want to. Consider the characters. We have the slight, shoulderless Cyclops with his seemingly useless yet delightful neck wings (if we could design ourselves, wouldn’t everyone have a delightful little pair of wings somewhere?), whose idyll with his little box is abruptly curtailed by a bulky, ugly-looking toad-meets-lizard (or is that Toad-meets-lizard?) chap in formal wear. If we aspire to be neither, at the most basic level One-Eye is cuter, offering one big window to his soul and no physical threat, where his bench companion is squinty-eyed, with heft enough to harm.
Their behaviours merely compound these cues. Bowler doesn’t wait for an answer to his peremptory “May I?” before sitting down, and what’s worse, he’s a conversation-starter. One of those that prowl the quiet places looking for folk who aren’t being talked to, so they can fix them up with some fat-chewing. One-Eye finds his peace twisted into an earnest defence of his “eccentric” collection to a complete stranger of opposite inclination. Such is the entrapment of the chatty, first attaining proximity, then seizing the slightest cue, a private giggle, a smile, as an entrée to parlay. Comics readers are readers first and foremost, and every readers been trapped once. Of course, most of us have played trapper once or twice too, haven’t we?
Before we have even addressed the terms of the debate, then, Kiriakakis has steered our sympathies, rendered his visuals transparent as Us (readers) and Them (talkers). Identifying a reasonable common pettiness, he’s played us into agreement with him before we even know what we’re agreeing with. Of course, the outlandish creature designs garnish that manoeuvre, as we’ll stick with two monsters talking on a bench far longer than we will with two humans. Kiriakakis doesn’t labour this disguise or the motives behind it, he lets you peek but retains the façade, buying himself a little time to make his play.
But what of this questions/answers debate? How does one debate their merits, how separate the symbiotic? This is the function of the collecting metaphor, for what the comic really addresses is the contrast between a life of wonder and a life of certainty. Both characters are Prufrocks, as are we all in this one sense, shoring fragments against our ruin, collecting treasures against our inevitable end. Kirakakis’s concern lies with what we treasure, and why we treasure it.
“The ever transforming dance of the whole universe” sounds like the party you want to be at, doesn’t it? Of course! It’s the realm of story, of speculation and possibility, the realm of potential. Espousing wonder as a thing to be collected neatly circumvents the negative connotations of any collecting, for questions are by their nature seemingly infinite, self-generating beyond our ability to number, let alone answer them. What’s more, if “a big question mark always out of our reach” is the main motivator of our history (as One-Eye suggests), then our collecting of questions is gloriously Sisyphean, the truest embodiment of our hope, optimism, and agency in the face of perishability.
Which renders answers rather dull and pessimistic things, doesn’t it?
Sometimes, yes. They are the cement boots of the soul, heavy with inertia and precedent, and they drag us down. One-Eye acknowledges that “you need answers to base decisions on. Decisions that lead to actions”, but this pragmatism is a mercifully brief intrusion upon his raptures. For this comic is by now not striving to be fair, or purely logical, but to evoke in the reader a renewed love of the unknown and its potency, the strength to be inspired by what we do not know, rather than cowed. This comic wants to give us courage.
Even from these few pages, it’s evident that our bulky friend, Bowler, so eager to begin the conversation, plays a far smaller role in continuing it than does his wondersome counterpart. There’s room for arguing that this is typical of the passive-aggressive hipster posturing of One-Eye types, that silence and contemplation in public places are public poses, snares for the genuine conversationalists among us. Such an argument might cite One-Eye’s early “He he… Really?”, following so closely upon Bowler’s noisy lowering onto the bench, as a goading into conversation, one tinged with size-ist ridicule. But this seems out of keeping with the overall tone of faith in wonder. One-Eye would find no wonder in Bowler’s size, nor humour, and Kiriakakis seems to reference Bowler’s weight as an indication of a leaden and clumsy worldview, rather than a cheap gag.
The volume of articulation coming from the collector of wonder as opposed to the paucity from the collector of answers indicates their comparative inner richness. One-Eye’s collection creates “freedom to”, an empowering liberty spurring him on to further flights of impassioned speculation, or in this case ever more profound answers to Bowler’s questions. Bowler, in collecting answers, licenses his own “freedom from”, freedom from doubt, from the rigours of thought, from creative applications, and of course, from wonder. It is revealing that during their discussion, One-Eye admits the need to collect some answers alongside questions, while Bowler never concedes a place for questions, limiting himself to expressions of shock and surprise at the “radical” views being expressed. Clearly freedom from making concessions is one of the benefits of a large collection of answers.
This conversation ends in the only way it can, with the recognition by both parties that they are of irreconcilably opposed outlooks. Structurally speaking, this presents Kiriakakis with his greatest challenge yet, how to wrap this encounter up without disappearing into either the false idealism of a negotiated compromise, or the contrivance of a satisfyingly “dramatic” resolution. I’ll not give away the ending, with its gratifying twist, but simply praise the point of recognition.
Does Bowler really believe he might be “collecting garbage”? Is that genuine self-doubt, or a final snare for One-Eye, to catch him in over-confidence? Either way, One-Eye’s perplexity in the face of this question reveals beautifully the wonderer’s awkward moment, the one where he suddenly realises that all his unanswerable questions have thrown someone else into disarray. Such is the power of wonder, of questioning, and it is both a deft grounding of the discourse and a credit to the author’s humanity that he can show our cyclops so undone by this epiphany. Questioning is disruptive, uncomfortable for many. And so it is fitting that One-Eye, believing he is offering a gift, cannot see the insult in his reply, how it lights the fuse for a final explosion (which turns out to be a gift) on the penultimate page.
It has been remarked of many now revered comics that their writing on its own wasn’t always the greatest, and the art on its own wasn’t always the greatest, but they came together to create something truly great. A Day at the Park isn’t the greatest comic you’ll ever read, taken for its constituent parts or as a whole. But it deserves your attention, for exploring big questions without a familiar landmark from which to navigate; for forgoing the camouflage of epic drama, or even soap opera, in competition to win your eye; for defying the competitive advantages of brand recognition, genre, pop culture references, and the easy laugh (which is more than can be said for this article’s writer). It deserves your attention as a naked attempt to inspire.
We live in a world of ever calcifying “fact” and “knowledge”, creeping walls surrounding questions like what people will and won’t read (or pay for), and the only way modernity differs in the treatment of massed certainties is that there are now more of them, proclaimed more loudly, and with less accompanying deployment of reason. Cutting through all that noisy surety are a calmly-spoken few who would rather wonder voraciously than “know”, who choose to “offer” rather than sell (for the time being, at least). And some of them make pretty sweet comics.
- Taylor Lilley
Read "A Day at the Park" on Kostas Kiriakakis's website.