Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Back Matter #2 - ACT-I-VATE's Dan Goldman & Anything Goes issue 2

With the “Back Matter” series of posts, I am reprinting my initial writings on comics from roughly 2006.  A more detailed explanation can be found here


                        One of the boons of the internet has been a new outlet for comics’ creators to self-publish their work.  It used to be that one would write and draw their story, go to Kinko’s to make copies, and then sell them at conventions or distribute them around town.  Now people just need an internet hookup, a domain, and access to a scanner.  Webcomics are the new mini-comics.         
ACT-I-VATE was created on LiveJournal a little over two months ago by comic creators Dean Haspiel, Nick Bertozzi, Josh Neufeld, Tim Hamilton, Leland Purvis, Michel Fiffe, Dan Goldman, and Nikki Cook.  An online experiment, ACT-I-VATE is a cyber studio where these comics creators get to do their own thing, scratching that itch that’s been gnawing away at the back of their mind.  Done for free, in between paying jobs and other responsibilities, each of the artists works to get a new installment uploaded once a week in order to keep the site vital.  And, with the recent addition of Dean Trippe, Chip Zdarsky, Dave Wallin, and Rami Efal, some of the burden will be dropped from those initial artists’ shoulders while still allowing the site to remain fresh with material.
            I admit most of these creators were unknown to me and I initially linked over there thanks in part to one of Warren Ellis’s Bad Signals along with the name recognition of Dean Haspiel.  But upon my arrival I was confronted with the header for Dan Goldman’s “Kelly” – clean, crisp linework with a coloring style unlike anything found in a print comic. 
So I entered, and was I ever glad I did.  “Kelly” is brilliant in its presentation of a simple premise with a dynamism and experimentation found in too few comics.  Goldman starts with a situation we all can relate to, having to rely on others just to get by, and sucks us into his narrative.  Max, our protagonist, has been trying to save enough money for his own apartment in New York – not something easily done – while crashing at his brother’s place.  This might not be such an uncomfortable situation except for the fact that his brother’s girlfriend also lives there.  Goldman hammers home the awkwardness of the situation when Max is contemplating his life just as sounds of mad, frantic sex screech through the walls like nails on a chalkboard.  Luckily, he has come across an ad for an apartment share, something he could pull off with his meager income.
Max answers the ad – from the office – just as his boss comes over to chastise him for using the Arial font instead of the correct Garamond font as called for in all client memos.  Seeing Max on the phone, his boss reprimands him as well for making a personal call on company time.  Yes, we all know that boss and we all know Max’s inner reaction.  From here things go from crazy to bizarre to mildly insane, and it’s all wildly engrossing. 
Max is leery of his potential new roommate but hopeful of the possibility to finally be on his own.  However, once he meets Kelly and gets inside the apartment Max’s radar starts buzzing again.  Maybe he should have been more leeryWhy is Kelly “excited” to see me?  (I’m not into guys)  Does Kelly really wipe his ass with paper towels?  (mental note: gotta pick up toilet paper)  Do I really want to know what his special super secret surprise is?  (I don’t think so).  Goldman plays on your expectations, presents you with scenes that will get that perverse gutter of a mind churning, and then throws you a big curveball with his revelations.  And when Max’s ex-girlfriend finally rings him up after four months it’s time to pull out the peace pipe and get conceptual.  What happens next is anyone’s guess.
This is easily one of the most entertaining comics I have come across in a long time.  Through eleven installments we have been able to learn quite a bit about the main character Max, while Kelly still remains an enigma.  His odd secretiveness and lust for a good enema are enough to make anyone uneasy, but this is only part of what we know of Kelly.  He is also a sympathetic good-hearted person, albeit with a skewed take on the world.  It’s this complexity that makes him a compelling character, and one about which we want to learn more.  Why is he like this?  Is he hiding something?  What’s going on inside that gap-toothed head of his?  Goldman pulls off this dichotomy of character with Kelly masterfully.  He can make you feel uneasy, while at the same time coaxing a smile of recognition from you.  And maybe, if you’re willing to admit it, you’re laughing along too because it’s so damn funny.  Just don’t tell your Mom.
And what can be said about the art?  This was what enticed me to click on “Kelly” in the first place.  The closest in style to what Goldman is doing might be Ben Templesmith’s work in Fell or any of the painted works from Scott Morse.  Goldman takes clean linework and overlays it with swaths and spatters of digital paint.  The end result is a feast for the eyes and adds an additional layer to the story, eliciting feelings of wonder, or surrealism, or alarm.
Goldman also utilizes other techniques to accentuate the mood of a chapter.  The most obvious example of this comes in chapters 6 and 7, when Max’s ex-girlfriend Theresa rings his cell phone.  As Max realizes who it is Goldman turns the panel on his protagonist, whose face is melting away – the ink running off the bottom of Max’s face like tears.  This is painful.  We know just from the image what he is going through.  In the following chapter Goldman continues to showcase Max’s mental state by running Theresa’s name across the backgrounds of all the panels Max is in.  After lying dormant for months, she has sprung to the forefront of Max’s mind and the psychic backlash is written all over the walls, literally.   
Comics can get so boring, especially if you remain in the superhero mainstream.  I want to be surprised, transfixed, and just blown away by what I read.  Gladly, the ACT-I-VATE site does all that.  To check it out go to http://act-i-vate.livejournal.com  and start clicking.
Back in the vault this time we have another anthology of sorts, issue #2 of Anything Goes! from Fantagraphics Books.  Published in the summer of 1986, Anything Goes! was a benefit book that caught my attention because of the list of creators involved.  Where else can you take a few minutes and enjoy a complete story – a complete experience – created by the likes of Jaime Hernandez, Sam Kieth, Alan Moore, and Art Spiegelman? 
            Like most benefit books, pin-up pieces by noted artists are included and this comic happened to showcase the works of two giants in the field.  First there is the cover from Frank Miller.  Beautifully colored by painter Lynn Varley who brought a sophistication to comics coloring that would not become more widespread until years later, this piece contains all the hallmarks of Miller’s work in his signature “Dark Knight” style.  Ninja, Japanese swordsmen, futuristic warriors, arrows and bullets flying across the canvas, this is the frenetic artwork fans had come to expect from this wunderkind and he didn’t disappoint.  And inside we find three plates from Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott, who had not worked together for fifteen years before this collaboration.  Together, the pieces comprise a short story.  Although Kirby’s art is not for everyone, and this story sadly does not contain the dynamic power for which he is known, Kirby was still a giant in the field.  Despite lacking his trademark energy this contribution does have one of the more surreal pieces I’ve ever seen drawn by Kirby – a Martian egghead one man band.  After almost fifty years in comics he was still able to give us something new from his fertile mind.
            Jaime Hernandez, co-creator of the incredible anthology Love & Rockets, is also present here.  Providing a new 4-page “Locas” short featuring Hopey and Maggie, this is a good introduction to the beauty of Hernandez’s comics.  Not only is his art clean and smooth, the envy of other artists, but he also infuses his stories with all the humor, sadness, and drama that can be found in everyday life.  Despite being set in California with a predominantly Spanish population – drawing upon his own life experiences – anyone can relate to Hernandez’s stories because the emotions and the situations are so true to life.  More people should be checking out the work put forth by him and his brothers, Gilbert and Mario.
            Next we have a Sam Kieth 2-pager titled “And Speaking Of Those Abstract Pretentious Stories That Make You Feel Stupid If You Don’t Get Them. . .”  One of his earliest works, you can already see his soft, fluid art style coming forth.  We are also treated to his distinctly surreal viewpoint evident in much of his later work such as The Maxx.  This particular tale is about a man and a woman very much in love.  But, as the man comes to idealize the woman his feelings fall into depraved, sexually perverse territory.  Unwilling to treat her as a whore, he hides his feelings in a box buried in the backyard.  Eventually, the woman finds the box and the spawn found within is something that could only come from the fevered mind of Kieth.
            Two pieces near the back of the book are “Chrysalis,” an adaptation of a Jack Cronin fantasy poem by Dennis Fujitake, and a 1973 strip from Art Spiegelman titled “Walt Disney Lives.”  The former deals with being an outcast and eventually leaving behind those that scorn you.  The artwork is reminiscent of Moebius and Bilal and will have me looking for other work by Fujitake.  The latter is a cautionary fever-dream from comix master Spiegelman.  What if Walt Disney were revived from cryogenic hibernation and decided to purify the world and lead it into a new millennium?  Here is the answer.  Anything more I might say could not do this short story justice.  If you are familiar with Spiegelman’s more political work then you know what to expect.
            And that brings us back around to the centerpiece of this book, “In Pictopia,” written by Alan Moore and drawn by Don Simpson.  Like most of Moore’s best work this story can be read on a couple of different levels.  On the surface this is a day in the life tale relating Nocturno the Necromancer’s experience in the surreal city of Pictopia.  Here is a place where all the types of characters we have ever read about in comic books and comic strips live side by side.  Superheroes, funny animals, adventure heroes, western characters, and one who looks very much like the Yellow Kid – the very first comic strip character – along with countless others.  They’re all here living together, though not necessarily in harmony.  The brightly clad superheroes, overly-muscled and excessively scowled, are pushing out all the older characters including outdated models of some of the spandex set, and nobody seems able to do anything about it.  In the end, Nocturno goes looking for his friend Flexible Flynn, a Plastic Man variant, and discovers an ubermensch with rippling muscles and a sinister look wearing Flynn’s costume.  Alarmed, Nocturno runs out into the street and heads toward Funnytown, a small section on the outskirts where the funny animals dwell.  He knows there he can find the consolation he so desperately needs after this jarring experience.  But when he gets there he finds it all dozed under, any consolation he might have found now a faded memory.
            Of course, having been written in 1986 when the effects of the ‘grim and gritty’ movement were about to lay hold of the comic book marketplace, this tale can also be read as a lament of where the industry was heading.  Moore has stated many times his disdain for the hyper-realistic, relevant anti-hero movement that was spawned by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and his and Dave Gibbons’s own Watchmen.  The problem that arose after these two seminal works were published was that everyone wanted to replicate the glossy sheen of these stories but didn’t dig any deeper to find the core relevance in these landmark creations.  “In Pictopia” is one of Moore’s most poignant discourses on this subject and serves as an illuminating counterpoint to this dark era as well as a beautiful love letter to comics’ rich history, all in only 13 pages.
            I would be remiss if I did not mention Don Simpson’s contribution to this piece as well.  The facility he showed in mimicking varying artists’ styles added very much to the story’s ability to work on multiple levels.  The goofy dog, the Phantom, the Lone Ranger, and the hyper-real superheroes are all recognizable as being of their time.  Without his attention to detail this could not have worked as well.  Once again, Moore managed to bring out the best in his artist.
            And there we are, two more comics I hope you’ll check out.  As always, let me know what you think.  I’m always interested in hearing any opinions or recommendations you might have.  And we’ll see you here again in two weeks. 

            Lost in the Back Matter.

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