Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Back Matter #4 - Nabiel Kanan + Darren Aronofsky's Book of Ants

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


            I first encountered Nabiel Kanan’s work in issue #12 of Negative Burn and was immediately taken by his stark, clean artwork and inventive storytelling.  This 8-page short consisted of four double-page spreads and involved a conversation between two high school friends.  What stayed with me was the fact that Kanan did not use any panel borders but still had the characters “move” over the continuous background.  The conversation flowed through multiple images of the characters across the dark landscape.  Since first encountering it here, I have only seen a similar technique incorporated by Eduardo Risso in his and Brian Azzarello’s series 100 Bullets.  It worked amazingly well and placed Kanan on my list of artists to watch.
            In The Birthday Riots readers are introduced to Max Collins, a 42-year-old Englishman who appears to have it all.  A senior member of the campaign team for London mayoral candidate Thom Conran, Max owns a nice house in the country, is married to a beautiful wife, and is the father of two healthy kids, Natalie and Owen.  With the election only weeks away it is an exciting time for Collins.  On the cusp of what could possibly be his greatest professional achievement, there seems to be nothing that could stop them now.  But of course, that’s what life is all about – the obstacles we don’t see coming, often made worse by the fact that they should have been anticipated before turning into a steamroller. 
            The United Kingdom is embroiled in a heated debate over the country’s Land Laws Bill, which prohibits nomadic and homeless people from occupying private or public land.  Leading the news on a daily basis, it is a topic at the forefront of many people’s minds and some in Conran’s campaign feel it is an issue they need to address.  But it is also a terribly controversial subject, one where emotions run high on both sides.  Collins realizes this will be a very divisive issue and advises Conran to ignore it.  He explains that the Land Laws Bill is a piece of national legislation and not one the mayor of London would have any power to change.  Instead, he feels they should focus on issues that affect Londoners specifically, like public transport.  Collins argues rightly that Londoners are fed up with the gridlock and worried about the unclean air they are breathing.  He believes if Conran runs on a pledge to improve the public transportation system of London he can win the election.  Conran likes the idea and runs with it.
            At home, Natalie is about to turn fifteen and going through one of those transitional periods that teenagers experience.  The Land Laws Bill targets the gypsy population roaming Britain’s countryside.  Having no permanent home and often finding themselves being evicted by the local constabulary if they do settle in one place for too long, many of the kids in these gypsy caravans end up attending multiple schools.  One of these kids happens to be a classmate of Natalie’s and she, unlike the vast majority of Londoners, is able to put a personal face to this cause.  Raised to be politically aware, Natalie is able to see this law for the iniquity it is and wants to do something about it.  This obviously leads to a number of heated arguments with her father who, when telling her flatly that she will not be joining any protest rallies, is only trying to keep his daughter out of harm’s way.  But, armed with the righteousness born of youth, she is only able to see her father as apathetic and contributing to the problem if he is not willing to do something.  Compounding Natalie’s feelings of disappointment with her Dad is the fact that ten years ago, while still living in the city, he began building her a treehouse in their old backyard.  He jokingly promised her that although it might take some time he would definitely have it done by her fifteenth birthday – a day now fast approaching.  Despite being a teenager there is still a part of her that wants to believe her father did not make that promise in vain.  A few times she starts to ask him about it, but stops herself short, afraid to burst that tiny bubble of hope she has held onto since she was five.     With only days left the campaign is in full swing and Max is slowly coming to the realization that his job has taken over his life, propelling him forward while everything that was important to him has fallen by the wayside.  A chance encounter with a small number of homeless people, coupled with the questioning from his daughter, sends Collins back to his roots in a vain attempt to find the ideals he left behind.  Walking the halls of the London College of Social Sciences, where Conran found him ten years earlier, Collins finds himself awash with memories.  Flashes of the maverick political activist he once was open Max’s eyes for the first time in years.  The man he used to be, the man his daughter would like him to be, would never have taken the easy road.  The old Max Collins would have fought for those that needed it most, like the gypsies and the homeless who need that help now.  Struck by this revelation Max runs to the office intent on getting the Land Laws Bill onto the mayoral candidate’s platform, hoping he is not too late to rediscover the man flashing through his memories.  But retrieving that piece of our soul that has been lost is never an easy thing to do.
            Kanan’s stories are subtle and sublime.  He eschews melodrama and wild narratives for tales about real characters experiencing real emotions, and this allows his audience to relate strongly with his stories.  Kanan’s works compare favorably to the stories from Los Bros Hernandez in Love & Rockets.  Like the “Locas” and “Palomar” tales, Kanan mines everyday life for the little treasures and silent conflicts encountered every day.  Kanan wants his readers to know these characters, to care about them, and he utilizes dialogue expertly to reveal who these people are and how they feel about one another.  Like all good writers he manages to make all of the characters, even those who play a minor role, unique.  While he lures his audience into caring about these people on the page, Kanan is also teasing out the narrative, slowly moving it along as things work out at their own pace.  His use of flashback, repeating panels, and other techniques uniquely suited to comics is always well done, conveying the emotions of the story while delving into the characters’ psyches.  And in The Birthday Riots Kanan leads his protagonist from the shallow end of the pool across to the deep end where he must learn to swim or suffer the consequences.  But can Max learn in time, or is it already too late? 
            At first glance, Kanan’s art style seems simple and effortless, almost cartoon-like.  But upon reflection one comes away with a better appreciation of the work that must go into his bare-bones style.  Kanan’s economy of line is wonderful – an artful bit of shading here, the slightest hint of a raised eyebrow there – and it brings an expressiveness to his art that is lost in the overly-delineated work often found in comics today.  One sequence in particular from The Birthday Riots stands out for me.  Near the end of the book Max finds himself on the edge of a demonstration against the Land Laws Bill.  Pausing for a second he is suddenly jarred from his stupor as he spies his daughter in the throng.  She has been missing for a few days and he reaches out to her hesitantly, a look of surprise obvious on his face.  The next two panels continue to focus on Collins, framing him from his chest up just as in the initial panel of surprise.  But, in the second panel the reader can see Max’s alarm fading and realizes that he is mulling over what his next step should be.  The final panel has Max remaining silent as he drops his arm and the barest hint of a smile starts to cross his face.  Kanan's ability is such – and the changes so subtle – that even studying the panels closely a reader is hardly able to see what is different in Max’s facial expression from one image to the next despite the fact that our brains easily register the changing emotions on Max’s face.  Kanan’s art is expressive and nuanced, which easily allows the audience into his world while serving the story beautifully.  This is a great book and I would recommend you seek it out as well as other stories by Nabiel Kanan.
            Back in the vault this time we have The Book of Ants from Artisan Entertainment.  Written by Darren Aronofsky with art from Edward Ross Flynn, this is a companion piece to Aronofsky’s first film PI, which won the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.  Though not a straight adaptation – how could 28 pages fully encompass a 90-minute feature – it still manages to give us the story of mathematician Maximilian Cohen within these restricted confines.  In fact, the way Aronofsky is able to compact and merge scenes, while also expanding a part that gives us more insight into Max’s psyche, is masterful.  Reading this comic in conjunction with a viewing of PI will give the fan/reader a much better understanding of Cohen’s world. 
            The artist that Aronofsky found through a usenet posting, Edward Ross Flynn, is a graphic designer and illustrator who has done work for The Village Voice, Art & Politics Magazine, along with a number of underground magazines.  His work is not as polished as one might find in most comics, but a closer examination of Flynn’s scratchboard illustrations allows for a better appreciation of his technique and interpretive skills.  In PI, Max Cohen is a mathematician obsessed with finding the numerical pattern hidden within the stock market.  His mind is completely focused on this task and he is always running new hypotheses and measured data over and over in his mind.  It is never-ending and Flynn is able to get this across through his artwork.  His basic style, one rife with multiple cross-hatchings and scratches that lend weight and depth to the images, imbues the page with a sense of frenetic activity, mirroring the protagonist’s psyche.  Flynn also artfully utilizes long shots with exaggerated perspective, distancing the main character from the reader and allowing the audience to recognize that Cohen is all alone in his struggle.  Cohen’s quest requires such a specialized perspective and background that it becomes a singular one, which he is unable to share with others.
            I often find myself wishing I could go back and read books like this at a point in my life before I had seen the movie.  Would I enjoy this comic on its own merits?  Does the story make sense if I am without the extensive background afforded watching the movie, or would I be lost?  Of course, these are foolish notions and ones not worth pondering overly much.  The fact is, PI the Movie is an incredible film and The Book of Ants is an entertaining comic that will spark your brain.  And if you are able to find copies of both, viewing/reading them together will enhance the experience that much more.


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