There is something wrong with Tatiana Davidson's brain.
And I like it.
Several weeks ago, Mitch forwarded me a preview of the Sydney-based comic creator's latest project, Coney's Best Cuts. I thought it was excellent and immediately told Mitch as much. Soon after, I found a copy of Davidson's 2015 work, Black Fish, stuck away for me. It's a nasty little number about a young girl with a rather particular family problem and a weird black fish that seems to be mutating in her garden pond. It's really nicely presented and Davidson's loose cartoon figures and greywash adds impact to the really crazed conclusion. I'm reminded immediately not so much of the old EC gang, who crafted some of the all-time great horror shorts, but rather of those J-Horror Godfathers, Junji Ito and, particularly, Kazuo Umezu.
Umezu's influence seems up front and centre in Coney's Best Cuts and I'd be gobsmacked if Davidson wasn't an Umezz acolyte (Tatiana, if you read this, you *must* get hold of The Drifting Classroom and his Snake Girl stories if you haven't already). This time it's a young boy in the lead, dared by sinister-looking "cool kids" to enter a local slaughterhouse and return with a trophy. Davidson ups the cute factor, just like Umezu,to undercut expectation at what's about to unfold and also ups the body horror significantly to wonderfully grisly effect. Coney's Best Cuts marks a significant evolution in skill and confidence from the already impressive Black Fish. Good horror comics are hard to make. Short ones even harder. Davidson has a gift for them, however, and I'm onboard big time to see where she heads next. I'm not sure if Coney's Best Cuts is officially out yet, (Edit Note : it is) but if offbeat horror stories with nasty climaxes are your bag, pop in store and see for yourself.
Two *big* thumbs up.
COMIC OF THE WEEK : ROUGHNECK
By Jeff Lemire
Published By Gallery 13
New publisher on the block Gallery 13 may seem like some plucky young upstart, but actually is the latest imprint of Simon & Schuster, one of the largest book publishers in the world. I'm not sure who is doing their commissioning, but with a reissue of Bernie Wrightson's Creepshow work already out and now the arrival of Jeff Lemire's Roughneck (Christophe Chaboute's acclaimed Alone was announced but has moved to Dark Horse), they are off to a strong start, displaying a keen eye for reprints and strong original voices alike.
Roughneck is exactly the kind of material I feel Toronto's Jeff Lemire does best. I've seen other reviews call it a "return to form" which seems a little harsh, it's more a return to personal work where the artist can expand his page count unrestrained by the trappings of mainstream genre comics and take the time to build the muscle of characterisation expertly and densely onto the skeleton of a plot.
Don't be fooled by the cover design which vibes Commercial Thriller, unsurprising given just how many prose books of this sort Simon & Schuster crank out every year. Honestly, if Lemire's cover image was a digitally manipulated photograph instead of a moody watercolour, Roughneck could easily slot in right next to the latest blockbuster by the de jour thriller writer of the month. Adding to this, there's even a quote on the back cover calling Lemire "The Stephen King of comics" which is really the most bizarre copy I've seen pasted on a comic book in some time. Thankfully, Lemire once again subverts expectation, constantly (perhaps unconsciously?) messing with the rather tired formula of the modern tough guy/action hero of the popular novel, which, ironically, is perpetuated by his publisher. Violence, the after-effects of sudden fierce outbreaks of life-changing violence, is one of Roughneck's major motifs. There is nothing redemptive or glamorous about violent action in Roughneck. Violence is harsh and ruinous and it echoes on throughout the characters' lives as they try and climb from the wreckage it has made of them.
Derek Oulette, promising hockey career destroyed, now lives in the small Northern Canadian town of Pimitamon. Now a short-order cook by day, Oulette's short fuse sees him brawl through the night and sleeping at the local hockey rink where memories of glories on the ice haunt him. When his estranged sister, Beth, shows up in town, drug addicted and on the run from Wade, her horribly abusive ex-boyfriend, the pair must find the strength to not only overcome their personal demons but also somehow rebuild their family.
Lemire cleverly uses an icy blue/grey wash for the present and rich watercolours for the flashbacks. It’s a technique that delineates quite clearly between the emotional iciness of the present (matched by the freezing surroundings) and the comparative warmth of happier, or at least more personally fulfilling times, right up to the tipping points of violent incident that begin quite different, but equally self-destructive, cycles of violence for each sibling.
The only real addition of colour to the present sequences is that of red - used as the colour of violence, of death, of blood. Wade, when he appears, wears a shirt with red checks. Lemire marks him with the "stain" of violence - a coded warning to beware the man. The danger he presents is signalled. This use of red is a trick that cycles back all the way to start of Lemire's career, Lost Dogs, in which his pugilist protagonist is similarly marked with the stains of violence. It's clever and actually a lot subtler than I've made it sound, and it's another beautiful little trick you can only really get away with in comics.
The moments of violent incident in Roughneck carry as much weight as they do because Lemire invests all his skill and patience into moments of quiet. Pages of characters trudging through snow (with some of the loveliest, inkiest trees I've seen for some time - they almost look like Japanese prints in their brushed inkiness), or simply going through the punishing repetition of the working day, build a sense of emotional isolation and solitude. This is true particularly for Derek, who has put himself in a boozed state of wintery limbo, making his way through days that move as slowly as the fall of a snowflake. Empathy is built for Derek in moments like these, where the waste he's made of his life is palpable.
The conclusion, when it arrives, is perfectly executed and again undercuts both reader expectation and genre convention. Action may drive plots forward, but in Lemire's literate, sensitive works, characters are realistic enough to veer off the path of formulaic resolution in ways that feel both individualistic to them as "humans" and satisfying, on a narrative level, to a reader dealing with fictional constructions. Roughneck is an emotionally rich read, a wonderful example of the importance of quiet in comics and yet another stand-out book by a creator who, even at his best, still feels like he's warming up.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : PENETRATING RULE
By Connor Willumsen
The supremely talented Connor Willumsen has his latest project, Anti-Gone, due this September from Koyama Press. "Penetrating Rule," created for The Nib, details his experiences working on and eventually quitting a Wolverine Max project several years back. A fascinating peek behind the editorial curtain at Marvel, "Penetrating Rule" centres squarely on just what Willumsen could and could not get away with in depicting a sex scene featuring everyone’s favourite hirsute mutant within the realms of "mature" comics culminating in a pretty pointed argument about the extremes of violence allowed, versus the depictions of sexuality allowed. Really great stuff sketchily-drawn by Willumsen, giving both a sense of urgency to his work and an intimate "diarised" feel. If you're unfamiliar, Google his name to see what he's really capable of artistically.
Warning: Contains Wolverine's hairy butt.
BONUS WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : TO SEE WHAT SHE SAW
By Nick Sousanis
See this week's video for below for more on this beautiful tribute comic to academic Maxine Greene by Nick Sousanis, whose book Unflattening needs to be considered utterly essential reading for all and sundry.
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : CONTINUING A CONVERSATION WITH MAXINE GREENE IN COMICS
Building off the above webcomic tribute to academic Maxine Greene, here's Nick Sousanis explaining just what went in to the creation of his wonderful little comic. Sousanis, one of comics most singular creators, is a source of seemingly never-ending creative inspiration and positivity. Reading "To See What She Saw" (linked above) and watching this video, it's impossible not to see just how important Maxine Greene was to Sousanis' worldview, which is spun with such playful, innovative construction into his comics.
Sousanis is a treasure. One can only imagine just how special someone he holds in such high regard actually was. This is stirring, inspirational stuff, typical of Sousanis, whose Unflattening I again spruik to you as one of the most culturally important comics in decades.
See you next week. Love your comics.
Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you'll likely never read. He's the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.