Wednesday, June 21, 2006

These interspecies relationships can be murder: Dancia's Novgorodoff's "A Late Freeze"

The excellent mini-comic, A Late Freeze, is not your typical lovers-on-the-lam story. First, our male lead is an industrial robot that breaks out of its drab factory and goes to live in the nearby woods. The female lead is a bear. A gun toting frog, stolen from the gift shop of a Cracker Barrel, stands in for our comic relief sidekick. And the family friendly role of Junior is played, in this off-kilter narrative, by a bear/robot hybrid. This unlikely ursine-cyborg family, finding their sylvan home threatened by urban sprawl, comes in conflict with world of factories, fast food joints, truck stops, and decay carnivals. Laws are broken and the family becomes the target of a federal manhunt (robot hunt? bear hunt?). Blood is shed; the family is torn apart. But, ultimately, despite this grim finale, there is a ray of hope.

Dancia Novgorodoff's work is some of the best I ever seen – not only in mini-comics, but in the medium of comics as a whole. The art of A Late Freeze is expressive, wonderfully detailed, and has a sort of dreamy unreality that gives the entire thing the feel of some children's tale that, instead of sticking to the shop worn clichés of picture books, jumped tracks and rolled into the darker pathways of the tellers subconscious. The characters are well-drawn, three-dimensional, and immediately sympathetic. They populate a world of archetypal landscapes: the Depression-era work line; the bustling and polluted factory; the service towns of cheap motels and bad restaurants that cling to the highways like kudzu; a forest that looks like it came straight out of an old coloring book or paint-by-number kit.

These dream-like visuals are the perfect vehicle for Novgorodoff's story-telling, which manages to blend the fantastically surreal with genuine sympathy and emotional detail. Though her characters are talking bears and rebellious robots, their relationships are recognizably human. They feel fully realized and their actions develop naturally from their personalities. Despite the strange plot twists and frequent reliance on deus ex machina, I never felt lost or manipulated by the author because her entire world hangs together so well.

A Late Freeze is a true stand-out work in the medium. I recommend it highly.

Copies of the book are available at her Web site.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Actually Doing It: Adam Suerte's "Aprendiz"

Brooklyn-based artist Adam Suerte is some sort of street-level Renaissance man. Aside from his mini-comic, the three issue autobiographical Aprendiz (left), he is also a painter and tattoo artist. His designs have appeared on t-shirts and buttons. Finally, his UFA (Urban Folk Art Studio) helped bankroll murals, self-published comics, local art openings, and other projects. As worthy as his other achievements maybe be, I'm going to focus strictly on Suerte's top notch mini-comic.

Suerte has a gift for well-plotted comic story-telling. Over the course of three slender issues, Suerte takes his reader from his art school graduation, through the founding and temporary collapse of the UFA, and, finally, to his apprenticeship at a Lower East Side tattoo parlor in Manhattan. Suerte's story is an appealing one and well-told. By focusing very strictly on his professional and artistic ambitions, and restricting his narrative to the story of how he became a tattoo artist, Suerte avoids the bloated, discursive self-indulgence that can too easily derail autobiographic projects. Instead we're given a detailed, efficient tale of how independent artists sink or swim in the NYC market. Character development is deftly handled through character design, revealing dialogue, and precise internal monologues. The details of running a tattoo parlor are crisp and often comical. The whole exercise is refreshing free of sad-sack navel gazing.

Occasionally, I wished Suerte would break for a moment and focus on other issues. For example: Suerte, especially in the early issues, often depicts himself with dark rings around his eyes. The size of the rings seems to be directly connected to alcohol use. As the character of Adam gets his life together and focuses on tattooing, the rings slowly diminish, if not completely disappear. Is intended to indicate a struggle with alcohol abuse? Other visual clues suggest so, but Suerte never tackles the issue dead on. Still, this is a minor complaint. Narrative decisions must be made and it hard to fault Suerte's choices given how well it turns out. Finally, there's the matter of Suerte's playful, phonetic spelling. In Suete's world "studio" becomes "stewdeo," a simple defamiliarization that puns off of the intoxicating effects of booze and dope. I could imagine that many readers would find this precious or off-putting. Personally, I found it more entertaining than distracting and believe it extends Suerte's playful visual aesthetic into his prose. It doesn't grate because it is so clear of a piece with the artwork.

Suerte's art exceeds expectations. That a professional tattoo artist, painter, and illustrator is no great surprise. However, I admit that I wasn't really expecting much from Suerte's heavily tattoo and graffiti influenced style. Unlike comics, the stylized forms of tattoo and graffiti art seem, to me, to be purposefully static. They are not really intended to interact with other images in a narrative fashion. They don't take well to gutters, in the comic book sense. But Suerte makes it work. His lines are organic and lively, his layouts packed, but never confusing, and the whole thing propels the reader along. He never fully achieves the feeling of movement and action – one gets a bit of a sense of moving from one illustration to the next – but the nature of his story never really calls for it, so it doesn't feel lacking in any way. By fusing comic book art with tattoo artistry and the aesthetics of graffiti, Suerte manages to approach something like a unified theory of lowbrow art; a distillation of the contemporary urban folk style and spirit. This alone would be enough to recommend the books. Put to the service of an ably handled narrative and I think Suerte's mini-comics are true standouts and well worth looking into.

Copies of Aprendiz are available at Adam Suerte's Web site.