A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Monday, April 25, 2011

WHEN WE WERE WOLVES: New comics by Becky Cloonan & Vera Brosgol

It's only a coincidence that I currently have on my desk two self-published minicomics with titles that refer to "wolves." Despite being by two of the finest cartoonists to emerge in the last ten years, there is no grand design here, no intentional trade-off of ideas or collusion. That doesn't mean that as a reader I can't bring them together and hang them under one banner, because they both deserve attention and they both are fantastic examples of pure comic book storytelling even if the final products are vastly different.

Becky Cloonan's Wolves is a brutal, fatalistic short tale that began life in a Japanese anthology and has since been expanded and fleshed out and is now presented by the author all on its own. It's a comic book that is equally violent and romantic--which is as it should be, some of the worst violence in human history has been inspired by the most romantic of feelings.

From a plot standpoint, this one is simple: a medieval hunter in a snow-covered forest tracks a dangerous predator, all the while ruminating on why this task has fallen on him and of the love he left behind to go out and risk his life by order of his king. Cloonan balances past and present effortlessly, and depending on how you read, also gives us a little of the future, intentionally turning the reader round and round in order to unnerve us for the climactic revelations and to leave things obscure enough that we can read into them what we will. I have multiple ideas about how this book ends, about who the beast really was and the literal and/or mystical truth of the "curse" vs. the more existential punishment that it could represent. I have little doubt that Cloonan knew exactly what she was doing, and she is smartly keeping her "true" explanations to herself.

In terms of artwork, I can't think of a time when Becky's inks have looked better. Despite working on Wolves in drips and drabs between her other projects, the pages all cohere. When I think of Becky Cloonan's inks, I usually think of bold, thick lines and heavy blacks--both of which are on evidence here--but linger for a while on the linework and there is so much more going on in Wolves. There is lots of intricate detail, including the finer elements of the tree trunks, chain mail, and the hairy beast that gives the comic its title. There is also a wonderful use of thin lines and white space to differentiate the romantic flashbacks from the bloody action.

Side note: I am currently halfway through the second volume of Demo, Cloonan's creator-owned collaboration with writer Brian Wood, and I see the development of this more assured style in its pages. Becky has really taken command of the black-and-white page since the first time she and Wood tackled this series. Brian has also become a much finer writer, and his stories in this new volume have a more measured impact. Together and individually, they keep raising the bar for their own work, meaning each book they come out with is better than the last, and as far as I can see, they have yet to reach a point where this trajectory will crest or plateau.

Becky Cloonan will have Wolves for sale at upcoming conventions, including TCAF. Details on where and how to get the comic are at her blog. It's limited to 1,000. Don't wait to order.

We still have nearly two months until Vera Brosgol's full-length debut, Anya's Ghost, is released by First:Second. In the meantime, she has started selling her own minicomic, What Were You Raised by Wolves?, at conventions. She will be at TCAF, as well. I bought my copy at Stumptown.

What Were You Raised by Wolves? is a silent comic, drawn in a looser, more open style than some of Vera's other work. The soft lines retain a slightly "shaky" quality that preserve the feeling of original pencils, combining classic Kurtzman-esque cartooning with the fluidity of animation storyboards. In fact, What Were You Raised by Wolves? makes me think of some of the cool, weird one-off cartoons Chuck Jones did for Warner Bros. in the 1950s, stuff like "Rocket-Bye Baby" and "Boyhood Daze." Which isn't at all to suggest this would work better as animation, it's a perfect comic. The storytelling is clear, concise, and lively.

The star of What Were You Raised by Wolves? is a feral girl who, from what we can tell, really was raised by wolves. At the start, she is adopted into a family who entered her forest to camp, and who take her home despite the disappearance of their youngest boy (a grisly fate the girl is aware of, but presumably can't communicate). She grows up with the family, encountering her fair share of troubles, and then strikes out on her own. Existence in the big city, she will find, is far less civilized than her wild life in the woods, and she has to decide what best serves her true nature.

Despite the inherent social commentary, Brosgol keeps the action light. Most of the narrative is boiled down to one or two-page sequences, each a gag unto itself, but they cumulatively push the plot along and build one on the other for the final effect. It's all deftly handled, even when the subject does skew a little dark, reading as much more effortless than it likely is. What Were You Raised by Wolves? makes me even more excited to eventually get my hands on Anya's Ghost.

Explore more about Vera at her website, and be sure to check out her awesome collaborative Tumblr with Emily Carroll, "Draw This Dress." You also want to get their postcard set of drawings from that blog.

Panel from Anya's Ghost

Current Soundtrack: My Latest Novel, various tracks; Law & Order: Los Angeles on TV

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All text (c) 2011 Jamie S. Rich

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