Short takes on four comics

Woman King (Self-publishesd, 2009) – Colleen Frakes

I intended to buy this at MoCCA, but didn’t. As we ran around handing out the Ignatz nominee badges at Small Press Expo, I decided that was as good of a time as any to buy it.

A bear decides to lead an uprising against humans and adopts a little girl to help lead the fight as the “king” of the bears. As she grows up, the bears get no closer to winning their battle with the humans.

As our heroine progresses from girl to woman, she looses her innocence little by little — her bear family eats sheep she’s befriended, the young man she falls in love with is a hunter with the head of a deer on his wall — until she decides she doesn’t want to be controlled anymore.

Frakes’ adorable drawings make this look like a “cute animal” tale for the most part, which makes the scenes of violence, while not overly graphic, all the more shocking. It becomes a powerful reflection on being blinded by conflict and the thoughtless cruelty we often perpetuate. This is a book I am proud to own.

Salamander Dream (AdHouse Books, 2005) – Hope Larson

Dreamlike in tone, Larson follows a girl named Hailey and her friendship with Salamander, a lithe, masked human figure in all black. Hailey and Salamander play in the wilderness near Hailey’s house, but as Hailey gets older, she has less and less time for Salamander.

Presented in black, white and vibrant green, extended, wordless sequences show Hailey and Salamander floating through water, the sky and even shrinking to travel through Hailey’s bloodstream. Larson varies her page layouts — sometimes they are well-defined and rigid, other times they are loose and and malleable. Her art has a clarity that is lovely — the curves of her lines give her drawings movement and immediacy.

It’s left up to the reader to decide if Salamander is a real, magical creature or just an imaginary friend of Hailey’s (in fact, Larson seems to say there’s not much difference between the two).

This is a beautiful little book and I’ve enjoyed revisiting it since I bought it.

Sleeper Car (Secret Acres, 2009) – Theo Ellsworth

Ellsworth fills his pages with robots and space explorers and weirdness just for the sake of weirdness. He’s playful — look for all the little animals in the background of “Norman Eight’s Left Arm” — and his love of the surreal never descends into creepiness. Technically, it’s brilliant and lush — his art is impossibly complicated and full of lines and textures in the background — but it also feels much like a product of someone who’s just goofying around and doodling (oh, if we could all doodle like this).

There is something very childlike about his work. It’s like one part Moebius, one part Where The Wild Things Are. Yes, “How to Build a: Pajama Tent” is adorable and something we all can remember doing, but other pages, like “Political Statement” that shows an image of “The 220th President of the United States” feel like something he probably just drew for fun and captioned later.

Ellsworth has a fascinating style. His comics can be dense but they’re almost always fun.

Cross Country (Fort Hamilton Press, 2009) – MK Reed

Spooner is on a road trip as the assistant to Greg, the asshole heir to a Wal-Mart-like company, as they travel around the country to decide which stores to close. Spooner hates Greg, but the money is too good to pass up. Along the way, he visits his ex-girlfriend, Julia, as he decides what he wants from life.

Reed presents this story in a pretty matter-of-fact way — it feels a lot like a cute, low-budget indie movie. Reed’s art has a softness to it — she draws her characters with loose curves and simple features. I wouldn’t call it abstract, but there is a certain economy to her lines. She adds just enough to make her scenes clear.

I think we all have someone in our lives that we just can’t let go of. Maybe this person isn’t so much “the one that got away” but we still have some lingering thought about what could have been if things have gone differently. I liked that Reed never presented Julia as a villain and it didn’t work out with Spooner just because it didn’t work out. I also liked how Spooner came to — maybe not so much an understanding with Greg, but something close to recognition.

This is a quiet little book but very affecting and satisfying.

(Hope Larson will be appearing at the University of Richmond for Graphic Details: Discussing Contemporary Comics at 7 p.m. Sunday, along with Gabrielle Bell, Kim Deitch and Anders Nilsen. The panel will be moderated by AdHouse Books founder Chris Pitzer.)

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