Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Comics Review: Josh Simmons, Jessica Farm, Volume One

The first volume of Josh Simmons' scatological fantasy-picaresque is a tired, amateurishly drawn rehash of dream-surrealist tropes.



Jessica Farm, Volume One, by Josh Simmons, is available for sale from Powell's Books. to purchase a copy, please click here.

The episodes of Josh SimmonsJessica Farm are constructed around the dynamic of Snoopy Syndrome. In Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, the Snoopy character has an active fantasy life. Living the stultifying life of a suburban pet, he imagines himself in more glamorous scenarios, such as being a World War I flying ace who battles the Red Baron, or the ultra-hip college lady-killer Joe Cool. But he never finds satisfaction; his daydreams always end in disappointment. As the flying ace, the Red Baron always shoots him down. And as Joe Cool, the “chicks” always ignore him. Jessica, Simmons’ protagonist, is repeatedly frustrated in her fantasy world as well.

She does find some enjoyment, such as when miniature musicians perform for her in the shower and the attic. However, most of the scenes follow the Snoopy Syndrome pattern. Her favorite stuffed animal--it talks, of course--turns up butchered. A beefcake fantasy lover becomes a self-pitying crybaby just as their make-out session heats up. She is reunited with her grandparents, but their meal together is disrupted by Mr. Sugarcock, a naked weirdo with man-boobs who continually gropes his genitals and “seasons” the soup by dunking his scrotum in it.

Jessica Farm has pretensions of being a Surrealist piece, and it includes such hackneyed dream-surrealist tropes as climbing darkened stairs and endless falls through space. Simmons, though, has a ways to go to catch up with Salvador Dalí, Djuna Barnes, or David Lynch. His narrative is clear, but it lacks tension, and the book is aimless and tedious. His art isn’t compelling, either--Simmons has a solid understanding of composition, and he’s a passable cartoon draftsman, but he hasn’t mastered treating the inking as part of the drawing process. His inept brushwork sits lifeless on the page.

It’s certainly possible to create a successful surrealist picaresque in comics--just consider Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown. But it requires stronger cartooning chops than Simmons demonstrates, and the story needs a sense of urgency. Simmons reportedly cartoons Jessica Farm at the rate of one page a month (this volume contains the first 96 pages of a projected 600), and he seems to forget the why of the story in between pages. The Snoopy Syndrome dynamic of the episodes seems more reflective of habit than intent. Jessica Farm doesn’t appear to know where it wants to go, and it doesn’t give the reader any reason to tag along.

This review appeared in The Comics Journal #295 in somewhat different form. Material that had been deleted for publication has been restored, and other minor revisions have been included.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Studio Art: Marvel Test Plot


Below are six pages were drawn from a test plot that Marvel gives to applying cartoonists. I drew them sometime in the late 1990s.
The test plot followed the first stage of what I understand is considered the "Marvel style" of writing a story. The action is broken down on a page-by-page basis, with only a description of what is happening for the cartoonist to interpret. The cartoonist is responsible for breaking the action down into individual panels and for determining the drawings therein. After the pencils are complete, the scripter then goes back and writes the dialogue and caption copy for the pages. After this, the pages are lettered and the art is rendered in india ink. Obviously, you're just seeing the pencil stage here.
I found the page descriptions to be absurdly dense. They called for too much action to be compressed in a single page. However, this is probably understandable. Marvel is not lacking for cartoonists applying for work, and if some can be scared off, so much the better.
Overall, it was a fun challenge.
Click the image for a larger view.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fiction Review: Bonnie Jo Campbell, "The Trespasser" (from American Salvage)

Bonnie Jo Campbell's treatment of a break-in's aftermath is a frightening little story about the most fragile of victims: one's sense of security, well-being, and identity.




"The Trespasser" is featured in Bonnie Jo Campbell's short-story collection American Salvage, a nominee for both this year's National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It is available for sale from Powell's Books. To purchase a copy, please click here.


“The Trespasser,” the opening tale in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short-story collection American Salvage, is a chilling piece of work. The story begins with a shocking moment for the family at its center: they arrive at their vacation cottage, only to find that it has been broken into and used as a squat and a meth lab. The situation isn’t exploited for melodramatic suspense; all but one of the trespassers is long gone, and the one who stayed behind immediately flees the house, never coming into contact with the family. Campbell instead uses the story’s circumstances to take the reader inside the sense of violation the family feels. Her rendering of those feelings isn’t superficial--she doesn’t mine the scenario for reactionary anger. Campbell gets at something deeper; the story dramatizes how people use the objects that surround them to define their identities. The family's life finds expression in their possessions, photographs, and diaries, and it turns out the last trespasser has used their belongings as a focus for her thoughts and feelings as well.

Using a break-in to evoke feelings of anger and disgust in the reader is perhaps the simplest thing for a storyteller to do. Campbell, though, doesn’t take the easy way out; she mitigates those feelings by making the sole remaining trespasser a figure of pity. The trespasser is 16, she’s suffered through years of physical and sexual abuse, and she’s now caught in the downward spiral of drug addiction. One can’t judge her harshly for the drugs. It’s obvious she doesn’t take them to get high so much as make herself numb. The pathos of her life is powerfully rendered by her appropriation of the family’s things. She uses them to imagine the life for herself that she was never given the opportunity to have.

Campbell intensifies the reader’s sympathies for the trespasser by juxtaposing her life with that of the family’s 13-year-old daughter. The younger girl is the model of a well-adjusted suburban teenager. Everything she has becomes everything the trespasser never knew but wished for, and everything the trespasser has suffered is the brutality the other girl has been protected from. The feeling of oh my God, this trespasser could have been my daughter/niece/what-have-you is slammed into the reader's consciousness near the story's end, when the girl's parents discover that the trespasser had been used as a whore by the men cooking the meth. One thinks back on the trespasser's odd celebrations of the daughter's athletic trophies, or the rearrangement of the furniture into a conversation nook for her non-existent family, and one wants to cry at the meaning those objects have for her.

But the pathos of the trespasser's actions is accompanied by the reader's horror at the deeper implications of what she's done. She's infused things that are not hers with an emotional meaning that cannot be dismissed. One cannot deny her the right to her feelings, but those objects also hold meaning for the daughter, and that cannot be denied, either. The horror comes from the realization that the meaning of those objects--those expressions of ourselves--is relative. Others can appropriate those objects as expressions of their own identities, and even after everything is reclaimed, the awareness of that appropriation is still there. In the back of one’s head, one has to wonder, do those objects really still belong to me? And if these totems of my life can be taken, can someone take my life as their own as well? Security is rooted in the sense of ownership over one’s life; once that’s gone, what is there? "The Trespasser" is a devastatingly effective story, and it sets high expectations for the author and the rest of the collection to come.

Reviews of other work by Bonnie Jo Campbell:


Monday, February 1, 2010

Movie Review: Oscar Nomination Predictions for the Films of 2009

Following the year's movie awards has been my favorite frivolous activity for some time. The National Board of Review kicks things off at the beginning of December, with Los Angeles and New York film critics groups soon following. The Golden Globe nominations are usually announced by Christmas, and the National Society of Film Critics (who make the most interesting choices year-in and year-out) weighs in at the beginning of January. As the month goes on, the Golden Globes get handed out, as well as the producers', directors', actors', and writers' guilds releasing the nomination lists for their respective prizes. (This year, all but the writers group have now handed out their final awards.) And finally, tomorrow marks the announcement of the big kahunas, the Academy Award nominations.

Here are my predictions for what will be nominated tomorrow:

Picture

  • Avatar

  • Crazy Heart

  • District 9

  • An Education

  • The Hurt Locker

  • Inglourious Basterds

  • Invictus

  • Precious

  • Up

  • Up in the Air

Direction

  • The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow

  • Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino

  • Precious, Lee Daniels

  • Up in the Air, Jason Reitman

  • The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke

Original Screenplay

  • The Hurt Locker

  • Inglourious Basterds

  • A Serious Man

  • Up

  • The White Ribbon

Screenplay Adaptation

  • Crazy Heart

  • District 9

  • An Education

  • Precious

  • Up in the Air

Actor

  • Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart

  • George Clooney, Up in the Air

  • Colin Firth, An Innocent Man

  • Morgan Freeman, Invictus

  • Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Actress

  • Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

  • Helen Mirren, The Last Station

  • Carey Mulligan, An Education

  • Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

  • Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Supporting Actor

  • Woody Harrelson, The Messenger

  • Alfred Molina, An Education

  • Christopher Plummer, The Last Station

  • Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones

  • Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Supporting Actress

  • Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air

  • Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air

  • Mo'Nique, Precious

  • Julianne Moore, A Single Man

  • Samantha Morton, The Messenger


Undoubtedly, the most unusual prediction above is that James Cameron will not get a Best Director nomination tomorrow. There are several reasons. One is that he's more of a technician than a storyteller. For all the visual marvels of his filmmaking, his storytelling is heavyhanded and bullying. (I could bring up the derivativeness of his material and his cringeworthy dialogue, but those are concerns for the writers branch, and I'm positive they're not going to nominate him, either.) The biggest reason, though, is his reputation for being the most narcissistic and megalomaniacal jerk in all of Hollywood (a place where there is no shortage of narcissistic, megalomaniacal jerks). By all accounts, he makes a movie like he's conducting a war, and the cast and crew come away from them all but suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cameron also can't open his mouth on an award podium without embarrassing the entire industry. Everyone who saw it remembers the bad taste of his "I'm the king of the world" speech when Titanic won the Best Picture Oscar, and he doesn't seem to have learned any sense of decorum or reserve in the interim. He began his acceptance speech for the Golden Globe director prize by saying that he needed to urinate, and he then proceeded to talk to the audience in the contrived alien language he had developed for the characters in Avatar. When Avatar won the Globe for Best Picture, he topped his "king of the world" moment by asking the audience to applaud themselves for being such wonderful artistic souls. Of course, everyone in the hall was feeling fairly embarrassed by their wealth and comfort given the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. I don't think any of them were in the mood to pat themselves on the back the way Cameron suggested. Leonardo DiCaprio had the sense to look completely disgusted in response, and he likely spoke for everyone watching in both the auditorium and on TV. If Hollywood wants to retain their self-respect, I think they know they can't give James Cameron any more awards. I don't care how much money he makes for the industry.

I'm probably the only one who thinks we'll see Michael Haneke on the directors list. However, I feel I'm justified. The directors' branch likes to honor a foreign filmmaker with a nomination every couple of years, and Haneke is probably the most interesting director currently working in Europe. The White Ribbon also won the Golden Palm at Cannes last spring, so they hopefully felt compelled to see it. We'll see if my long shot of a guess is right tomorrow.

Other predictions that may seem odd: Alfred Molina instead of Matt Damon for Supporting Actor, and Samantha Morton instead of Penélope Cruz in the Supporting Actress category. I don't think Cruz is going to survive the fall-out for the critical and commercial catastrophe of Nine. (A what-were-they-thinking project if ever there was one. A musical version of Fellini's 8 1/2? Please.) Morton's earnest hush is always a big attention-getter, and I think she'll get the fifth slot. As for Molina, he's one of the best character actors in the business, and like Stanley Tucci and (especially) Christopher Plummer, he's overdue for his first nomination. Damon's showing in the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations was more due to the release hype surrounding Invictus than any particular merit in his performance. Everybody's now seen the film, and no one especially cared for it, so I'll think we'll see him fall to the wayside like Cruz.

Everything else is pretty much what everyone's predicting. We'll see how it plays out tomorrow.



UPDATE 2/2/10

Oh, well. Cameron got nominated for Best Director after all, although I see the writers retained their dignity and didn't include him in their choices. (They snubbed him for Titanic, too, back in 1998.)

Penélope Cruz and Matt Damon made the final cut as well. However, Invictus didn't make it for Best Picture, which is probably the biggest surprise with the expanded nomination list for the category.

Maggie Gyllenhaal's Supporting Actress nomination is probably the most welcome surprise today. I have yet to see Crazy Heart, but her performances in Secretary and Sherrybaby have shown her to be an excellent and, quite frankly, fearless actress. She's also livened up just about every other film she's been in, including The Dark Knight, Stranger than Fiction, and World Trade Center. Academy recognition has been overdue for her, and I'm glad to see she got it today.

I do hope they return to five films next year. What likely would have been the final five this year are the films nominated for Best Director, and I think everyone knows it. The rest of the list is just filler. All they're doing is watering down the value of a Best Picture nomination.

Finally, I guess I should give my award predictions. They're pretty much the same as everyone else's: The Hurt Locker for Picture and Director; Inglourious Basterds for Original Screenplay; Up in the Air for Screenplay Adaptation; and Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock, Christoph Waltz, and Mo'Nique in the acting categories.

We'll see how things go on March 7.