04.May.2011 The Koyama Press TCAF Preview
As TCAF has grown since its humble beginnings in 2003, so too has its importance as a tentpole for book launches.
In the past couple of years, there are a handful of books from big-name cartoonists that act as a calling card for the festival- Seth’s George Sprott in 2009, Daniel Clowes’ Wilson in 2010 and Chester Brown’s Paying for It this year. But the usefulness of this promotion is limited; Seth, Clowes and Brown are known entities who don’t need the publicity as much as their younger counterparts. It is for this reason that the greatest benefit of festivals like TCAF is to emerging cartoonists who have a new work that is worth discovering, marks a step forward in their development and can show new ways of looking at and thinking about comics.
Last year, in spite of fine new books from Clowes, James Sturm and Jim Woodring, the takeaway of the festival was Koyama Press. The small Toronto-based publisher with as many logo designs as Google earned notoriety for whimsical Trio Magnus offerings and the alt-horror comics of Michael DeForge. The latter went on to win the Doug Wright for Best Emerging Talent.
A year later, and DeForge is again nominated in the Doug Wrights (Best Book and Pigskin Peters) as well as Koyama Press publications Baba Yaga and the Wolf by Tin Can Forest for Best Emergin Talent and the anthology Wowee Zonk #3 edited by Patrick Kyle, Chris Kuzma and Ginette Lapalme for the Pigskin Peters. Koyama Press has been gradually increasing its output alongside its success, and it has a deluge of new offerings for TCAF 2011.
Root Rot, Eds. Michael DeForge and Annie Koyama, Cover by DeForge, Contributors: Ines Estrada, Jesse Jacobs, Hellen Jo, Angie Wang, Robin Nishio, Jason Fischer, Chris Eliopoulos, Greg Pizzoli, Derek M. Ballard, Jon Vermilyea, Joseph Lambert, Dan Zettwoch, Lizz Hickey, Bob Flynn, Mickey Zacchilli, Jason Fischer, T. Edward Bak. $12
In a recent e-mail interview with Jesse Jacobs as part of our TCAF series, he wrote about Root Rot, “I really liked the idea of having a visual theme to pull all the different styles together. Most of my stories begin with drawings, so it was a natural process for me to begin with a visual theme.” The anthology Root Rot pulls together 16 cartoonists and artists to each do a forest-themed piece. It’s an apt setting as it provides fertile grounds for imagination, lush colouring and mystery.
Each cartoonist gets two pages to tackle the subject and many of the approaches are similar. In the hands of lesser cartoonists this would fall flat. But the young cartoonists in Root Rot are talented, particularly so in their art which the production values of Root Rot allow to come through nicely. One of the highlights is the last contribution in the anthology by Mexico City’s Ines Estrada. In her double-page spread, the 21-year-old neatly captures the spirit of the anthology.
Estrada uses a desaturated background reminiscent of floral wallpaper. At first glance, you don’t notice the colourful characters that populate this wonderland. But as eyes adjust to the colours, the contrast begins to stand out and the reader negotiates the shape and actions of the characters. In the top and right left are polygonal entities, almost waiting for imagination to shape them into something. The fully formed characters, like the reader, play with and try to understand their surroundings. Some grab onto the background, others walk through it, some float and appear to be on a different plane. It’s a vibrant and ecstatic artistic playground, and a nice metaphor for what the Root Rot collection is collectively.
Another one of the few non-Canadians in the collection, California’s Hellen Jo, follows suit. Jo uses one of her favourite types of characters, a kickass Asian teen, to create an environment that rivals the wildness of imagination in Estrada’s. Set against slate gray pavement, the comic features a sobbing teen with a skateboard, motionless in the centre of the panel. But things come alive when her tears connect with a weed growing through the cracks of the pavement. The bare, uniform atmosphere grows to be detailed and colourful and the character rides the newly created flowers in startled wonder.
And it’s this sense that Root Rot evokes well, that the possibilities of imagination and the spirit of exuberance are infinite in spite of the constraining limitations of a particular setting.
Lose #3, Michael DeForge, $5
Note: Full disclosure, I’ll be moderating a panel that includes DeForge on Friday at 2:30, 170 St. George St.
Lose #3 is the first issue by DeForge that has a huge amount of people looking forward to it in much the same way that people look forward to a new Optic Nerve. Immediately upon opening the inside cover, Lose is filled with the self-consciousness of expectations. A short comic about a New York internship and the false optimism it promises (“I get to see how the pros do it Mom!”) shows how the development can be fraught with disappointment and frustration.
To that end, DeForge punctures potentially inflated expectations of Lose #3 by critiquing his highly acclaimed first two issues. Issue 1? Directionless. Issue 2? 25% filler. These critiques are the product of a self-aware cartoonist anxious to continue developing. It’s a scary thought, as DeForge has already quickly ascended with a strong focus and prodigious output. His characters are filled with the same exaggerated anxiety with which he makes fun of himself. The main story features a divorced, hapless father. In DeForge’s Charles Burns infused style, the main character is a divorced father out of Dan Clowes, a hapless, hopeless and socially inept loser. His son recognizes this too, and manipulates his need for respect to get him to do what he wants. It’s a character study, which isn’t to say that things don’t happen (his son creates a website to exact revenge on an ex-girlfriend) but that it’s the strength of DeForge’s style.
Like Burns and Clowes, whose art and characters respectively crawl under your skin and stay there, DeForge’s Lose #3 impacts the reader with its sensibility. The aesthetic—mind-melting figures and landscapes—combines with the caustic personalities, where any character who has adequate space to develop tears apart the world of another. While the nervous energy within the comic breaks out in destructive ways, it never feels as though DeForge is not in control. In spite of his ‘apology’ on the inside cover, the art is confident and assured and the storylines more tightly paced than previous work. Not only that, but the details are strong too, as his lettering is exacting with a consistent style and clarity that is easy to take for granted.
All of this speaks to the focus and awareness of his cartooning which, unlike his main character, obscures any anxiousness that might inhibit progress.
Cat Rackham Loses It!, Steve Wolfhard, $5
It seems like a safe generalization to say that cartoonists are cat people. Cats are, after all, independent and require low maintenance. And there’s a rich tradition of cats in comics too. For every Snoopy there seems to be a Krazy and Fritz. Adding to this tradition is Steve Wolfhard with Cat Rackham, his own bi-pedal feline.
Whereas Krazy was largely used for physical comedy and Fritz for hedonistic wish-fulfillment, Cat Rackham is of a different stripe. The tone of the character comes through in “Cat Rackham Gets Depression”, which appears on Wolfhard’s website. In it, the title character rests on a pleasant looking hillside, enjoying the scenic surroundings. He delights in a butterfly that floats by and the sentiment gets across with subtle line changes in Cat Rackham’s posture eyes and small mouth. But when the butterfly is gone for good, that subtlety in expression slowly drifts towards something sad and unsettling. The background doesn’t change, so the contrast is under the surface, an internal element of Cat Rackham’s character that the reader doesn’t fully understand yet.
But then a reversal happens and Cat Rackham proves to be more than just about the gag. Whereas the introduction focuses on Cat Rackham’s range of emotions against a static background, when he becomes depressed, the background changes dramatically while he stays the same. Rainbows, fireflies and friendly deer appear. Heavy rain, snow and birds nesting in his fur are not enough to snap Cat Rackham out of his funk, perhaps because like his depression they’re just too overwhelming. That internal wonder seen with the butterfly is mired in the emotional 180 of depression and seemingly no change in surroundings can alter this. That is, until something small jars him out of it with two insects making their sweet insect love on his fur. His smile and sense of wonder return, triggered by the recognition that the small things can be amazing and he’s part of that too.
Cat Rackham Loses It! amplifies this story arc. While retaining the bittersweet humour of Cat Rackham Gets Depression it provides a more exaggerated, plot focused situation which suits the longer length of the comic. In the beginning we’re given information about Cat Rackham: the physical layers of who he is (muscles, skeleton and soul displayed separately), that he is particularly fond of his green sweater and that his wise-cracking friend Jeremy the Squirrel teases him for too introspective and weighed down in his own information. Jeremy’s playfully teasing relationship doesn’t always go over well with the sensitive and fluffy cat. When Jeremy tosses a raspberry at Cat Rackham that stains his sweater, the lovable cat is put off by this and distances himself from his friend. But in this time, a new cat has walked in named Ratta Tat Cat, complete with a threatening gun strapped to his body with a belt. This cat, who like all dour cats resembles an anthropomorphic Wilford Brimley, is not here to play nice. With no tolerance from Ratta Tat Cat for another one in town, Cat Rackham is relegated to lying on a log floating on water, sweaterless and with a tuft of fur shot from his head.
Being alone and surrounded by water is the ultimate form of isolation for a fearful and anxious cat. It also sets up another situation where, as in “Cat Rackham Gets Depression”, Cat Rackham must overcome his depression and anxiety to escape his situation. In this case the struggle is made greater as Cat Rackham must battle external as well as internal demons. By extending and amplifying the qualities that make the shorter “Cat Rackham Gets Depression” effective, Wolfhard’s work resonates. It skillfully straddles the difficult border between outlandish humour and introspection to deliver a bittersweet, poignant comic.
Keith Jones, Colour Me Busy, $5, Chris Eliopoulos, Monster Party, $5
Like the other Koyama Press offerings, Colour Me Busy and Monster Party try to capture and encourage the verve of unbridled imagination.
Jones’ book is an all-ages colouring book, and frankly it’s hard to review. The figures are nice enough—playful but more edgy than the colouring books you can pick up at your local big box bookstore. But colouring books are more about the reader than the content, and that is what is going to make or break the enjoyment of it. Pro tip: the lines are just suggestions, kids. Show Jones that you don’t need to play by his rules.
Eliopoulos’ Monster Party also explicitly addresses uncontrolled imagination. The storyline follows a Dr. Seuss path, with monsters pleading to be let out while the main character cleans the basement. Of course, the monsters tire the boy of his better instincts and he unleashes them Pandora’s box style to romp around the house. It’s a classic if typical storyline. Eliopoulos’ art carries the story nicely, as the monsters’ upheaval careens the domestic order allowing the cartoonist to create at will, rules be damned.
This is the common thread of Koyama Press, that imagination, spirit and energy is to be unlocked and encouraged whether it be with monsters in a basement, a colouring book or the mysteries that could inhabit the forest. It’s fitting too. As a publisher that provides a platform for mostly young cartoonists to develop, follow projects they’re passionate about and promotes self-discovery, Koyama unleashes these individuals to unlock and share themselves. Even Cat Rackham could find something to like about that.
Koyama Press will be tabling at TCAF tables 142-144 and most of the people mentioned in this review will be there. There will be a launch for Root Rot on Saturday morning at 10:15 that will include a signing with contributors.