Panels & Pictures: Cave and Jungle
Back in May of this year, Top Shelf Productions, noted indie comics publisher, relaunched its webcomics publishing effort as Top Shelf 2.0. Since then it's been a steady stream of daily updates from a few dozen cartoonists. I've already complained about the rather overwhelming nature of it all, with little consistency, no schedule for serialization, and only a single RSS feed to follow the whole thing. Some of that is simple technical issues that could be solved with a more robust set of feeds (Please?). Complaints aside, I've found a number of comics worth reading and following. I've seen little about the site since it launched, so I thought I'd throw some attention that way to a few of my favorites of the past months.
Michael DeForge's Cave Adventure is a fun fantasy comic that reminds me of Ron Rege's whimsical line work and strange characters (see Skibber Bee Bye) mixed with a Dungeons & Dragons crawl by way of Mat Brinkman.
It opens with a three panel prelude that seems to indicate the rest of the story (so far) is all a comic within the comic given by a guy—who looks like a stick figure with head shaped like a soft serve ice cream -- to a girl he likes named Cindy. He calls its "an independent comic book about my feelings," which adds an interesting level of metaphor to the story as a whole, as we must read the story not only as an "adventure" but as an expression of feelings. At this point in the serialization, 19 pages, there are few indicators for this secondary reading. Cindy's likeness makes a single panel appearance in a though balloon as the protagonist, who we later learn is named "Washington Smalls," crawls through a cavern passage.
Washington enters the "Marshmallow Cavern" to find his parents, who were kidnapped one night by a "mountain man." He quickly begins meeting strange creatures and picking up various objects. In the tradition of all such adventures, his first acquisition is a magic sword pulled off a skeleton. He gets into a fight, learns about some monsters, and gains more treasure. DeForge is clearly playing up the intertextual borrowings from role-playing games. Washington's magical fanny pack is what in D&D was the "bag of holding", and in the style of almost every such game, DeForge pops-up a narrative box to show us Washington's "inventory" of items.
DeForge's character designs are a big draw of the comic. They are anthropomorphic but only barely so. Many of the characters are blobs, rounded rectangles, jagged edged quadrilaterals, worms, or indescribable shapes. Only a few look mostly like people, the ogres for instance. These designs combined with the simple and light line work as well as the slightly ironic/humorous take on the fantasy dungeon crawl makes for an appealing and fun comic that doesn't take itself too seriously.
The pages are layed out in landscape format, usually with two tiers of panels. The horizontal format works with the forward movement of Washington as he moves through the caves. DeForge can string together a longer chain of panels to emphasize movement into the caves. He breaks out of the two tier template in some cases to emphasize height and size, such as the case where Washington is learning about some monsters he just fought. By taking up the full height of the page the monsters becomes larger than life (literally, since Washington has already killed them in a page of smaller panels). Similarly, a single tier page is used to emphasize vertical movement.
The comic is drawn in black and pale blue (which is one of my favorite color schemes in comics (think Ghost World)), but DeForge also makes use of the white negative space as another color. By cutting out a blue field with a white line, he can create a second level of depth (backgrounds of mountains or cave walls) or reality (thought balloon images, stories within the stories) or just change the focus of a panel.
DeForge promises more episodes, I look forward to seeing where Cave Adventure goes.
McGowan uses a number of pastels (pink, orange, and yellow) in combination with a more naturalistic palette of brown, green, and blue. These colors make frequent appearances as shapes for sound effects or abstract backgrounds that add a certain lively oddity to the work.
The story starts in media res with the protagonist out of breath in the jungle. The man looks poorly dressed for a jungle adventure, wearing a rather plain shirt, pants, and shoes. We never learn why he is in the jungle or what he is running from, at first, but the ending of the story loops us back to the beginning in a way that creates a sense of repetition and variation.
The protagonist is quickly involved with a group of natives who, after shooting him with an arrow, seem to be treating him well, though the implications of the "ritual"—which we never see—is left open, possibly threatening. McGowan does well in conveying anxiety throughout the story without a great deal of overt threats. The protagonist is anxious to escape and the reader feels this too, adding a layer of menace beneath the "savage's" acts.
Similar to Cave Adventure, Ritual of the Savage draws on a well of pre-existing narratives, though less overt in playing with those sources. The anxiety in the story is, perhaps, more a result of existing notions of the "civilized man captured by savages" meta-narrative than in anything specifically displayed in the story. In one scene, the protagonist tries to kiss the native woman who captured him. She mentions a previous visitor who taught her English and says, "you are not completely unlike him." Perhaps a nod to previous and similar narratives that are not completely unlike this one.
McGowan does not use panel borders and makes frequent use of full page images. When using multiple panels, he drops out backgrounds, making do with the occasional pale color field behind one or two of the panels on the page. In a rare example of making use of the comic's web publication, McGowan expands the size of his page to double its normal width at a few key moments. Early on he moves from a two panel page of the protagonist sitting on a rock to a double wide page showing the jungle with the protagonist on one side and the surprise appearance of the native women, bow drawn, on the other side.
Another impressive page is the following one where the protagonist is hit by an arrow. McGowan shows him as a silhouetted form of pink on a yellow ground. The colors, which normally would be rather garish, convey the shock of the moment in a very attractive way.
In general, McGowan's loose drawing style with its mostly unvariegated thin lines is pleasing, despite the stiffness of the characters. The images look slightly tossed off, which provides a nice verve of immediacy to counter that stiffness.
While you're over there looking at these comics, take a look at some of the other offerings at Top Shelf 2.0. I'd highly recommend Dash Shaw's The Bottle. Shaw always offers interesting stories in an experimental style and this is no exception. Jeff Zwirak's Burning Building Comix has an interesting narrato-visual layout but reading it is not ideally suited to the page by page presentation (it would be really great as an accordion folded book). Shannon Gerard's Unspent Love is a series of well drawn shorts that have a poetic brevity.