Like many, I was at first thrilled when the Academy Awards introduced a Best Animated Feature category. Quickly that enthusiasm faded. I realized that the industry, for decades unable to understand animation, had at last decided to label it a genre rather than what it actually is: a medium. To play devil’s advocate a moment, I can understand where the confusion comes from. In order to make films accessible to the broadest number of people, film-makers are often forced to shoot for the middle. And while there is enough variety of subject matter in live-action film to keep the medium from being flooded with filmic clones, animation has a much smaller pool of films budgeted per studio. And thus many, many animated films follow the same formulas. Indeed, MOST films follow the same formulas, and the only animated films to deviate tend to be those on the fringes; the Waking Lifes and the Triplets of Bellevues; that play to art-houses and independent theaters but are rarely seen by the majority of the public. It therefore makes sense that the Academy would look at that which is highest profile and most accessible; the Shrek franchise, Disney princess movies, Pixar’s latest adventure; and conclude that animation is a genre.
My fear is that the indie-comics movement is running the risk of being similarly pigeon-holed. There has been a resistance to genre comics (fantasty, sf, horror, super hero, etc.) in the indie scene while web comics tend to be viewed as a separate thing entirely. Indie cons are flooded with autobio comics and non-fiction, the narrow range of story that the term “indie comic” has increasingly come to be associated with.
Right now, at this very moment in comic’s history, book publishers are scrambling to tap into the recent swell of comic-popularity. For really the first time indie creators are being courted en mass. But these same publishers are struggling to understand comics beyond what Marvel and DC produce. And so far their solution has been, as with the Academy Awards with animation, to treat indie comics as a genre. They are opening comic-specific imprints to publish comics under rather than simply publishing them under their parent name.
Like it or not, these big publishers are the gateway to a broader readership. If we define ourselves into a corner, or let them define us, we will forever be trapped in an artistic cul-de-sac. The indie community needs to embrace a broader range of storytelling to avoid this serious pitfall; storytelling that goes beyond auto-bio and non-fiction.
This is, of course, my elaborate way of introducing the two comics we’re going to be looking at today: Zach Giallongo’s The Birds in the Bushes and Nate Powell’s Cakewalk/Bets Are Off double feature.
The Birds in the Bushes is a stand-alone story in the universe that Giallongo has been painstakingly constructing in his epic fantasy series Grune (www.zackgiallongo.com). The story employs the same lush line work as that of his other books, as well as the same quality of writing. The author has a talent for imbuing even the most ancillary characters with personality and many of the antagonists in this book could have easily been relegated to the status of “thug #4” in less capable hands.
Indeed, The Birds in the Bushes; and by extension all of Giallongo’s Grune books; exemplify what is best about genre fiction in comics. The cult (for which the book is entitled) draws parallels to religious orders in our world, and the inter-relationship between the four protagonists (three humans and one grune) serve to inform and reflect upon our own human experiences. Giallongo is a keen observer of people, and this latest stand-alone book is an excellent introduction to his world.
Cakewalk, written by Rachel Bormann, is the recollection of being a young girl desperate to convince those around her that she is a unique and interesting person (at an age when anything unique and interesting in immediately pounced upon by the alphas of the classroom). She does so by coming to school dressed as Aunt Jemima for Halloween, complete with a face covered in charcoal.
The story is at once cringe-inducing and heartbreaking, as we experience the slow realization that a line has been crossed by a person not yet old enough to understand the history behind her seemingly innocuous choice of costume. It is never made explicitly clear if this is a work of fiction or not, but weather this is autobiographical or a character study, it is powerful and compelling writing. Nate Powell is a highly skilled artist, and his stylized character-designs compliment the emotion of the piece. I also enjoy his fluid hatch work, which pulls double-duty creating grey tones and drawing the eye about the panel without getting in the way of the story.
This same hatch work creates a wonderful sense of forward momentum in the ink-thick nighttime world of Bets Are Off. The story is based on the song “The Get-Away” by Pretty Girls Makes Graves and featuring selections of Derek Fudesco’s lyrics (a smart choice as it allows the artist to maintain a conversational tone for the dialogue without it becoming stilted or forced). There is a haunting, dream-like quality to this comic, and much about the history of the two characters is left to the imagination of the reader. Indeed Powell makes great use of body language to infer the relationship between the boy and the girl. The strength of this comic is what Powell leaves out; the proverbial silence between the notes. This is a deftly done story; from concept to finished art. By itself this would carry a strong recommendation. Coupled with Cakewalk it’s damn near essential.