Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Dave Johnson Sketchbook Volume One

I should say up front that I love sketchbooks. I love Fantagraphics’ Crumb Sketchbooks series, I love Chris Ware’s recent Acme Novelty Datebook, I even love Seth’s humongous Vernacular Drawings, and I’m not usually very swift on Seth’s material in general. Some people think sketchbooks are superfluous, but I can’t get enough of them. There is nothing like a good sketchbook for spending many, many hours in quiet contemplation of the cartooning arts.

But I didn’t know what to expect from the first volume of Dave Johnson’s sketchbook series. I will admit to being only vaguely familiar with his work, enough to recognize his style and know that he does the covers for Vertigo’s 100 Bullets, but not enough to know much more than that.

This book is only moderately satisfying. On the one hand, it’s obvious that Johnson has an uncanny eye for design. I don’t read 100 Bullets but I know that the covers are beautifully constructed pieces of modern design. This sense of deign is obvious here, as we see sketches in various forms of completion and many character concept pieces at various stages.

On the other hand, this book lacks the heft and breadth of a truly satisfying sketchbook. Pretty much everyone who comments on this book mentions the dozen or so pages of space ship designs towards the end. There’s nothing wrong with these designs as such, but they are just not very interesting. The sketches included here have obviously been cherry-picked and compiled, and unfortunately that is not as successful an approach as it may have looked to be on paper. Some of the pieces have been obviously warped and mushed to fit the page size as well.

There’s a lot of what looks like video-game design work here. Some of it is fascinating, some of it is not so much. Now, there are as many different kinds of artists as there are artists, but it seems like material in this 56 page book has been chosen to make Johnson seem like someone who sits around all day drawing monsters and spacemen. There’s not a lot of variety, and it’s the variety of subject matter that you usually see in most sketchbooks which gives the reader a particularly telling look into the thought processes of the artist at work. Based on this book, Dave Johnson’s thought processes are focused on spaceships and mad scientists, with the occasional pirate babe thrown in for good measure.

I would be interested in reading the other two promised books in the series. I would also be interested if they decided to release a volume devoted to Johnson’s life drawing and pastoral scenes, even though such a book would probably not appeal to the mad scientists and space-ship contingent.

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart; Part VIII

Lost At Sea

There has been some discussion lately on whether or not the comics world is fixated on youth. Is it or is it not odd that even decades after the emancipation of serious cartoonists from the world of childrens’ literature, a large percentage of supposedly “serious” works in the field still focus on children and teenagers? Are there deleterious and harmful unconscious prejudices at work here?

Examine the example of Persepolis. As many critical raves as the two volumes of Persepolis has garnered, there are still many who maintain that the book represents a retrograde approach to serious comics literature: the subject matter may be heady, but it is still a story told by a child. Why is it so hard, some ask, for the medium to create honestly and compellingly adult narratives?

Bryan O’Malley’s Lost At Sea is hardly going to silence this debate. Although O’Malley is obviously influenced by the works of James Kochalka, Tom Hart and Craig Thompson, he is still a compelling cartoonist in his own right with the kind of canny grasp of spatial dynamics that is refreshing to see in a young cartoonist.

The story itself manages to successfully walk a very fine line. Usually, adolescent/teenage angst can seem very petty and uninteresting to anyone over the age of eighteen. O’Malley manages to somehow communicate his characters’ depth of feeling as well as the inherently superfluous nature of their trauma, without condescending to either the audience or his characters. The narrative is actually fairly complex, and allows for a surprisingly nuanced approach to what could be, in the hands of a lesser talent, a plainly uninvolved conflict. It takes a lot of skill to paint the self-involved traumas of the heartbroken teenager as anything other than solipsistic drama, and amazingly, O’Malley seems to have a keen grasp of this problem.

I liked this book. I was really taken with O’Malley’s convincingly involving narrative, which managed to make me care about the kinds of characters at whom I would normally scoff. This book would be absolutely perfect for a younger teen just entering these self-involved years, and maybe for older teens as well, for whom these characters might ring too closely for comfort.

Part of growing up is realizing that the sorrow and heartbreak of adolescence is universal, and that everybody feels awkward and ungainly. Its only in hindsight that you look back and realize that everyone was feeling exactly the same way you were, and that your self-absorption was entirely characteristic. There have been a lot of comics produced on this subject, tackling these particular years, and while I am certainly the last person to argue against generic diversity, one more can’t hurt, especially if its this good.

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